Death of lawyer fighting Chinese-funded Indonesian dam casts shadow over project

a close up of an animal: Tapanuli orangutans in Indonesia’s Batang Toru rainforest. Photo: EPA

Tapanuli orangutans in Indonesia’s Batang Toru rainforest. Photo: EPA

In Indonesia, environmental activism can be a risky business. Golfrid Siregar knew that. His wife, Resmi Barimbing, knew it, too. Last year, Siregar would tell Barimbing it was no longer safe in the port city of Medan, where since 2016 he had worked as a lawyer for the largest environmental organisation in the Southeast Asian archipelago.

“Don’t go too far from home,” she recalls him warning her one day last autumn, not long before Siregar was found lying unconscious, gravely injured beside his motorcycle on the side of the road. Three strangers loaded him into a pedicab and took him to the Mitra Sejati Hospital, but Siregar never woke up, and three days later, on October 6, he died.

North Sumatra Police filed the incident as a traffic accident, citing the Batam City native for driving under the influence, having found traces of alcohol in his stomach. For Siregar’s wife and fellow activists, shock gave way to incredulity. Seeing his wounds in the intensive care unit and the state of his clothes, things did not add up. They knew he was not a heavy drinker, and would never have driven drunk. Why was his head so battered, one of his eyes bruised, but the rest of his body untouched? Why was he not, as he always would have been, wearing his helmet? Why did he have mud on his trousers if he crashed on a paved road? Why did his motorcycle show so little damage, and the asphalt no signs of skidding?

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Four days after Siregar’s death, a coalition of human-rights NGOs issued a statement calling for an independent investigation, on suspicions Siregar had been murdered. Later that month, coalition member Amnesty International wrote an open letter to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, saying they “presumed (Siregar) was killed, it wasn’t an accident”, pointing to the “incongruous details” in the case.

“As his wife, I suspect he was murdered,” wrote Barimbing in a statement to Post Magazine. “I suspect that his death had something to do with his work as a human-rights and environmental activist.” Aside from her now being a widow, Siregar, not yet 40 years old, also “left behind a young child”.

a man looking at the camera: Indonesian lawyer and activist Golfrid Siregar. Photo: Golfrid Siregar / Facebook

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Indonesian lawyer and activist Golfrid Siregar. Photo: Golfrid Siregar / Facebook

Police closed their investigation in late November, less than two months after Siregar’s death. His employer, Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (Walhi; the Indonesian Forum for the Environment), says authorities failed to provide it with the full autopsy results or accident analysis, after a year of requests.

Amnesty claims that in the past few years, activists, journalists, indigenous leaders and anti-corruption officials have been targeted, even killed, after digging into the activities of powerful corporations or indi-viduals. A 2016 case in the Maluku Islands sets a chilling precedent, where police said activist Yohanes Yonatan Balubun had also crashed after driving while drunk, and activists said his body showed signs of torture, including a wound to the back of his head.

As a Walhi lawyer, Siregar often represented local communities, mostly in cases against illegal loggers or polluting factories. But before his death, he was working on a particularly high-profile case: a lawsuit filed by Walhi against the environmental assessment of a 510-megawatt power plant, approved by the governor of North Sumatra at a cost of US$1.6 billion.

Scientists say China-backed dam threatens orangutan habitat

PT North Sumatera Hydro Energy (NSHE) is a Chinese-Indonesian consortium, with Zhefu Holding Group – one of the biggest hydropower equipment manufacturers in China – holding 51 per cent of the shares through a series of subsidiaries. State-run electricity company PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara owns 25 per cent of the shares through a subsidiary, and the rest belongs to Indonesian private investors. Among that tranche, NSHE chairman, Anton Sugiono, a power and construction tycoon, is the frontman. The plant is not officially part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but Zhefu listed it as one of the reasons to get involved with the project, according to company documents sent to the China Securities Regulatory Commission in 2018.

NSHE has claimed the hydro plant would help Indonesia reduce greenhouse emissions and provide a crucial supply of electricity. But a recent report from energy consultancy Brown Brothers Energy and Environment, commissioned by campaigning NGOs, claimed there was no pressing need for the dam at all.

Debt fears, delays and land disputes: how China’s belt and road plan for Indonesia got off track

Nevertheless, the project enjoyed backing from all levels of government, from district-level politicians to former secretary general of the National Resilience Council, Muhammad Munir. And NSHE may have completed the project, deep in the Batang Toru forest, without controversy, if not for the fact that in November 2017, several scientists proclaimed in the Current Biology journal that the region’s orangutans, as a new species, the Tapanuli, and numbering fewer than 800, were suddenly the world’s most threatened great ape. Gradually, opposition to the dam grew, labelling it the biggest threat to the orangutans’ survival, and Walhi, represented by Siregar, led the charge.

This kind of “infrastructure development vs wildlife conservation” scenario is nothing new. What gives this case its twist is that some of the most militant, vocal backers of the power plant were local indigenous leaders of an ethnic Sumatran minority, the Batak. Last August, a handful of these “rajas”, travelled more than 1,200km to the capital, Jakarta, not to demand protection of the orangutans’ habitat, but the deportation of foreign orangutan conservationists.

While the rajas stood draped in colourful, traditional ulos around him, spokesman Abdul Gani Batubara read a press release to a smattering of local press in front of the Dutch and British embassies to warn of a “black campaign” to “weaken Indonesia in the eyes of the international community”.

The statement accused five scientists – Ian Singleton, Ian Redmond, Graham Usher, Gabriella Fredriksson and Erik Meijaard – each with decades of conservation experience, of being bad actors, and demanded the government stop them from meddling in the project.

Land cleared for a hydroelectric dam in the Batang Toru rainforest, in North Sumatra, the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan. Photo: AFP

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Land cleared for a hydroelectric dam in the Batang Toru rainforest, in North Sumatra, the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan. Photo: AFP

Batubara explained to Post Magazine that he represents more than 230 people connected with the dam, land owners and material suppliers to construction entre-preneurs, all of whom argue they need the project’s electricity and jobs.

“We know the conditions of orangutans and forests in our districts, not the foreigners or foreign NGOs who think they know better,” he argued. “The people in our districts have coexisted with orangutans for hundreds of years and shared our harvest with them without problems.”

A few days after their embassy protests, the rajas were eager to share a 54-page dossier, documenting in Indonesian and English – a language none of them spoke – the social media agitation of the five foreigners, their connections with NGOs and activists and their personal contact details. The rajas also shared a document that contained private information about Singleton’s immigration status and recommended courses of action to achieve his deportation.

“I would say there is a political factor here,” said Batubara, his fellow rajas nodding in agreement around a table littered with clove cigarette butts and cups of instant coffee. “Maybe it’s because (the activists are) against China.”

Deep in Sumatra’s Barisan mountain range, the dam’s construction site is a scar hacked through the tropical jungle surrounding the Batang Toru river, the main artery of a fecund but shrinking ecosystem. The watercourse meanders through the valley, feeding small rice, rubber and fruit plantations and supplying fish to villages downstream.

Green activists vow to keep fighting Indonesia dam project that could wipe out rare ape

Although most of the Batang Toru forest was pro-tected in 2014, about 12.5 per cent of the 141,000-hectare ecosystem, including the river basin and plant con-struc-tion areas, was classified as being for “other uses” or “APL” (Areal Penggunaan Lain), a legal status that allows development. According to the last Orangutan Population and Habitat Viability Assessment from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, more than six Tapanuli are estimated to be killed every year, mostly by farmers protecting their harvest.

A few wooden houses demarcate the dam site, where a large NSHE sign stands alongside a “blasting notice” that tells visitors when and where dynamite explosions will take place. NSHE started pre-construction in December 2015 and the plant was scheduled to be operational by 2022, but as with much else in the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has halted activity.

Dam critics say the key issue is not the extension of land use – 122 hectares of a total orangutan habitat of 102,300 hectares, according to company estimates – but its location at a connection point between existing orangutan subpopulations, who need to intermingle for genetically viable reproduction.

“The impact is disproportionate because (the site) forms a sort of wall that will very likely decrease connectivity,” says Serge Wich, co-vice chair of the Section on Great Apes at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, on the phone from London.

Last July, 11 scientists – all foreign but for two – agreed that the roads and dam infrastructure will further fragment the orangutan’s habitat and allow incursions of illegal loggers and hunters, and in the London-based scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, called for a moratorium on the project. This year, Covid-19 continues to buy them time.

“Five of the seven Indonesian colleagues we approached said they agree but cannot say anything,” says Erik Meijaard, co-author of the paper and director of Borneo Futures consultancy, in a phone interview from Brunei. “That gives an indication of the atmosphere of this whole thing.”

Back in 1997, it was Meijaard who put forth the idea that the orangutans in Batang Toru forest could be a unique variety and sought their protection, earning his place long after as one of the five foreigners the rajas warned the government about.

a tree with a mountain in the background: The Batang Toru rainforest, in North Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2017. Photo: EPA

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The Batang Toru rainforest, in North Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2017. Photo: EPA

Meijaard points out that the slow reproduction rate of orangutans – one baby every eight to nine years – means that beyond the dam’s small imprint on total habitat, they are especially vulnerable to the effects of the project’s construction, and losing even 1 per cent of the females could result in the end of the Tapanuli.

“Like any country, Indonesia doesn’t like to be pushed around by the international community saying ‘you can’t do this and you can’t do that’ and I fully understand,” says the Dutch conservationist, but “it is very easy to drive a species of orangutan to extinction.”

Siregar had defended one of the few Indonesian scientists who dared criticise the dam, Onrizal Onrizal, director for scientific publications at the University of North Sumatra. Having participated in early environmental assessments of the project in 2014, approved by the governor of North Sumatra, the professor claims his signature was forged in a 2016 version of the study and key findings were redacted.

Sitting in his campus office in Medan, Onrizal wears a colourful pink and purple batik shirt that softens his appearance, but frustration is never far from his brow. Pointing to a copy of the 2016 draft study on his desk, he fumes, “In this list of mammals there is no orangutan. In my (original) report in 2014 it’s very clear that the area is part of the orangutan habitat, it gives the picture and the GPS position, but in this document you can’t find it. Why?”

Since mid-2018, Siregar had been helping Walhi challenge the 2016 study all the way to the Supreme Court, but last February a ruling favoured the company (a review was filed in July). After Siregar died, Onrizal was sued for defamation by Myrna Dian Irawaty, of A+, a PR company working for NSHE. Months of police investigation did not lead to charges, but the open case remained a constant threat, or warning.

Indonesia court allows construction of China-backed dam in endangered orangutan habitat

Since 2018, when the campaign to save the Tapanuli orangutan started to gain momentum, NSHE has been struggling to contain the growing bad press and has hired four PR firms (including A+) to keep potential detractors in line.

Last February, NSHE sponsored an A+ organised workshop to discuss Tapanuli conservation in Medan, 225km from the construction site. The firm wanted to present a study by the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Resources Management, from Jakarta’s National University, which concluded the dam project could indeed “support the orangutan survival”.

Scholars, government representatives, NGOs and company spokespeople discussed the Tapanuli’s needs, and while the room was full of polite smiles there was a constant tension in the air.

“There are already accusations of greenwashing,” says the senior environmental adviser of NSHE, Agus Djoko Ismanto. “It’s already in the media, especially foreign media. So we have to be careful.”

The company spun a number of selling points: the project affects orangutans less than other scientific studies have suggested; the population was already threatened and fragmented; project roads are not impassable for orangutans, etc. Spokespeople assured the gathering that NSHE was taking all possible actions for mitigation, and would replant 285 hectares of affected habitat and turn it into an orangutan sanctuary.

a brown bear sitting on a branch: A Tapanuli orangutan.

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A Tapanuli orangutan.

Head of Greenpeace Indonesia, Kiki Taufik, on the phone from Jakarta, says that despite reassurances, “it cannot be compared with what we are losing. There isn’t a good reason from the government on why they still want it, except for the Chinese investors”.

As Meijaard explains, visas have become harder to obtain for foreign scientists, and the scope of possible research is narrowing, confirmed by this year’s termination of Indonesia’s accord with WWF. Meijaard himself left for nearby Brunei in 2017 due to increasing limitations on foreign research, and other scientists have reported similar issues.

Until 2019, Swiss NGO Paneco was one of the fiercest critics of the Batang Toru dam project. Its statements were blunt, frequent, and it hired some of the most vocal foreign conservationists who have long worked in the Batang Toru area. “Urgent action must be taken now to halt construction,” they wrote in a report published with other NGOs in 2018. Then, in August 2019, Paneco suddenly changed its tune and signed a memorandum of understanding with NSHE, agreeing to collaborate in mitigation efforts towards the conservation of the Tapanuli orangutan. Two of Paneco’s foreign scientists, Graham Usher and Gabriella Fredriksson, were fired in May 2019. They were on the rajas’ blacklist with colleague Ian Singleton, who was not dismissed, but who now collaborates with NSHE.

Paneco founder Regina Frey said in an email that the NGO made “big mistakes” and broke the terms of its agreement with the government, which did not allow for political involvement. A letter sent in July 2018, from more than two dozen scientists to President Widodo, described the power plant as “the death knell for the Tapanuli orangutan”, which put everyone in a tight spot, because “if, as a government partner, you co-sign letters to the president, Intelligence gets involved and you are reminded to stick to the rules”.

a canyon with a mountain in the background: A gold mine in the Batang Toru forest. Photo: AFP

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A gold mine in the Batang Toru forest. Photo: AFP

This June, PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara CEO Zulkifli Zaini announced in parliament a possible delay in dam construction of at least three years due to Covid-19 effects on the Chinese workforce. He also acknowledged that protests from environmental NGOs have constrained the development.

Zhefu’s annual reports reveal that the project had reached only 11 per cent completion in 2019, advancing only 1 per cent since then. Construction was suspended last August, NSHE said in an email.

Lack of financing was the reason Zhefu, a Shenzhen-listed company, stepped in as a majority shareholder in 2016, after previous attempts from the original Indonesian developer failed to access credit, according to documents sent by Zhefu to the China Securities Regulatory Commission in 2018.

The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank had shied away from the project, and in March 2019 the Bank of China said in a rare public notice that it would “evaluate the project very carefully”, after members of Ape Alliance, an international coalition of NGOs, protested in its branches in about a dozen countries.

Up until the end of last year, NSHE was still in talks with a consortium of international banks, including the Bank of China, but NSHE said in its email that finance had been secured and construction had resumed. However, sources in Batang Toru area refute this claim.

For Dana Prima Tarigan, executive director of Walhi in North Sumatra, his network of environmental activists is more important than ever, especially after Siregar’s suspicious death and despite the risks they face. Although he is not prepared to make accusations, Tarigan says by phone from Medan that activists “will keep pushing for justice” in Siregar’s case, and fighting against the “nature destroyers”.

“If we are not here,” he says, “who will monitor the government? Who will educate the public on environmental issues? These are the reasons to devote ourselves to this cause.”

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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