Bid to mitigate gold mine’s impact on orangutans hit by stonewalling, data secrecy

  • An international conservation task force says a gold mine operator in Indonesia resisted its efforts to carry out an independent review of the project’s impact on Tapanuli orangutans, the world’s most threatened great ape species.
  • The ARRC Task Force, which had been engaged by the Martabe gold mine in early 2022 to advise on minimizing its impacts on the critically endangered species, said the task force was expected to carry out a mere “tick box exercise.”
  • U.K. conglomerate Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd., which ultimately owns the mine, said the reason the engagement fell through was Indonesian legal restrictions on data sharing, which meant the ARRC couldn’t access the government-held data it needed.
  • Part of the Martabe concession overlaps onto the Batang Toru Forest, the only home of the Tapanuli orangutan; advocacy group Mighty Earth says most of the deforestation detected recently in the concession occurred in orangutan habitat and carbon-rich landscapes.

JAKARTA — A conservation task force trying to help an Indonesian mine operator minimize its impact on the Tapanuli orangutan, the world’s most threatened great ape, says it was the company’s rush to rubber-stamp the process that led to the end of the agreement in 2022.

But Agincourt Resources, the operator of the Martabe gold mine in northern Sumatra, and itself an Indonesian subsidiary of U.K. conglomerate Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd., blames the falling-out on local regulations limiting data sharing with foreign entities.

Jardines had in early 2022 signed an agreement with the ARRC Task Force — a unit of the Primate Specialist Group under the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority — to explore ways to mitigate the mine’s impact on Tapanuli orangutans (Pongo tapanuliensis), a critically endangered species found only in the Batang Toru Forest, with which the Martabe concession overlaps.

That agreement expired at the end of 2022, and the ARRC Task Force declined to renew it on the grounds that Agincourt’s proposals for how to carry out a survey of the apes and their habitat “would make ARRC’s involvement a tick box exercise.”

In a letter at the time to explain its decision to Jardines, Genevieve Campbell of the ARRC wrote that “we failed to find a way forward which would allow the panel to conduct an independent and effective review of the project’s data on orangutans.”

In recent remarks to Mongabay, Campbell confirmed that Agincourt had resisted efforts by the ARRC to review and provide input on an impact assessment carried out in 2021 by consultants paid by the miner.

“[T]hey were more interested in having us endorse the end results of their paid consultants without properly reviewing and providing inputs into their work, which is what we usually do,” Campbell said. “For example, just agreeing with the results of pre-clearance surveys that said there are no orangutans, without seeing where they have surveyed, which methods were used, how long these surveys lasted, etc.”

The Martabe gold mine in Batang Toru, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Mighty Earth.

‘We have never encountered this issue’

The ARRC Task Force, short for “avoid, reduce, restore and conserve,” was established by the IUCN in 2020 to advise companies and their funders on how to avoid ape habitat, reduce impacts where avoidance isn’t possible, restore damaged habitats, and contribute positively to ape conservation.

For that to happen, Campbell said, “We need to be able to first agree on the area of influence of the project, then the area within which to conduct surveys, the methods to be used, the survey effort to ensure it is sufficient, etc.

“[W]e can’t just get the results of an orangutan survey and say ‘orangutan survey completed,’” she added.

“[W]e wanted to ensure they [the orangutan surveys] cover the proper area of influence of the project and not just the mining pit, and that they are comparable to the 2003 surveys so we can understand the impacts the project has had to date on orangutans,” Campbell said. “To our knowledge this is not what is or has been undertaken so far.”

She said Agincourt felt that by reviewing each step of the process, the ARRC was trying to control the process, which she insisted wasn’t the case.

“ARRC has successfully engaged with, and provided advice to, approximately 20 projects worldwide and we have never encountered this issue,” Campbell said.

The map of the Martabe gold mine in Batang Toru, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Jardines.

Limits on data sharing

For its part, Jardines said the failure to renew the agreement revolved largely around limitations on data sharing. Jardines said the agreement with the ARRC allowed the task force to conduct a peer review of the assessment carried out by its paid consultants.

To carry out this peer review, the task force would have needed access to primary data collected under the assessment, which had been submitted to the government. Under Indonesian regulations, the ARRC would have had to request the data from the relevant government authorities itself, since Agincourt wasn’t permitted to provide it directly, Jardines said.

“The authorities did make some data available to the Task Force but we were advised by the Task Force that it was not sufficient for the purpose of their peer review,” Jardines told Mongabay. “As a result, the Task Force felt that they could not carry out the work they, and we, had originally anticipated they would do, which resulted in a lapse of the [agreement].”

Jardines identified the regulation limiting data sharing as the 2019 law on science and technology.

Campbell confirmed the ARRC was unable to review the orangutan assessment data as the government holds the data, but said Jardines and its Indonesian subsidiaries, Agincourt and Astra, should have done more to help.

“We did asked permission to the government to see the orangutan data collected for Martabe but only received a vague reply,” she said. “Jardines-Astra-Agincourt could have pushed and pleaded with the government on our behalf to help us gain access to the data but they didn’t do so.”

Tapanuli Orangutans found near YEL’s orangutan study camp in the Batang Toru forest. Image by Aditya Sumitra/Mighty Earth.

Deforesting orangutan habitat

Jardines had initially engaged the ARRC for the Martabe project because it said it wanted to comply with sustainability standards set by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC).

Some 114 hectares (282 acres) of the mine’s concession lies within the Batang Toru ecosystem, and 2 hectares (5 acres) are inside the forest’s core Batang Toru Key Biodiversity Area.

In recent years, Washington, D.C.-based campaign group Mighty Earth has detected deforestation within the mining concession, with 13 hectares (32 acres) of forest loss in 2021. Between 2016 and 2020, the concession lost 100 hectares (247 acres) of forest.

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 orangutans and areas mapped as high carbon stock (HCS) forest.

Mighty Earth said the detected forest loss indicates the mine operator is expanding its operations by clearing forest areas within the immediate vicinity of the Martabe processing plant, part of a plan to build a second waste facility for the gold mine.

But the clearing has stopped recently after the company scrapped that plan and changed the location of planned exploration sites.


Banner image: Described by science in November 2017, the Tapanuli orangutan is already listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. Image by Andrew Walmsley.


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