In China’s Belt and Road initiative, environmentalists see risky business

Michael Holtz/Christian Science Monitor
Homles Hutabara stands in front of his family’s home in Gunung Hasahatan, Indonesia.
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Last November, scientists announced the discovery of the world’s newest great ape: a species of orangutan, numbering only about 800 animals, tucked into the forests of Sumatra. Today, conservationists warn, it could be on the brink of extinction. A 510-megawatt hydroelectric dam under construction – part of China’s massive “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative – would fragment their habitat, they say. It’s one of several environmental concerns environmentalists and local villagers have voiced about the dam, including its impact on fishermen and its location near a fault line, in one of Indonesia’s most diverse ecosystems. But the dam is not an isolated example, according to analysts who argue that Chinese planners have been all too willing to ignore environmental risks as they construct the Belt and Road. One analysis found that its major corridors overlap with the ranges of 265 threatened species. “I wish that the forest would go back to the way it was before,” says Homles Hutabara, whose family’s farm was razed during construction. “But that’s hard to imagine.”

Why We Wrote This

A project as sweeping as China’s multitrillion-dollar "Belt and Road" initiative has the potential to shake up global trade and geopolitics. But its toll on the environment may be just as significant.

Homles Hutabara grows solemn as he peers down at a large swath of clear-cut forest, the patch of exposed red-brown earth an ugly gash in the lush green landscape.

Gone are the rubber trees and oil palms that Mr. Hutabara’s family planted years ago to eke out a living in this remote corner of Indonesia. In their place stand a single-story prefab building and a small battalion of trucks and excavators. On most days, Hutabara says, the din of diesel engines drowns out the calls of gibbons and songbirds that once echoed through the trees.

“I miss hearing the sounds of the rainforest,” he says as he turns to return to his home. “When I come here now, all I hear are the sounds of big machines.”

Why We Wrote This

A project as sweeping as China’s multitrillion-dollar "Belt and Road" initiative has the potential to shake up global trade and geopolitics. But its toll on the environment may be just as significant.

The sounds serve as a nagging reminder of all that Hutabara and his family have lost. The area has been razed in recent months for the construction of a 510-megawatt hydroelectric dam on the Batang Toru River. The company in charge of the dam paid them for their farmland, but Hutabara says he’s still waiting for part of the payment, and has decided they didn’t receive a fair price, anyway.

Some villagers want the see the dam canceled entirely. They’re joined by conservationists who warn that the project threatens to irreversibly alter Batang Toru's fragile ecosystem. Among the biggest concerns is that the dam could lead to the extinction of a newly discovered orangutan species that numbers only 800 animals. Then there is the risk of earthquakes – the project site is near a fault line – and the threat the dam poses to the livelihoods of some 100,000 people who live downstream.

In fact, the risks are so great that the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector lending arm of the World Bank, reportedly declined to invest in it.

But such concerns didn’t stop China from offering a helping hand. The $1.6 billion dam is being built by Sinohydro, a state-owned hydroelectric company, and is being paid for with Chinese loans. It has been folded into the “Belt and Road Initiative,” China’s multi-trillion dollar plan to fund infrastructure projects across Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

The launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 has led to a worldwide building spree: from ports and power plants to highways and high-speed trains. Beijing has promoted the initiative as “win-win” for the countries that partner with it. But critics say that in the rush to sign new deals, many Chinese companies have been all too willing to ignore a wide range of risks, from social to financial – and especially environmental.

William Laurance, an environmental scientist at James Cook University in Australia, has written that the Batang Toru dam is “merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises” that the Belt and Road Initiative could trigger. An analysis published last year by the World Wildlife Fund found that the Belt and Road Initiative’s six major land-based corridors overlap with the ranges of 265 threatened species, including 81 endangered and 39 critically endangered species, and 46 biodiversity hotspots.

“This is emblematic of the kind of project that rational investors should not be touching,” Dr. Laurance says, referring to the dam, “and yet the Chinese are rushing in.”

The newest great ape

Last fall, Beijing announced a series of environmental guidelines for overseas investments. But the guidelines aren’t legally binding, making environmentalists skeptical that Chinese companies will follow them. What’s more, many of the countries that are tied to the Belt and Road Initiative have notoriously lax environmental regulations. That includes Indonesia.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Dana Prima Tarigan, a regional director of the Indonesian environmental group Walhi, says that the environmental assessment conducted on behalf of the Batang Toru dam didn’t mention anything about earthquakes. It also didn’t mention how the dam would affect people living downstream. As a result of these omissions, Walhi is preparing to file a lawsuit against the project’s developer, North Sumatra Hydro Energy, and is calling on it to stop construction. 

Located on the island of Sumatra, Batang Toru is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in Indonesia. The forest is home to the critically endangered Sumatran tiger, pangolin, and a new species of orangutan that was only identified last November.

Matthew Nowak, a biologist with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme who helped discover that the orangutan was genetically distinct, says they are already on the brink of extinction – and that the dam could push them over the edge.

Once completed in 2022, the dam and its supporting facilities will occupy 2-1/2 square miles in the heart of the orangutans’ habitat. Mr. Nowak says that the infrastructure built to support it, namely access roads and high-voltage power lines, will make it virtually impossible to reconnect fragmented forests the species is spread across.

“There are a series of forest blocs that, if you could connect them, you would have essentially a viable population of orangutans,” Nowak says. “If you don't connect them, you run the risk of pushing them rapidly to extinction.”

Staying put

Local villagers have also vowed to fight. Over the past two years, they’ve banded together to hire a legal team and hold demonstrations at the construction site. They even flew to Jakarta last year to protest in front of the presidential palace.

Downstream from the construction site, families that have depended on the Batang Toru River for their livelihoods also face an uncertain future. Fisherman Ruslim Zebua says runoff from a nearby gold mine has already made it difficult to make a living. He’s worried that by interrupting the river’s natural flow, the dam will make it even harder. 

“I’m not sure what I’ll do if the dam is built,” he says while sitting on bamboo bench next to the river. “I need to find a way to support my family.”

Hutabara says he will never leave his home in the village of Gunung Hasahatan. His family has lived there for generations, and his ancestors lie buried in an overgrown cemetery on the edge of the forest.

“I have to stay here to look after their graves,” he says. “I wish that the forest would go back to the way it was before, but that’s hard to imagine.”

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