ENVIRONMENTAL experts and activists are increasingly concerned that the 510-megawatt Batang Toru Hydro Power Plant (PLTA) project in North Sumatra will eradicate the Tapanuli orangutan, a recently discovered and endangered orangutan species that resides in Indonesia’s forests. The project’s environmental impact analysis (Amdal) document is believed to be flawed as it does not include a mitigation strategy for the forest’s endangered animals. Our investigation indeed found environmental destruction although the power plant will only start operating in 2022.
ASPEN Rambe gazed at the Marancar Valley in front of him with a blank stare. He stood on a hill to show us the location of his estate, which had been transformed to accommodate semi-permanent buildings for workers at the Batang Toru Hydro Power Plant (PLTA) project in South Tapanuli, North Sumatra.
White trucks transporting sand and rocks were seen entering and leaving the project site, where workers walked about wearing yellow helmets. “My estate was there. There were trees where the buildings are now,” he said in September 2018. Aspan’s estate on the gorge was 11 hectares in size. He had planted it with rubber and fruit trees.
Heavy machinery has ravaged smallholder plantations owned by locals since 2015. North Sumatera Hydro Energy (NSHE), which is now building a 510-megawatt capacity turbine generator on a 5.1-hectare area, had bought the land from locals at Rp4,000 per square meter. “Except for mine,” said Asnan, 43 years old. “Not a single cent has been paid for my estate.”
Aspan has demanded payment again and again, but he was repeatedly met with empty promises. He inherited the estate from his parents, and the land had been his family’s primary source income up to 2015. Since he lost his estate, Aspan has managed a motorcycle workshop at his home. Until today, he has not given up demanding the money he is owed.
Aspan’s estate lies on the slopes of the valley, around 500 meters away from a semi-permanent building. A 16-kilometer road will be built on some of his land on the banks of the Batang Toru River. Workers at the project need the road to create a water tunnel 9.7 meters in diameter and 12 kilometers in length, which connects four turbines in the Marancar Valley to the 10.9-hectare dam located in Sipirok, on a higher elevation.
Batang Toru orangutan. TEMPO/Erwan Hermawan
The Batang Toru PLTA project is situated in three South Tapanuli subdistricts. Besides in Marancar, where the turbines are placed, the dam is located in Sipirok, while a compressed air pipe and access are in Batang Toru. These areas in the three subdistricts fall under the Batang Toru ecosystem, which spans 163,000 hectares. The power plant project is located in an area meant for other uses amid and around smallholder estates. In 2013, South Tapanuli Regent Syahrul Pasaribu issued a permit that covers an area of almost 6,598.35 hectares for the power plant.
The principle permit for the Batang Toru PLTA was issued in 2008. NSHE expanded to the area after successfully building a small power plant in Asahan, 300 kilometers away from Batang Toru. According to NSHE President Commissioner Anton Sugiono, the Batang Toru power plant was included in the 2014 national electricity procurement plan (RUPTL).
The RUPTL has to do with the building of power plants to meet the demand for 35,000 megawatts under President Joko Widodo’s administration. The ministry of energy and mineral resources included the Batang Toru power plant in the RUPTL, doubling its capacity to accommodate 15 percent of North Sumatra’s power demand.
The Rp21-trillion project is financed by Bank of China and is part of the Road and Belt Initiative, a plan by the Chinese government to connect its country to other cities in the world. In the north, they plan to build a 12,000-kilometer railroad passing through Russia and Kazakhstan to reach London.
The Batang Toru PLTA is part of the initiative’s southern region plan, which will connect China to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, as well as India and Pakistan. This explains why the Batang Toru PLTA’s development is undertaken by Sinohydro, a Chinese company and the contractor for the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway. The workers seen on the project site were flown directly from China.
Effendi Nasution from Sinohydro’s human resources development division said as many as 125 Chinese employees work on the site, all of whom have bachelor degrees in construction-related disciplines. “No manual workers [from China],” said Effendi.
Besides recruiting Chinese workers, said Effendi, the company also recruited local workers from Sipirok, Marancar, and Batang Toru. There are 400 construction workers in the three subdistricts, but we found a worker from Padang Sidempuan was operating heavy machinery not far from Aspen Rambe’s estate in Marancar. “We take competence into consideration. If not found here, we look for it elsewhere,” said Effendi.
The worker from Padang Sidempuan was one among excavators who were clearing land leading to Sipirok. Trees the size of a human adult were scattered not far from the heavy machinery. According to Aspan, orangutans once nested in these trees. They would swing between the trees before coming down to local residents’ estates looking for fruits. “There was one nest in my estate,” he said.
Orangutans have not appeared since the arrival of the heavy machinery. Locals living around the turbine building, whose land was not cleared, confirmed that orangutans have not been stealing their fruits since work on the power plant began.
Batang Toru’s orangutans were discovered in 1997. Scientists studied them to analyze differences and similarities between them and the two other types of orangutans that live in Indonesia’s forests: Sumatra (Pongo abelii) and Kalimantan (Pongo pygmaeus). After 20 years of studying the newly discovered orangutans, scientists concluded that Batang Toru’s orangutans were a distinct species. Besides a thicker coat, their skulls are smaller in size. In a report in the 2017 Current Biology journal, Batang Toru’s orangutans, popularly known as the Tapanuli orangutans, were given a new name: Pongo tapanuliensis.
The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP), which studied these orangutans far in the depths of Batang Toru, announced that the creature, whose DNA matches humans by 97 percent, has a population of 800 individuals. Of this amount, an estimated 300 individuals are thought to occupy the western block, while the rest are spread throughout the eastern block and the Sibual-Buali Wildlife Sanctuary. These blocks signifiy how the Batang Toru ecosystem is divided by a large river, whose currents will be utilized to run power-generating turbines by NSHE.
Scientists who have studied the Batang Toru ecosystem worry that the power plant will endanger the orangutans. Besides its already dwindling numbers, the activities of workers at the power plant are adding to the noise of humans already surrounding the ecosystem—from geothermal, oil palm, and gold mining companies.
Serge A. Wich, a Dutch conservationist who has studied the Batang Toru ecosystem for 20 years, said the population of orangutans will continue to decline due to human activity, particularly since the land was cleared to make room for turbines and the dam. Sumatra’s environmental organizations have also reported that Batang Toru’s orangutans have grown increasingly scarce.
To investigate these concerns, the environment and forestry ministry sent a team to the protected forest at the end of 2017. The one-month study was meant to measure the PLTA project’s impacts on orangutans, which is why the ministry focused on studying the central region, around the Batang Toru River, where the dam and turbines are located.
The ministry’s team found that the Tapanuli orangutans in the central block had been nesting at greater heights than orangutans in the western or eastern blocks, namely above 15 meters—some were even found swinging from branches at the height of 30 meters. The Tapanuli orangutans are believed to be nesting at higher places to avoid perceived dangers.
Orangutans are mammals that are sensitive to human presence. The ministry’s team concluded that Batang Toru’s land-clearing activities have marginalized the orangutans, despite the location’s close proximity to a water source. “A team to preserve the orangutans and other animals must immediately be formed to prevent deaths as a direct impact of forest clearing,” said the conclusion.
Access road from Marancar to Sipirok, South Tapanuli, North Sumatra, September 2018. TEMPO/Erwan Hermawan
It seems that deaths have indeed occurred. The study estimates that the population of orangutans has diminished to 495-577 since the time the species was discovered. The researchers only found 74 orangutan nests on 20 points of observation around the power plant project, as well as 37 types of food.
According to Wanda Kuswanda, a researcher with the Aek Nauli Environmental and Forestry Research and Development Center, the heights at which orangutans are nesting in the western and central blocks differ quite significantly. In the western block, most orangutan nests are found at heights between 8 and 17 meters. “Human activity in the crowded project area has frightened the orangutans,” said Wanda.
We visited the western block to prove the ministry’s findings. Accompanied by Sheila Kharisma Silitonga, SOCP research coordinator for Tapanuli orangutans, we met with Beta and Bintang, Tapanuli orangutan mother and child, who were at the time enjoying agathis fruits near their nests. “Agathis is one of their favorite fruits,” said Sheila, who had lived in Batang Toru for one year to study orangutans, since the time she graduated from the Bogor Agricultural University.
Beta’s nest is located around 10 meters above ground. Once in a while, Beta and Bintang would go to lower branches. Based on a record of measured distances Sheila kept, that day Beta and Bintang moved 100 meters from their nests, where they had slept the night before. Beta and her family live seven hours away on foot from the last village, Sait Nihuta Kalangan II, located in Tukka, Central Tapanuli.
Environment and Forestry Ministry Director-General of Natural Resources and Ecosystems Conservation, Wiratno, added that before land was cleared for the power plant project, he received reports that Tapanuli orangutans were frequently venturing into the site to look for food. They ate fruits planted by local residents. “The orchards were like a supermarket for them,” said Wiratno.
According to the environment ministry, there is a population density of 0.41 individual orangutan per square kilometer, a lower incidence than in the Sibual-Buali Sanctuary block that relatively untouched by human presence, where there is 0.53 individual orangutan per square kilometer. “Meaning, the (PLTA) project’s location is a place where Tapanuli orangutans have looked for food all long,” said Burhanuddin, Ekosistem Lestari Foundation (YEL) program manager.
SOCP’s survey in 2015, before work on the power plant began, found a population density of 0.7 individual per square kilometer on the project site. There were also still numerous orangutan nests in 213 locations. Arrum Harahap, an SOCP researcher, suspects that orangutans ran into the protected forest when they saw that development work had eradicated their ‘supermarket’ by the river.
Arrum is concerned that if orangutans are further marginalized, they will no longer be found in the wild 20-30 years from now. The mammal is a slow breeder, reproducing only after reaching the age of 15. Land-clearing has eradicated orangutans’ habitats and destroyed their food sources.
By comparing these studies, Burhanuddin concludes that the building of the power plant threatens Tapanuli orangutans because the project area has severed the corridor connecting Batang Toru Protected Forest’s different blocks. If severed, it is likely that orangutans will inbreed. “The offspring will be vulnerable to various diseases,” he explained.
NSHE President Commissioner Anton Sugiono was upset to hear Burhanuddin’s conclusion. According to Anton, when the company’s environmental impact analysis (Amdal) was being compiled in 2011-2014, orangutans were never mentioned as a problem. He said his company’s consultant involved YEL and SOCP researchers in the process. “They mentioned orangutans but did not say that the project would eradicate them,” said Anton.
Burhanuddin admitted that his institution was asked to study orangutans by an NSHE-appointed consultant, which is why his organization submitted its report to the consultant, not NSHE. “We were asked to survey the animals, populations, behaviors. That was it,” he said. The conclusion about the threat to orangutans emerged because the power plant project has split the forest, causing orangutans in the two blocks to no longer be connected.
Although the 2014 Amdal did not clearly mention that the power plant project would disrupt the forest’s orangutan population, the report did mention the presence of these endangered creatures. The issue is that the Amdal referenced by the project was released in 2016. In this last Amdal document, orangutans were no longer mentioned.
The environment ministry has asked NSHE to revise the Amdal to include how Batang Toru PLTA’s construction will impact the forest’s endangered animals, including orangutans. “We want to make sure that all endangered animals there are safe and protected,” said Wiratno.
Besides orangutans, the ministry’s team found 15 rare animals around the Batang Toru power plant project, such as the Sumatran tiger, hornbill, and gray-furred gibbon. SOCP’s survey of the project site records a greater number of species: 47 mammal species, 175 birds, as well as 65 amphibians and reptiles.
Because of Marancar Valley’s biodiversity, said Burhanuddin, the project’s site should have been fallen under the protected forest as opposed to other uses, which allows human encroachment. “The area has a 175 score due to its steepness, high rainfall and vulnerability to erosion,” he said.
Aspen Rambe confirms Burhanuddin’s statement, saying that he used to frequently see hornbills perched on the trees in his estate. Sometimes he would even find the footprints of Sumatran tigers. These animals have no longer made an appearance since his estate was leveled by heavy machinery. “The birds are gone.”
There is now suspicion that the power plant project’s last Amdal is flawed. The North Sumatra Indonesian Forum for Environment (Walhi) found that the project’s environmental feasibility study document was issued without the approval of one of its creators, Onrizal, a lecturer at the North Sumatra University. “His signature was forged,” said Dana Tarigan, director of North Sumatra Walhi.
Onrizal confirmed Walhi’s findings. He said he was not involved in drafting the 2016 Amdal despite his signature on the document. “I was only involved in compiling the first Amdal, in 2014,” said Onrizal at the end of January. “So I can say that the document is ‘aspal,’ authentic but forged.”
In the first Amdal, Onrizal explained the potential impacts of the power plant project’s development on the Batang Toru Forest’s biodiversity. But his analysis was not mentioned in the 2016 Amdal, which he was not involved in drafting. “I don’t know who forged my signature,” he said.
Anton Sugiono was stupefied when asked why the mitigation strategy for orangutans and other endangered species in the forest disappeared from the Amdal. He said he planned to revise the 2016 Amdal. “We’ll follow the government’s instructions,” said Anton.
He said he had no detailed knowledge of the allegedly flawed Amdal and suspected that the core of the problem was a deal between the experts who compiled the document. “We are also frustrated if [it’s true that] a good project such as this was exploited for interests that we were not aware of,” he said.
Besides threatening the orangutan’s habitat and destroying the locals’ sources of livelihood, there is concern that the power plant project poses a threat to those living downstream. In September 2018, the Pulo Lubang hamlet in Hapesong Baru village, South Tapanuli, saw a two-meter flood. The Batang Toru River, 300 meters away from the hamlet, overflowed, deluging thousands of hectares of rice fields and fish ponds.
Batang Toru River, South Tapanuli, North Sumatra. pt-nshe.com
Flooding is yet another source of concern once the power plant begins to operate in 2022. The project’s Amdal mentioned that of the four turbines, each with a 127.5-megawatt capacity, one turbine will be operating 24 hours a day with a volumetric water flow of 2.5 cubic meters per second. Unused water, as much as 3 million cubic meters, will be contained in a 72.5-meter tall dam with an area of 10.9 hectares, to be used to generate power during peak demand in North Sumatra and to power up the three remaining turbines.
Dana Tarigan believes that the power plant’s operational model may not only cause a drought downstream or decrease the water volume, but also an overflow during times of peak electricity demand in North Sumatra. “Just imagine, the water is contained for 18 hours and then discarded over a period of 6 hours,” said Dana.
Anton Sugiono denies that his power plant will operate as described by Dana Tarigan. He acknowledges that the power plant will be operating 24 hours a day, but the water valve will not be opened and closed during peak demand. “No one designed the project that way,” he said. “If it were true, the project would have been rejected by the government.”
Meanwhile, Bank of China has been swayed by the various protests against the project’s irregularities as well as the threat it poses to Batang Toru’s biodiversity. Although the Medan State Administrative Court rejected Walhi’s suit against the flawed Amdal two weeks ago, Bank of China is now rethinking its plan to finance the Rp21-trillion power plant.
“We will make a prudent decision by considering green financing [as part of] our social responsibility,” the bank announced on Wednesday, March 13.
Project Leader: Erwan Hermawan Supervisor: Bagja Hidayat Writers: Erwan Hermawan, Riky Ferdianto, Mustafa Silalahi Editor: Bagja Hidayat Contributors: Erwan Hermawan (Tapanuli), Riky Ferdianto, Mustafa Silalahi (Jakarta), Iil Askar Mondza (Medan) Photo Research: Ijar Karim English Editor: Luke Edward Design: Eko Punto Pambudi, Ahmad Fatoni