China-backed hydropower dam 'death knell' for rare orangutan species in Indonesia

The 510-megawatt dam will provide power to North Sumatra but flood the great ape's habitat

A Tapanuli orangutan (Image from Wikipedia)

A Tapanuli orangutan (Image from Wikipedia)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A US$1.6 billion-dollar hydropower dam funded by Chinese state-owned industry Sinosure is to be constructed on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, threatening the habitat of the world’s rarest great ape.

The project, expected to be completed in 2022, forms a small part of China’s grand Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a world-spanning infrastructure-building enterprise focused on creating several economic corridors from China to Eastern Europe, and a maritime “road” through the Indian Ocean to East Africa.

The 510-megawatt dam is being built by Indonesian firm PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy. It will supply peak-load electricity to North Sumatra but at the cost of flooding part of the rare great ape’s habitat. The dam also requires a network of roads and high-voltage power lines cutting through the region.

The species in question is the Tapanuli orangutan, discovered in 2013 and comprising only 800 individuals. Scientists originally recognized just two species of orangutan, the Sumatran and Borneon, but identified the Tapanuli as a genetically distinct species after examining one taken in for veterinary treatment. The Tapanuli orangutan exists solely in the high reaches of the Batang Toru forest.

The Chinese-sponsored development has triggered strong resistance from environmentalists, who say it will destroy the natural habitat of all three endangered species. The orangutans live in less than one-fifth of Jakarta's forests, and compromising them could lead to inbreeding among the animals.

Biological anthropologist Erik Meijaard said the dam would mark the “death knell” of the Tapanuli species.

Rainforest in North Sumatra (Ilya Yakubovich/Flickr)

Over recent years, Indonesia has articulated an ambitious desire to improve infrastructure throughout its territory, extending electricity supplies to more remote areas, like Sumatra, that frequently experience blackouts.

The Southeast Asian state has expressed particular desire to open up “green” investment opportunities to foreign investors within the realms of transport, agricultural production, and energy provision. Last year, a number of Indonesian and Chinese enterprises signed a $4.5 billion loan with China Development Bank to begin construction of Indonesia’s first high-speed railway.

Just how “green” many of the projects associated with China’s BRI are has come under question due to scrutiny from environmental experts and activists around the world.

The Diplomat has reported on the recent damage caused to the Mekong Delta by China-backed hydropower damming, which is destroying vital resources for many of the area’s river-based communities. The World Wildlife Fund say that worldwide, BRI corridors overlap with 265 threatened animal species and 1,739 Key Biodiversity Areas.

Despite concerns, construction is likely to go ahead as the project is commercially viable for investors. The Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry and PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy both declined to comment on the situation. Bank of China did not provide a specific statement, but expressed that all relevant factors will be considered when formulating policies and making decisions.