Chinese companies backing megadam threaten survival of new orangutan species

Creative Commons, Tim Laman

Chinese companies and banks are backing construction of a major hydroelectric dam in Indonesia, threatening a new species of orangutan with extinction.

Sinohydro — the Chinese state-owned hydroelectric company — has been contracted to construct the 510MW Batang Toru dam in Sumatra. This is despite company policies stating that habitats of threatened species will be protected. Bank of China and Sinosure have provided loans to fund the US$1.6bn project.

Scientists announced the discovery of a new orangutan species — the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) — in November 2017. Found only in the small forest regions of the Tapanuli highlands and with fewer than 800 individuals remaining in the wild, Tapanuli orangutans immediately became the most endangered species of great ape on the planet. The forests are also home to other critically endangered species, including Sumatran tigers, Sunda pangolins and helmeted hornbills.

Already under pressure from habitat loss and hunting, the dam will split the orangutan’s forest into separate blocks, opening them up to further human incursions. Roads and power lines built as part of the project will create permanent barriers which the orangutans will be unable or unwilling to cross. Forest clearance — which has already begun — and dumping of construction spoils will also damage the orangutans’ habitat.

A new scientific study, published in the latest issue of Current Biology, demonstrates how fragmenting Tapanuli orangutans into smaller and smaller groups, with no opportunity to mix and breed, poses a very real threat to the survival of the species. The study’s authors call for all remaining Tapanuli orangutan habitat to be protected and for forest to be restored, allowing orangutans to move freely over larger areas. Significantly, the authors also call for the Batang Toru dam to be cancelled.

Local communities are also being drastically affected by the Batang Toru project. Fish stocks and rice paddies in the Batang Toru river basin — an important source of food and income — will be impacted. Indigenous groups have also accused PT North Sumatra Hydro Electric — the Indonesian company co-ordinating the project — of providing unfair compensation for their land, with reports of scuffles between protesters and company employees.

The dam project is part of the Chinese government’s Belt and Road strategy, which seeks to boost economic ties and cooperation between countries in Asia and elsewhere. The Belt and Road project is supposed to provide sustainable development, providing the ‘win-win’ benefits of economic growth and environmental protection for countries hosting Chinese-backed infrastructure. However, with such devastating social and environmental impacts, the hydroelectric project will fail to deliver on these promises.

Professor Serge Wich of Liverpool John Moores University, one of the authors of the 2017 paper revealing the existence of the Tapanuli orangutan, said: ‘It’s appalling to think that, within our lifetimes, a new great ape species could be both discovered and driven to extinction. And yet if construction of the Batang Toru dam is allowed to continue, it will be the final nail in the coffin for the Tapanuli orangutan.’

He continued: ‘This species is already perilously close to extinction and so every effort must be made to ensure that one of our closest living relatives survives. Companies and investors involved in the project must immediately halt construction of the dam while full legal protection is granted to all of the orangutans’ remaining forest, and efforts made to produce this electricity elsewhere.’

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