Tapanuli orangutans: conservationists urge Scotland's first minister to wade into Indonesia dam debate

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A Chinese company behind a dam project activists fear could wipe out the Tapanuli orangutan also owns wind farms in Scotland

Environmental campaigners say an Indonesian dam project could be "the death knell" for the world's rarest ape - but they say Scotland's First Minister could help stop it.

The Chinese State Development and Investment Corporation (SDIC) is currently building the Batang Toru dam in northern Sumatra, with the project believed to be taking place in the heart of the rare Tapanuli orangutan’s natural habitat. But the Mighty Earth group says the Scottish Government is “well placed" to intervene - as the company building the structure also owns and operates wind farms in Scotland.

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With no more than 800 of the creatures left, the Tapanuli orangutan - only discovered in 2017 - has been described by the WWF as the most endangered of all great apes. A primate biology at Liverpool John Moores University has warned that if the adult population decreases by any more than 1% per year – or loses just eight individuals – their genetic diversity could decline to the point of no return.

Beijing-based SDIC Power has a subsidiary firm, Red Rock Power, headquartered in Edinburgh, and Scottish, Indonesian and international campaign groups say they have now written to Humza Yousaf and biodiversity minister Lorna Slater to ask them to formally raise the issue with SDIC and Red Rock Power.

Humza Yousaf has been asked to intervene to help protect the Tapanuli orangutan (NationalWorld/Getty/Adobe Stock)Humza Yousaf has been asked to intervene to help protect the Tapanuli orangutan (NationalWorld/Getty/Adobe Stock)
Humza Yousaf has been asked to intervene to help protect the Tapanuli orangutan (NationalWorld/Getty/Adobe Stock) | NationalWorld/Getty/Adobe Stock

The groups, including Mighty Earth, Friends of the Earth Scotland, the Primate Society of Great Britain and Orangutan Outreach, told Yousaf that having a “trail of profits from Scottish renewable wealth to a project mired in controversy” would undermine Scotland’s position as a “global leader on the protection of biodiversity”.

Amanda Horowitz, senior director at Mighty Earth, told PA: “the Tapanuli orangutan’s home in the forests of Batang Toru in Sumatra is being destroyed by the construction of a wholly unnecessary and toxic dam project.

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“Calls for action are coming from across the globe and, unlikely as it may seem, the Scottish Government is well placed to do its bit and convene a meeting as soon as possible between the developers and international conservation scientists," she added.

“The threat is urgent and there is no time to lose if we’re to save a species, some of our closest relatives, from being wiped off the face of the Earth.”

Andi Muttaqien, of the Indonesian group Satya Bumi, said neither the threatened orangutan or local communities stood to benefit from the Batang Toru dam. “The dam’s electricity might have been needed in 2015, but now, eight years into construction, there is oversupply in the region, with the electricity slated to be sold at an overinflated price.”

Labour MSP Monica Lennon said that Scotland is a key player in international development, and this could be a test case for its role on the global stage.

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“Does this country champion biodiversity, environmental rights and workers’ safety, as we would like to think?" she asked. “Scottish ministers may not be able to stop this project outright, but the fact that the dam’s developers operate in Scotland gives us a rare opportunity to use a little ‘soft power’ in defence of workers’ rights, stopping ecocide and the survival of the world’s most endangered great ape.”

In response to queries, a Scottish Government spokesperson told PA Scotland was "ready to play its part" to ensure a nature-positive world.

“The Scottish Government has not provided any funding support to Red Rock Power in relation to its offshore wind activities in Scotland," they said. “Officials last met with Red Rock Power in November 2022 to discuss progress on their development of the Inch Cape Offshore Wind farm off the coast of Angus.

“Scottish ministers are committed to protecting the natural environment and those who call it their home, endangered species especially need our help to survive, and where possible thrive," the spokesperson added.

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Yousaf's predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon, had previously been called on to step in and protect the Tapanuli orangutan, NationalWorld's sister title The Scotsman reports.

NationalWorld has approached Red Rock Power for comment.

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