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Mark Smith: Why is Scotland silent on the scandal of Batang Toru? – HeraldScotland

You might wonder why I’m about to tell you about a group of men barging into a meeting in Indonesia and shouting and screaming and throwing their weight around. So far, only the Indonesian media have talked about this but believe me: there are connections that reach all the way to Scotland, the Scottish Government and the SNP. Indeed, we should be asking why there has pretty much been total silence in Scotland on a terrible, and growing, scandal.
The meeting in question took place in Jakarta and involved charities, politicians and business people. It was just about to begin when the group of men started to disrupt it. I’ve seen a video of the incident and it’s pretty intense. A man in khaki who appears to be the leader of the group throws over a chair and screams that the event cannot go ahead. One of the organisers tells him they’re trying to have a discussion but the man says no, they can’t. “Break up this event! Disperse! Disperse!”
We still don’t know who the man in the video is – at one point during the altercation, the organiser asks him but he doesn’t answer. We do know, though, what side he’s on. On the recording, you can hear him shouting about being “interested in this country”, the implication being that the people at the meeting aren’t. He also accuses them of being “anti-development” and mentions one development in particular: Batang Toru.
Batang Toru. I hope we get to know that name well in the coming weeks and months – well enough to stop what’s happening there. Batang Toru is a river in northern Sumatra and a massive hydroelectric dam is being built there by a company owned by the Chinese government. The company says the dam will provide vital electricity (even though experts say it’s no longer needed) but more importantly, the construction is going to slice up the habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan.
I have to say it depresses me big time that we’re still having these kind of conversations and fighting these kind of fights despite everything we know about the human impact on fragile ecosystems, but here’s the situation. The Tapanuli is the rarest great ape in the world and a species that was only identified in 2017. It’s estimated the population is already half of what it was in the 1980s and that there are now fewer than 800 of them left.
Then along comes the dam. What it’s going to do is bisect the apes’ habitat and not only will that make it easier for humans to go in and make deforestation more likely, it will split the Tapanuli population, inhibit their generic mixing and thereby threaten their survival. I’ve been speaking to some of the experts involved in trying to raise this issue, including Ian Redmond of Ape Alliance and the staff of the campaign group Mighty Earth, and all of them are clear about what we’re dealing with here: if the dam goes ahead, it could push the Tapanuli to extinction.
Which brings me to the Scottish connection. The company that’s building the dam is SDIC, which is owned by the Chinese government and operates energy projects in Scotland through its wholly-owned subsidiary Red Rock Power. You may remember Nicola Sturgeon opening their new offices in Edinburgh and saying she was committed to working closely with SDIC to support their investments in Scotland. The Government clearly had its eye on the global potential of its renewable sector and thought SDIC would be a good friend to have. They were wrong.
The problem for the Government now is that a company with which it has a relationship because of its windfarm developments, Red Rock, is part of an organisation that’s driving through a project that’s a direct threat to the environment and could lead to the extinction of a rare species. It is also depressing to note that in two years of construction, 17 people have died. The Scottish Government tell me it has not provided any funding support to Red Rock Power in relation to its offshore wind activities in Scotland and that its officials last met with Red Rock in November 2022 to discuss progress on the Inch Cape offshore wind farm off the coast of Angus. You can see what they’re trying to do here: they’re trying to maintain distance from a brand that is starting to cause them trouble. It won’t wash though.
It also looks like Red Rock Power are trying something similar. One of their spokespeople said to me it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on SDIC’s behalf or on a project outside of Red Rock Power’s jurisdiction, but the point the campaigners make is that Red Rock appears to be trying to hide behind the technical structure of its business. What the campaigners would like to see instead is for Red Rock to raise the issue of the dam within SDIC and point out its potential to damage the brand in Scotland. And that potential will only increase as the scandal grows.
And the scandal is definitely growing. Mighty Earth has a petition calling on Red Rock Power/SDIC to halt construction of the dam and commit to an impact assessment as well as a conservation plan for the Tapanuli and the Batang Toru ecosystem. The Scottish Government also has a part to play here: it was keen to publicise its links to Red Rock Power/SDIC when the new Scottish offices opened in 2016 so it should be making it clear now that they will have nothing to do with the company as long as it is pursuing the dam project. At the very least, the Government should be raising the subject with Red Rock rather than playing the nothing-to-do-with-us card.
We know, of course, that there are powerful forces ranged against any campaign to stop the dam, including international commerce, profit, self-interest, and the influence China can exert through its large infrastructure projects around the world. And who knows the full story of the man in Jakarta who stormed into the meeting that was called by campaigners to discuss the dam. Fortunately, the people at the meeting ignored his calls to disperse, disperse!
And whatever the business and governmental relationships may be here, the question in the end is a moral one. Ian Redmond of Ape Alliance told me about the mighty beauty of the Tapanuli orangutan but he also spelled out the scale of the threat. It would take a decline of just one per cent in the population to put the Tapanuli on the path to extinction, but there is still time – just – to do something about it. This dam is on the other side of the world of course, but the Scottish connections are close to home. So sign the petition. Put pressure on Red Rock, and the Scottish Government. In the words of one of the campaigners I spoke to: the orangutans need all the friends they can get.
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