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Imperilled Ape: Dam Company’s Use of ‘Local Wisdom’ Reeks of Greenwashing

10. Dezember 2019 - 10:04

An international team of researchers and conservation practitioners is intensely worried about the fate of the world’s rarest ape.  

The Tapanuli orangutan is the rarest great ape in the world.  Fewer than 800 animals remain, divided into three tiny sub-populations in the Batang Toru highlands in Sumatra, Indonesia.  

A planned hydrodam could be a death knell for the species, as it will slice across the most critical area of population connectivity for the ape.  

Orangutans are so sensitive to population losses that the mortality of just 1 percent of the population per year could drive the species extinct.  This is why there has been intense local and international opposition to the dam.  

But the Indonesian corporation behind the dam, PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy, has been pushing hard to convince investors that the hydrodam is ‘green’ and can be developed in a way that won’t hurt the orangutan.  Scientists have demolished many of their key arguments, and criticized the intensely heavy-handed manner in which the project has been advanced. 

With help from public-relations firms specializing in corporate crisis management, the dam company is now pushing a particularly disingenuous argument: that traditional wisdom from local communities will protect the orangutan.  Here we show that this argument is false and baseless — so much so, that it’s even inspired a scientific satire.


The principle of incorporating local wisdom may sound charming, but it falls apart on close inspection.  

No amount of local wisdom will prevent destruction of the orangutan’s habitat.  The hydrodam would sever crucial forest connections between remaining populations of the Tapanuli orangutan.

Furthermore, local people are clearly part of the problem.  Hunting of the orangutan is still common.   In September, a Tapanuli orangutan was severely wounded by local farmers, and the species’ name in the local Batak language means ‘white meat’.  

Indeed, the principle reason that Tapanuli orangutan still survives in the highlands of Batang Toru because it is rugged and inaccessible to hunters, loggers, and land-clearing farmers and agribusiness corporations.  

This is not to claim that support from local communities won’t be crucial for the long-term survival of Batang Toru forests, nor that ethnic groups in the area lack knowledge of the ape.  But relying on presumed traditional and sacred respect for orangutans is a cynical distortion of reality, and will not save the Tapanuli orangutan.


Opportunities for free dialogue about the Batang Toru hydrodam appear to be closing, largely because of the pressures and intransigence of the dam corporation and its allies in the Indonesian government.

However, two major financial institutions, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the Bank of China, have declined to fund the dam.  And the International Union for Conservation of Nature has requested that the development be halted to allow for independent studies on its potentially grave biodiversity impacts.  

It is our duty as scientists and practitioners with decades of experience in Indonesia to underscore the gross distortions of fact and pseudo-realities being created by the dam corporation and its public-relations firms.

We urge financial institutions not to support the Batang Toru hydrodam — or risk serious reputational damage by being linked to the demise of the world’s rarest ape.

Kategorien: english

Bad Medicine for Big Cats

22. November 2019 - 7:41

The bones, blood, and body parts of big cats are big business.  They are the ‘vital’ ingredients in a range of products such as balms, capsules, and wines—sold as cures for multiple ailments ranging from insomnia and malaria, to meningitis and impotence.   

It’s all part of a booming traditional Asian medicine market that is devastating tigers, leopards, jaguars, and other big-cat species.  Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that these cures work—though the demand for them is leaving a tragic and bloody legacy.


A new international study by London-based NGO World Animal Protection has uncovered a story of horrific animal exploitation that could well lead to the extinction of some of our planet’s most iconic predators.   

Focusing on big-cat products, the study shows that lions and tigers are being killed in the wild and also captive-bred in their thousands, often in incredibly cruel conditions, to help feed the insatiable demand for traditional medicines.   

In an effort to understand why Asian customers are driving this market of misery, the investigators surveyed consumer attitudes.  In China and Vietnam—by far the biggest wildlife-consumer nations—they found high levels of belief in the unproven medical properties of big-cat parts.  

Moreover, most consumers believe that wild-caught cats have more potent medicinal properties than do captive-bred animals (84 percent of consumers in Vietnam, 55 percent in China).  Such views are fueling the rampant poaching of wild cats, including several endangered species.


The tale of the jaguar is particularly sad and instructive.  This iconic predator of New World rainforests was never part of traditional Asian medicine.  But as tigers have become vanishingly scarce, the market for jaguar teeth, bones, and pelts has exploded in Latin America.  

Chinese traders are especially active, with China now being the largest foreign investor in infrastructure and extractive-industries in Latin America.  Such developments are opening up the region’s last intact forests like a flayed fish, making it easier for poachers to find and kill jaguars.  

Trading in jaguar body parts is illegal but this hasn’t stopped the plunder.  Jaguar numbers have plummeted in the last two decades, with the insatiable demand for traditional Asian medicine being a large and growing part of the problem.  


The study paints a picture of a cruel trade based on faith-based cures and strong cultural beliefs.

Is there a solution?  The researchers found that a majority (60-70 percent) of Chinese and Vietnamese respondents claimed they would not buy big cat products that are illegal or detrimental to the species’ conservation.  A similar proportion of consumers claimed they would be willing to try herbal alternatives if they were cheaper.   

However, given the strong cultural belief in the power of traditional medicines and the fact that regulations aren’t staunching big-cat poaching, tougher laws by themselves aren’t enough.  

Perhaps we can learn from other areas of conservation.  For example, shark-fin soup was formerly an expensive but highly popular meal in China, as it symbolized success and wealth.  But its popularity was pushing many shark species to extinction, and the fishery was notably cruel—as shark fins are harvested by slicing off the fins of living sharks and then dumping the still-living fish back into the ocean, where they endure a slow death.   

High prices didn’t slow the shark-fin trade, but what did work was a high-profile campaign involving community leaders, students, and celebrities to underscore the cruelty of the harvest practices.  This was combined with the Chinese government banning the meal from official banquets.  As a result, consumption of shark-fin soup has plummeted.   

We need similar actions for big cats, which are now in trouble all around the world.  Traditional Asian medicine is a key factor in their ongoing decline, and demand will only fall if cultural attitudes change.  Given that China and Vietnam are authoritarian nations, clear signals from their leaders could have a dramatic impact on this fatal trade.

Kategorien: english

Critical Connectivity: Isolated Protected Areas Could Become Epicenters of Extinction

22. Oktober 2019 - 11:10

Famed biologist Daniel Janzen once proclaimed, “No park is an island.”  What Janzen meant is that the isolation of a park is corrosive for its ecology and deadly for its biodiversity

The natural movements of species across landscapes are as essential to life as the flows of wind and water.  But such movements are being stymied as parks and protected areas become increasingly isolated from their surrounding natural habitats—thanks to the ever-expanding footprint of agriculture, infrastructure, and other human activities.

Isolated protected areas lack the gene flow and demographic stability that arise from wildlife movement.  As a result, they can become “extinction vortices” for vulnerable species—areas where small population sizes, inbreeding, losses to poachers and encroachers, and high mortality in surrounding modified habitats collectively conspire to drive species to local extinction.   

Indonesia’s Palm Oil

A massive worry is Indonesia—where species are plummeting toward extinction twice as fast as almost anywhere else.  Sprawling agribusiness crops, such as palm-oil plantations, create oceans of monocultures that are hostile to most native species.  

Borneo’s oil palm plantations have lost up to 90 percent of their mammal diversity, and plant biodiversity has slumped to almost zero.  Nearly all of the biodiversity in oil-palm landscapes survives only in small fragments of native forest, which harbor some forest-dependent species.  

Sustainability certification is trying to conserve these critical fragments.  For instance, corporations and smallholders that have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil are being urged to set aside habitats with “High Conservation Value” if they wish to be certified as sustainable.  

Such efforts are important but far from adequate.  In Borneo, most High Conservation Value habitats are themselves highly degraded, with just one-fifth still being fully forested.  Forest-dependent species will be highly vulnerable in such wounded landscapes. 

Hence, oil palm is taking a giant bite out of biodiversity and the practical measures being used to limit its burgeoning impacts are marginal at best.

North America

Can wildlife corridors help to link protected areas and thereby reduce extinction vortices?  A study of fishers—a predatory mammal similar to the wolverine—across Alberta, Canada found that protected areas alone had little effect on their movements.  

Rather than stay in a single protected area, fishers used corridors of native vegetation to move across the landscape and exploit a variety of different areas for survival.  This implies that protected areas alone can’t sustain vulnerable species, if we ignore environmental disruption in lands surrounding the protected areas. 

Such insights underscore the limitations of voluntary guidelines—such as Aichi Target 11, which asserts that 17 percent of a country’s terrestrial habitats should be protected.  Such metrics provide simple guideposts for conservation, but fail to emphasize that the ecological integrity of habitats surrounding protected areas is often as crucial for wildlife as the protected areas themselves.

Eye of the Storm: Australia

Australia has the worst historical extinction record of any nation on Earth—and its recent political record suggests the situation is only worsening.  

One problem is that Australia’s national parks are largely in residual locations—places that weren’t useful for anything else.  Even these marginal areas are now fair game for shooting, development, and livestock grazing during droughts.  

At present, land-clearing rates in Australia are among the highest in the world.  Conservative politicians have disbanded a Ministerial Council that oversaw Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy from 2010 to 2030.

And there is virtually no core funding for large-landscape programs in Australia.  Government policy does not embrace connectivity conservation.   A forward-thinking National Wildlife Corridor Program was scrapped in 2015, leaving heroic programs like the Gondwana Link project stranded.

And Australia’s efforts to counter forest loss are paltry.  For example, a flagship program to plant 20 Million Trees is grossly inadequate when compared to the 400 million trees being cleared each year in the state of Queensland alone. 

With its increasingly glaring conservation weaknesses, Australia has rightly fallen in the eyes of the world.  It’s time for Australia to return to the vanguard of global conservation thinking—and to advocate the critical role of connectivity in sustaining nature and environmental quality.

Kategorien: english

Hidden Risks of the Belt & Road: Financiers Beware!

30. September 2019 - 23:30

Divya Narain is a doctoral student at the University of Queensland, studying the risks and safeguards of China’s world-changing Belt & Road Initiative.  Formerly trained at the University of Oxford, she returns from a recent conference in Beijing with many concerns.

The Belt & Road Initiative, China’s multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure push, is a defining force of the twenty-first century—right up there with climate change and right-wing populism.

The scale of the BRI is astonishing, presently slated to span 130 nations across the planet.  This incudes extensive roads and railways, flanked by thousands of power and industrial projects.  Many of these are being built along six massive economic corridors that alone will cut across 70 countries on several continents.

The BRI is poised to transform transport and trade in the developing world.  It will also have extraordinary impacts on the environment, as its corridors and other projects crisscross some of the most pristine and vulnerable ecosystems in the world.


During the 2000s, buoyed by swelling foreign-exchange reserves and high domestic savings, Chinese banks were flush with money.  This is the fiscal backdrop against which the BRI, the signature program of Chinese President Xi Jinpeng, was launched in 2013. 

The BRI has already garnered nearly $600 billion in investments, according to the World Bank.  Some BRI projects are being heralded as a success, but many reports of projects hitting roadblocks are emerging (for example, see here, here, and here). 

According to one estimate, as many as 14 percent of BRI projects worth about a third of its total investment have already run into trouble.  This trend is variously attributed to cost overruns, laborious land acquisition, and local pushback. 


Environmental impacts of the BRI are also playing a major role in complicating projects.  As ALERT has long asserted, mega-infrastructure projects bring with them a slew of environmental problems that can translate into material risks for project proponents—including, notably, project financiers.

These risks take the form of compensation liabilities, litigation, and negative publicity—something that is already playing out in the BRI. 

A Kenyan court, for example, blocked a China-backed coal plant and port project on the island of Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, after the financier, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, failed to heed three years of petitioning from local land defenders. 

Colombia’s first mega-dam, Ituango, is another BRI project facing liabilities and lawsuits after a tunnel collapse forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 residents downstream.

Most controversial of all is a dam project in Indonesia that threatens the only habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan, the world’s rarest great ape.  Unrelenting opposition from scientists and environmentalists led the Bank of China, in a rare move, to announce re-evaluation of funding for the dam


The current scale of Chinese lending is unprecedented.  

In recent years, China’s two state-owned development banks, the China Development Bank and The Export-Import Bank of China, have lent as much globally as the top six multilateral banks, such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. 

Along with these ‘big two’ state-owned development banks are another ‘big four’ state-owned commercial banks.  Collectively, these six Chinese state-owned banks have provided more than 90 percent of BRI’s financing to date. 

So, China is flooding the world with new investments, many of which are perceived as high-risk by financial, political, and environmental experts.  In fact, investment from Chinese private banks has remained low, evidently because of such concerns.

As the BRI blasts across some of the most ecologically-sensitive geographies, Chinese banks have become a powerful planetary force.  But with such power comes great responsibility—and great risk.

Clearly, given China’s rapidly increasing debt and many high-risk overseas investments, it would be in the best interest of China and its citizens to steer clear of environmentally risky projects.  At the moment, they are not doing so.

Kategorien: english

Dirty Tricks Behind Conservation U-turn for World’s Rarest Ape

3. September 2019 - 22:22

Scientists and conservation organizations are deeply concerned after an ally in an ongoing campaign to halt a destructive hydropower project in Sumatra, Indonesia, has flipped their position and announced a partnership with the company behind the dam.

Swiss-based PanEco Foundation, which manages the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, has for several years been a fierce opponent of the hydro-dam project, which is under construction in the core habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan—the world’s rarest species of Great Ape.

Enormous Loss of Credibility for PanEco

Fewer than 800 of the apes survive today, living only in the Batang Toru ecosystem in north Sumatra—an area just a tenth the size of Sydney, Australia.  And the new hydro-project is being built in the ape’s most critical habitat, which has by far the highest density of orangutans (according to the company’s own Environmental Impact Statement).

As a result, the hydro-project has been stridently denounced by scientists and conservationists in Indonesia and globally as a disaster for the Tapanuli orangutan

Fragmentation and Extinction

One of the many negative impacts of the project will be permanent fragmentation of the apes and their ecosystem, making it all but inevitable that isolated subpopulations will be condemned to functional or actual extinction.  Around a quarter of the surviving population would be trapped by the hydro scheme, drastically reducing its survival chances as well as for the overall population of the Tapanuli orangutan species.

PanEco announced a partnership with the Indonesian hydro company, PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy, on August 23.  At that time, their website stated “A newly planned hydro-electric dam along the Batang Toru River is the greatest threat to the long-term future of the Tapanuli orangutan.” 

PanEco further said, “The constructiuon of the hydrodam and related infrastructure, powerlines, and associated land speculation will cause severe fragmentation of the rainforest and isolation of sub-populations of the Tapanuli orangutan, making them prone to extinction.”  

But astonishingly, by August 28, the dam had been fully removed from the list of threats to the Batang Toru ecosystem on PanEco’s website—a stunning about-face. 

Beyond speaking out against the hydro-project via their website, social media, and press releases, PanEco staff have been key authors of peer-reviewed scientific papers that cite the hydro-project as a dire threat to the Tapanuli orangutan. 

Now, PanEco is painting the hydro-project as the species’ greatest hope, rather than its greatest threat—leaving scientists and conservationists around the world feeling utterly mystified and betrayed.

What Happened?

It is thought that the abrupt U-turn by the Board of the PanEco Foundation has been caused by a series of underhanded tactics by the hydro-dam company, including threatening law suits against its Sumatra-based staff, and proposals to deport PanEco and other visiting scientists who have spoken out publicly against the dam. 

In open letters delivered to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, ALERT members and other leading scientists have previously decried a wide range of illicit and even illegal tactics being used by the Indonesian dam company to help silence its critics.

Notably, a senior member of PanEco staff implored his colleagues, just a few days before the partnership announcement, to stay quiet about the issue as he feared it would have “serious consequences for me personally”.

Scary Precedent

The announcement of the broken partnership between PanEco and other scientific and conservation groups sets an extremely worrying precedent for silencing opposing voices in development and conservation debates, and is a classic case of aggressive greenwashing. 

PanEco’s public justification for the move appears to be based on the assumption that the campaign to halt the dam project is futile—a position not shared by many other authorities and conservationists. 

Worse, PanEco’s partnership may make the dam a self-fulfilling prophecy, as its endorsement is likely to be used by the dam company to try to secure funding for the dam.  

Financing from the Bank of China is looking tenuous thanks to intense dialogue between nongovernmental groups, scientists, and the Bank to put the project’s many environmental, social, and reputational risks under the spotlight.  

Despite PanEco giving in to the bullying tactics of the dam company, a broad coalition of Indonesian and international scientists and conservationists continues to sound the alarm about the Batang Toru dam. 

A Cry for the Tapanuli Orangutan

We are calling on the Indonesian government to robustly evaluate the impact of the project on the Tapanuli orangutan and other protected species, before any further developments take place, as is required under Indonesian environmental laws. 

Websites like PanEco’s can be altered, but the facts and the science haven’t changed: this dam project remains a massive threat to the survival of the Tapanuli orangutan. Halting the project’s development remains an absolute priority to secure a safe future for the species.

The hydro-project would generate only a modest energy supply (510 mega-watts), which could easily be generated via expansion of the nearby Sarulla Geothermal Plant.

This is not a question of development versus conservation.  North Sumatra can have both increased electricity and a future for the Tapanuli orangutan—but only if the Batang Toru Dam is halted before it is too late.

Kategorien: english