BALI, Indonesia — Satellite imagery has detected deforestation in a gold mining concession in Indonesia that overlaps with the habitat of the most threatened great ape in the world.
U.S.-based environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth said it had detected 13 hectares (32 acres) of forest loss within the Martabe gold mining concession in North Sumatra province this year, which comes on top of the 100 hectares (247 acres) of deforestation detected there from 2016 to 2020.
U.K. conglomerate Jardine Matheson (Jardines) bought the mine in 2018 through its Indonesian subsidiary, Astra International, the largest conglomerate in the Southeast Asian country. The mine, in turn, is operated by an Astra International subsidiary, PT Agincourt Resources, and is located inside the Batang Toru forest, the only known habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis).
The ape was only described as a new species in 2017, but it’s already the most threatened great ape, at risk from hunting and conflict killing, as well as habitat loss from agriculture and industrial development, including the gold mine and a planned hydroelectric plant.
Today, fewer than 800 of the apes are estimated to survive in a tiny tract of forest less than one-fifth the size of the metropolitan area that comprises Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.
According to Mighty Earth, the vast majority of the most recent forest loss in the Martabe concession was detected within the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan and areas mapped as high carbon stock (HCS) forest.
The deforestation started in April and continued for months, which indicates that the mine operator is expanding its operations by clearing forest areas within the immediate vicinity of the Martabe processing plant, the campaign group said.
Mighty Earth called the recent deforestation “only the beginning of PT Agincourt Resources’ expansion plans to feed the Martabe plant where the ore is crushed and processed to extract the gold.”
According to PT Agincourt Resources documents, the company plans to run the plant until at least 2034, which means it will need to identify and open up new mining deposits to keep the operation running 24 hours a day, Mighty Earth said.
Mighty Earth advocate Annisa Rahmawati said forest-clearing activities were still being detected as of Nov. 21.
“It seems like they are building their second tailing facility,” she told Mongabay.
The forest clearing occurred despite Jardines reportedly committing in 2019 to not expand farther into Tapanuli orangutan habitat following a campaign by Mighty Earth.
“Jardines executives had told us they wouldn’t destroy anymore Tapanuli orangutan habitat,” Mighty Earth CEO Glenn Hurowitz said. “However, our satellite monitoring caught them red-handed — even as the company engaged in negotiations over the species’ fate with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature [IUCN].”
The IUCN is reportedly in talks with Jardines to come up with an agreement for a study of the Tapanuli orangutan to assess the impact of the mine on its habitat.
To give the IUCN enough time to chart how many of the apes are left in the wild, the union’s ape specialists asked the company to halt any expansion of the gold mine.
Prior to the engagement with Jardines, the IUCN had also issued a call in April 2019 for a “moratorium on projects impacting the Critically Endangered Tapanuli orangutan” and for the “development and adoption of a conservation management plan for the Tapanuli orangutan based on an independent, objective Population and Habitat Viability Assessment before any projects potentially impacting the species advance any further.”
However, the detected forest clearing shows that Jardines didn’t heed the IUCN’s call or uphold its own commitment of no expansion, Annisa said.
“So what Jardines is doing with the IUCN is like buying time,” she said.
Neither Jardines nor Astra International responded to Mongabay’s requests for comment for this article.
Astra’s Martabe mine expansion by Philip Aikman/Mighty Earth
To ensure the future of the orangutan habitat and the species’ survival, the Indonesian government should evaluate all permits in the Batang Toru landscape, said Roy Lumbangaol, a campaign manager at the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).
The government also should take firm action against companies whose activities threaten the landscape, he added.Annisa said Jardines and Astra International should implement a no-deforestation policy across all of their businesses. Neither company has a public group-wide “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” (NDPE) commitment, or a forest conservation policy, or even a policy to protect high conservation value (HCV) landscapes.
Only Astra International’s palm oil division, Astra Agro Lestari Tbk, which accounted for just 6% of the conglomerate’s business portfolio in 2020, has thus far made an NDPE commitment.
“Jardines’ other operations continue to deforest,” Annisa said. “It’s about time NDPE is implemented across the board. If not, then the goal of NDPE [to eliminate deforestation] will not be achieved.”
Jardines should also carry out HCV/HCS assessments to determine which areas of its concessions have high conservation value and high carbon stock and thus need to be protected, she added.
PT Agincourt Resources previously said it had “undertaken a range of biodiversity management activities to date, including ensuring that no development takes place in areas with [HCV and HCS].”
However, it’s unclear if the company has even done an HCV/HCS assessment, as it has provided no evidence of such an assessment, Annisa said.
“We’ve also checked with the palm oil traders which bought palm oil from Astra Agro Lestari,” she said. “They’ve asked the company about the HCV/HCS assessment document, but until now they haven’t received the result of the assessment.”
Astra International’s business partners have also called for an end to the group’s deforestation, according to Mighty Earth. It said that companies that source palm oil from the conglomerate, such as Hershey’s, PZ Cussons, Unilever, COFCO International and Oleon, are pressuring the group even if they don’t buy gold from its mine.
Some of these companies have made cross-commodity-deforestation commitments, which means they won’t tolerate deforestation carried out in connection with any commodity, even if it’s not the commodity they’re buying.
In response to a complaint made by Mighty Earth, the companies have also called on Jardines to extend its ban on deforestation for palm oil across all commodities, including gold.
“We have stated our concerns on the allegations to the company and encouraged to halt developments before HCS/HCV assessments have been completed and submitted for independent review,” Unilever’s grievance log says.
Annisa called Jardines’ apparent failure to heed the call a form of recklessness.
“In essence, this recklessness around Martabe puts their entire agribusiness operation at risk,” she said.
This article by Hans Nicholas Jong was first published by Mongabay.com on 8 December 2021. Lead Image: Tapanuli Orangutans found near YEL’s orangutan study camp in the Batang Toru forest. Image by Aditya Sumitra/Mighty Earth.
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