The Batang Toru hydropower project could be the death knell for the Tapanuli orangutan, by flooding a key expanse of its habitat and, even more crucially, by slicing up its remaining forest home with new roads, powerlines, tunnels, and other built facilities.
Leading Scientists write to the President of Indonesia, 10 July 2018
Batang Toru, in North Sumatra, Indonesia, is a critical habitat for many endangered species, including Sumatran tigers, sun bears, agile gibbons, and pangolins. This rich and diverse ecosystem is threatened by the construction of a hydroelectric dam project, which, if completed, would have irreversible social and environmental impacts across the North Sumatran region.
It is also well known as the only habitat so far found of the Tapanuli orangutan, only identified as a distinct species in 2017. Fewer than 800 Tapanuli orangutans currently remain – making them the most endangered great apes in the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that this project could lead directly to their extinction.
About 38,000 people are estimated to live in the region, and many depend upon the Batang Toru river for their livelihoods. The Batang Toru dam would radically alter water flow, with significant impacts for local communities. Communities downstream of the dam, which normally experience drought and flood cycles a few times a year, would be affected on a daily basis. The dam’s construction has already cost the lives of 18 construction workers and local people, following a series of landslides and tunnel collapses. To make matters even worse, the project site sits adjacent to the Great Sumatran Fault and is an earthquake hotspot, leading to growing fears of a major earthquake in the future.
A Riverscope case study of the project found “labour rights infringements and threats to employee safety”, as well as conflict between workers and local people. Local communities and indigenous groups dispute the state’s acquisition of land for the project. There has also been increased human-orangutan conflict between local people and the Tapanuli orangutan population as a result of construction, which has pushed apes out of their habitat and towards farms and homes on the edge of the forest.
A Case of Ecocide
"unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts" The Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide
The long term impacts of this project, particularly on the future of the Tapanuli orangutan, mean a strong case could be made that it constitutes an instance of ecocide, in line with the definition cited by Monica Lennon MSP in her Bill consultation. It may differ in scale from examples typically understood as ecocide in the literature, such as the use of Agent Orange as a defoliant in Vietnam war, seen as the birth of the term ecocide itself, or, widespread deforestation by the palm oil industry in Indonesia and Guatemala. However, the richness of this ecosystem, and its value for the people and species that live there, means it would be hard to argue that the damage would not count as be ‘severe’, ‘widespread’ and ‘long-term’ - causing serious changes to the environment in a way that will be irreversible. We face the prospect of a development, following mining projects nearby, functionally destroying an entire species and endangering the lives and the culture of all who live there.
This particular act of destruction cannot even be legitimised by its role in a renewable energy transition. Economic analysis from 2020 has demonstrated that the dam is no longer needed to provide electricity for the region (which is oversupplied), and that the price for generation - as a peaking power plant - will be higher than the market price. It is estimated that by the projected completion date of the dam project, solar power - which could readily be extended in the region - will be 46% cheaper than hydropower.
It is important to understand this case in the context of wider extractive and exploitative industry, in Indonesia and in the global south more widely. Cases of land grabs and environmental destruction, often of indigenous peoples homes, for critical minerals needed for electric car batteries, for example, are on the rise globally, under the pretence that they have any part to play in a genuinely just transition to cleaner energy sources. The ecocide law currently being proposed for Scotland could be instrumental in preventing companies that commit such crimes from profiting from the transition to renewable energy at the expense of ecosystems elsewhere and the communities which rely on them.
A Case for Scotland
But why would a law in Scotland help? This case is an instructive example, and the key factor is the intensely globalised and interconnected economic system within which projects of this sort are proposed and developed. The Batang Toru dam is being developed by Beijing-based SDIC Power, owners of Red Rock Power, based in Edinburgh. Red Rock Power own and operate major wind farms across Scotland, including the substantial Beatrice and Inch Cape offshore projects.
Following the trail of profits from Scottish renewable wealth to a project mired in controversy - potential ecocide and human rights abuses - risks undermining Scotland’s just transition as well as this country’s position as a global leader on the protection of biodiversity, not least through the 2020 Edinburgh Declaration. Global actors that commit ecocide must not be able to hide behind corporate ownership structures while profiting from both the cause of the climate crisis and the energy transition solutions.
Campaigners in Indonesia report a pattern of intimidation against those who challenge this project in Indonesia, including the death of WALHI lawyer Golfrid Siregar under suspicious circumstances in 2019. In 2023, a public discussion on the dam was violently disrupted, prompting condemnation by free speech and press rights groups. They need our support, and, in this case, Scotland has a clear opportunity to act.
It is therefore vital that we are able to fight this project in Scotland, to prevent all companies operating here from profiting from ecocide, environmental destruction and human rights abuse. Bringing ecocide into Scottish law would provide a mechanism to ensure these wilfully irresponsible companies cannot profit from participation in Scotland’s transition, and could yet become a central pillar in our wider defence of the environment and resistance to both climate change and biodiversity loss.