Studies downplay threat that dams pose to primates in Guinea and Indonesia, critics say
A pair of proposed hydroelectric dams that will encroach on the habitats of critically endangered primatesâ"in Guinea and Indonesiaâ"are receiving fierce criticism from conservation groups, who fault what they call inadequate scientific review of the harmful effects of these big infrastructure projects.
The government of Guinea was finalizing plans last week for the construction of a 294-megawatt hydroelectric dam in the countryâs Moyen Bafing National Park, which wildlife experts say could lead to the loss of up to 1500 critically endangered western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus), a subspecies whose population has fallen by more than 80% over the past 20 years. Guinea created the national park only this year as a refuge for an estimated 4000 chimpanzees.
A dam planned for Sumatra in Indonesia faces similar criticism; constructing the roads, tunnels, and power lines necessary to service the dam would deforest the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan subspecies (Pongo tapanuliensis), discovered only last year, which has a remaining population of just 800 apes.
Environmental and social impact assessments (ESIAs)â"reports detailing a projectâs expected effects on their local ecosystems and human populationsâ"were completed for both dams, but scientists say they underestimate how many primates will be affected. The ESIA for the Guinea damâ"commissioned by the World Bank, which is coordinating the project, and the Guinean gover nmentâ"estimates that about 200 to 300 primates will be lost. But the number is closer to 1500, says Rebecca Kormos, a primatologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the International Union for Conservation of Natureâs Primate Specialist Group.
The ESIA did not use the most scientifically rigorous method for surveying how many chimpanzees live near the dam, Kormos says. To count populations, most primatologists conduct transect surveys, which involve traversing a habitat for several days in predetermined lines, usually off-trail, counting the number of ape nests, and extrapolating based on a geographic model. The ESIAâs contractor used a method known as reconnaissance or recce surveys, which also involve counting nests but may avoid difficult terrain; recce surveys are usually less expensive and time-consuming than transects. Kormos says the ESIA also did not factor in the subspeciesâs natural territoriality and the deaths that will result fr om infighting when displaced chimpanzees end up on each otherâs turf.
âThe ESIA really isnât based on the best practices of how to study these primates,â Kormos says. âIt ends up really underestimating how devastating this dam will be for these chimpanzees.â
The second dam, planned for Sumatra, is opposed by the Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers (ALERT), an international group of scientists headed up by Bill Laurance, a professor of biology at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. Laurence says the 510-megawatt project, funded in part by the Bank of China and the Chinese power company Sinohydro, will be âa death blowâ to the Tapanuli orangutans but the ESIA mentions only the direct effects of flooding from the dam on a small number of orangutans. âIt does not look at secondary, tertiary effects, like roads, power lines, the influx of illegal logging, poaching, and colonization that so often come along with big in frastructure,â he says. Studies conducted by Laurence and other ALERT members have shown that fragmentation of the orangutansâ forested habitat by roads is the greatest threat to their survival. The ESIA was âmyopic,â he says, adding, âIf you imagine nature dying the death of a thousand cuts, the ESIAs are studying each cut individually.â
The Sumatra dam is emblematic of âa whole set of problemsâ related to ESIAs and land use regulation in developing nations, Laurence says. One problem, he says, is that the project proponents typically pay for the reviews. âItâs widely known among the consultancy groups that carry out the ESIAs [that] if they come down too hard on the corporations, in particular if they recommend project cancellation, that theyâll be quickly black-balled,â he says.
Despite local protests and letters written by ALERT to the Indonesian government, forests are already being cleared in preparation for the dam. Last week in Guinea, a 2-day conference was held for government officials and the projectâs managing board to discuss the ESIA for that project. A source at the meeting says that the projectâs coordinator has asked for more information to be added to the ESIA by the end of September, but it is unclear as to who will carry out the additional studies and whether construction on the dam will begin before the report is expanded.
A spokesperson for the World Bank Group said in a statement that the proposed impact assessment developed by it and partners recommends âmitigation measures that ensure protection of people, wildlife, and biodiversity. Once we are satisfied that our recommendations have been adequately considered, we will proceed with the validation of the final ESIA.â
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