Renewable energy in a rare ape’s habitat raises ethical dilemma
The loud call of gibbons reverberates in Sitandiang, a small village surrounded by misty forested hills on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Like other villages in South Tapanuli district, Sitandiang has porous borders between human and wildlife habitation. This mixed landscape attracts wildlife to forage and build nests, and when fruit season comes, the gibbons aren’t the only tree-swingers: The Tapanuli orangutan, the rarest ape on the planet, also shows up.
On a recent morning, Sampetua Hutasuhut, the village chief, was stripping the fruits of sugar palm with his knife. His cellphone beeped. It was his wife telling him that a tree had fallen on a power cable. No wonder the power to the village had been out for more than 12 hours, he thought, before calling the power company to ask for help. “Usually, it takes a long time for them to get here,” he says.
Mr. Sampetua isn’t alone. In many villages in rural Indonesia, power outages are a persistent problem. Demand for electricity, and pressure to produce and distribute more of it, poses a challenge across this island archipelago of 276 million people.
WHY WE WROTE THIS
The targets set by developing countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions require hard choices in how to generate electricity, including the building of hydropower dams in fragile ecosystems.
Less than a mile from the village chief’s wooden house is a potential solution: A stream that burbles up through giant black rocks and a dead tree trunk. The stream is part of the Batang Toru river system, a waterway that Indonesia’s national utility, PLN, plans to dam and convert into hydroelectric power. Construction began four years ago – and has generated a storm of controversy.
Scientists and environmental activists from around the world are campaigning against the project because of the threat it poses to the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan. They also warn the location is perilously prone to earthquakes and landslides; at least 10 residents and workers died in late April after heavy rains near the dam site triggered landslides.
Not long ago, Emmy Hafild might have been on their side. She cut her teeth as an environmentalist in the 1990s when Indonesia was a U.S.-backed dictatorship and activism was a risky career choice. In 1999, she was on the cover of Time magazine as one of five “Heroes of the Planet.”
Today Ms. Hafild is on the other side of the barricades, working as a senior paid adviser to the dam’s developer, North Sumatera Hydro Energy. She argues that it should be built because it will produce green energy for North Sumatra, which relies on coal for most of its electricity, while having what she says is only a limited impact on Batang Toru’s ecosystem and its wildlife.
Indonesia is far from the only country wrestling with this dilemma. In most developing countries, electricity holds the key to economic growth and industrialization, at the same time that governments are also trying to live up to their international commitments to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases. Hydropower dams hold out the prospect of fossil fuel-free electricity – but often at a cost to fragile ecosystems.
Ms. Hafild already sees the mounting cost of climate change. Take a recent storm that left a deadly trail in Flores in eastern Indonesia. Her heart broke. It is a place where she spent half of her life. “I knew at least 100 people in Adonara,” she texted The Christian Science Monitor, referring to the town hardest hit.
She sees this as another sign of climate crisis. “Climate change is real. We never had that kind of typhoon before in Indonesia,” she says. “At this time, we cannot … [see things in] black and white.”
A dubious record for emissions
Indonesia is a major emitter of greenhouse gases. In 2015, it released 2.6 billion tons of carbon and other gases, a record amount due to mega peatland fires that made it the world’s fourth largest emitter that year.
But while peatland burning is a major factor, so too is Indonesia’s reliance on coal to produce electricity. According to the Australian-based Global Carbon Project, its emissions from fossil fuels, such as coal and gasoline, are increasing sharply. In 2019, fossil fuels emitted 600 million tons of carbon in Indonesia. (The United States emitted the equivalent of 6.5 billion tons, mostly from transportation, electricity, and industry.)
Under the Paris climate accord, Indonesia must reduce its emissions by at least 29% by 2030. To reach this target, analysts say Indonesia needs to invest more in renewable energy – wind, solar, hydropower, and geothermal – so it is less reliant on fossil fuels. Last year, renewables made up 15% of overall supply, up from 12% in 2018.
But “our progress to … [hit] the target on renewable energy has been very slow,” says Ms. Hafild, who blames lobbying by coal producers. “If I were an active environmental activist, that’s where I’m going to attack,” she says, referring to an industry that has long been politically influential in Indonesia, which is the world’s second largest coal exporter.
One of the most vocal opponents of the Batang Toru dam is Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (WALHI), a national nongovernmental organization that Ms. Hafild cofounded in the 1990s. Doni Latuparisa, WALHI’s director for North Sumatra, says his organization does support renewable energy – but not at any price. “We want the developer to pay attention to environmental aspects,” he says.
Based on WALHI’s consultations with geologists and conservationists, Mr. Latuparisa says the project sits in the wrong place. The area between the dam site and the power plant – an eight-mile drive by road – is vulnerable to seismic activity and extreme weather events. Indeed, the April 30 landslide was the second in six months. Like other environmentalists, Mr. Latuparisa also worries about the negative impact on the river ecosystem and how to protect the critical habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan.
In what was an exciting breakthrough for primatologists – and an unexpected complication for the dam’s backers – the Tapanuli orangutan was first identified in 2017 as a separate species of a long-haired primate that is native to Sumatra. Orangutan means “person of the forest” in Malay and Indonesian; the Tapanuli is the third species identified. But it is already in a precarious situation. With only around 800 individuals living in a shrinking habitat, the species is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered.
Scientists at the IUCN say that the dam site is a crossroads for three orangutan subpopulations, namely the west, east, and south blocks, so construction would isolate these groups from each other. (The east and west blocks are already divided by an intra-island highway; the Monitor’s reporting found that the dam site lies between the west and south blocks. Orangutans also need to cross villages to reach the south block.)
Serge Wich, a United Kingdom-based primate biologist and specialist at the IUCN, says that by reducing the chance that orangutans will mate with those from different groups, the dam project would likely lead to their extinction. “Where restoration is needed now, more destruction is happening,” he says.
“Two explosions yesterday”
Two miles from the dam site, Wan Pardede sits beside the intra-island highway that passes through his village where he has spent his whole life. From here, he used to see scattered houses that gradually merged with misty forests. Some of these forest areas are now flattened because of construction of the dam project.
“We heard two explosions yesterday,” he says. The developers usually announce to the villagers when they plan to carry out explosions, so they can prepare for the deafening sound, he says.
Erwinsyah Siregar, a local environmental activist who guided the Monitor around the site, worries about the impact of dam construction on wildlife. “The river used to be a place where many orangutans were found,” he says. If dynamite deafened humans, how would wildlife react, he asks.
Development of the dam began in late 2017, just as scientists unveiled the identification of the Tapanuli orangutan species. The project was initially due to end by 2022. But the pandemic, which kept Chinese construction crews away for months, has led to delays.
Even before the pandemic, the international opprobrium had also affected its timeline: In 2020, the Bank of China pulled its support for the $1.5 billion project, a decision which PLN officials blamed on the protests by environmentalists. The project is being built by Sinohydro, a Chinese government-owned construction company. The current target for completion in 2025.
Amid this backlash, North Sumatera Hydro Energy (NSHE), the privately owned Indonesian developer, reckons it has a workaround solution that, in theory, means that its project would be far less destructive than the giant dams of yesteryear. It works like this: An underground tunnel will bring the Batang Toru river water from the dam site to power generator. This way, there’s no need to build a large dam that would inundate large areas of forest.
Ms. Hafild says this system, known as “run of river,” is a good dam design for the environment. “I’ve been involved in a [past] campaign against large dams. But, for run of river, we have to compromise somehow,” she says. The project will only permanently alter 80 hectares (198 acres). This is very small, she says, “but the impact is very good for the planet.”
Sustainable development is a triangle with three sides: social, environmental, and economic. Each side doesn’t need to have equal value, she says. “I tell my friends that it cannot be black and white. It has to be some compromise in areas where we think it can help us to prevent climate change, because it is a calamity for the world. It’s a humanity crisis,” she says.
Ms. Hafild describes herself as an environmental activist at heart who only works on projects that are in line with her idealism. Some of her former colleagues accuse her of selling herself to the dam developer. She doesn’t care what they think of her and insists that her focus on climate change, and the need to find compromises, isn’t new. “This is my belief from the very beginning. It’s not because I am paid now,” she says.
A rope bridge for wildlife
As the dam project proceeds, the question of how it can coexist with the protection of forestry and animals hangs in the air.
On a recent afternoon, Dini Ayu Lestari, an enthusiastic young conservationist working for NSHE, traveled along a dusty road through the project area. On the roadside, a leaf monkey was sitting on a tree branch. When Ms. Lestari stopped and got out of her pickup truck, the monkey immediately shied away. Up above, more than halfway to the towering canopy, a small rope bridge spanned the road.
Ms. Lestari says some small mammals have been captured on film crossing the bridge. Like Ms. Hafild, who advises her, she’s optimistic that biodiversity conservation and the dam development can coexist.
Every day, she patrols around the dam site to see if there are orangutans or other wildlife roaming the area. Indeed, from the dam site to the power generator, plantation forests and old-growth forest can still be seen.
“Before land clearing, we go into the forest and record what’s inside,” she explains. If it’s safe, the construction can continue. If not, she works with local conservation officials to mitigate the impact on wildlife. Mr. Erwinsyah says this usually means alerting animals with a small detonation before the forest is cleared.
Areas designated for temporary infrastructure are repopulated with different species of fruit trees, such as matoa and durian, that orangutans feed on. “We are making sure there are places where the orangutan can hide when the construction begins, [that] they have enough food, they can have place to rest and they can mate,” says Ms. Hafild.
As for the orangutan connectivity issue, Ms. Hafild says PLN has mapped the critical habitat and is working with the government and NGOs to develop corridors.
She admits that the biodiversity team faces a constant battle with the Chinese dam constructors, who ignored some of its recommendations in the past. But she believes the team’s efforts will protect the wildlife around the dam site and could even make it a better place, while producing renewable energy that can help Indonesia break its coal habit.
“The world will know, in 2025, when the construction will be over, that area will be one of the best areas for orangutan protection,” she says.
This reporting was supported by the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.