The Medan State Administrative Court in North Sumatra has rejected a lawsuit filed by environmental group the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) against North Sumatra administration’s decision to issue permits for a hydropower project in the Batang Toru ecosystem.

Environmentalists and activists have urged that the project, which is costing Rp 22 trillion (US$1.5 billion), be scrapped because of its potential impact on the environment, especially on the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutans that live in and around the ecosystem.

The judges said the issuance of the permit, as well as a revised environmental impact analysis (amdal) document for the project, had passed the proper legal procedures and were in line with existing regulations.

“The judges reject every part of the plaintiff’s lawsuit,” presiding judge Jimmy C. Pardede said, reading the ruling during Monday’s hearing.

In the lawsuit, Walhi argued that the permit issuance was problematic given the lack of discussion and participation from locals, as well as potential ecological problems caused by the hydropower dam. The location of the site is also prone to earthquakes, the group argued.

During previous hearings, local residents testified in the courtroom that the company had never informed them about the project.

Judge Selvie Ruthyaroodh, however, said during Monday’s hearing that the bench regarded such testimonies as irrelevant to the case, because the residents lived in Batang Toru district rather than Marancar district, where the dam would be constructed.

Walhi lawyer Padian Adi Siregar lamented the judges’ ruling. The residents who testified, he said, would also be affected by the project, as they lived downstream of the river used by the Batang Toru hydropower plant.

The court also rejected expert testimony submitted by the plaintiff that the location of the project is on an active tectonic fault. The judges argued there were no restrictions on building a structure in the area.

Selvie added that the bench believed there had been sufficient studies on the project’s effects on animals living around the dam, including the Tapanuli orangutan, and it was satisfied mitigation measures were in place.

Walhi, however, questioned this assertion as the company had not provided such studies as evidence during the hearings.

The Tapanuli orangutans, whose frizzier coats differentiate them from their Bornean and Sumatran counterparts, are threatened by poaching and illegal logging. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included the species on its red list, classing it “critically endangered” as scientists have only recorded 800 of the species living in nature.

“We will file an appeal and take any other remaining legal measures available,” Walhi’s North Sumatra office director, Dana Prima Tarigan, said. He added that the verdict did not reflect justice or fairness for the environment.

Apart from the lawsuit, Walhi was also involved in a protest on March 1 with an international network of activists against Bank of China, one of several international banks funding the project. The environmental group demanded the bank take concrete action by stopping its funding of the project because of its potential threat to the environment.

“Walhi believes this project is not in line with China’s Belt and Road Initiative as the project won’t provide mutual benefit as promised by the Chinese government,” the group wrote in a statement.

Photo: Tapanuli orangutan in the Batang Toru Forest, their only known habitat, in North Sumatra – Indonesia.

A critically endangered species of orangutan which lives in one forest in Indonesia is in danger of rapid extinction after a court ruled construction of a new hydro-electric dam can go ahead, despite a legal challenge by environmental groups.

The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) was discovered by scientists in 2017, and just 800 individuals are believed to exist, making it the rarest great ape species on the planet.

But the construction of the Batang Toru Dam in North Sumatra, backed by the Bank of China, as part of the country’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure project, will rip through the orangutan’s habitat.

China’s state-owned Sinohydro is building the dam, which is reportedly financed by Chinese loans.

The population, with frizzier hair, significantly different teeth and distinctively long calls for the males, was previously thought to be their close relative, the Sumatran orangutan.

Their diet is also unique, containing unusual items like caterpillars and conifer cones. They have never been observed on the ground, which scientists suggest may be due to the presence of Sumatran tigers in the area, which are also critically endangered.