At least three people were killed in a landslide near a contentious China-backed project in Indonesia

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Rescuers search for survivors after a landslide killed at least three people near a China-backed power plant in South Tapanuli, North Sumatra, Indonesia, April 30, 2021.

Officials said Friday that torrential rains caused a landslide near the construction site of a controversial China-backed hydropower plant in Indonesia’s Sumatra region, killing at least three people and leaving nine people missing.

This is the second fatal landslide near the $1.5 billion Batang Toru plant, which is being built in a rainforest home to endangered Tapanuli orangutans.

According to a senior official at the regional disaster mitigation agency, piles of mud and debris spilled from a 50-meter (164-foot) high cliff and swept away locals and some workers below in Thursday’s landslide (BPBD). The slide happened after three days of heavy rain.

“Three bodies were discovered this morning and have been taken to the hospital for an autopsy,” Handi Febrial Batubara, the agency’s head of mitigation, said in a statement to BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

A woman and two children were among those killed.

Handi said that dozens of emergency personnel, including soldiers and police, assisted in the search for the missing in Marancar, a village in North Sumatra’s Tapanuli Selatan regency.

Initially, nine people were reported missing, but the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) fears the death toll will rise because more people may be buried under mud and debris, according to BNPB spokesman Raditya Jati.

“The team is still looking for the missing people,” Raditya said to BenarNews.

The Batang Toru hydropower plant is managed by the PT North Sumatera Hydro Energy consortium (NSHE). The ZheFu Holding Group of China owns the majority of the company.

According to NSHE spokesperson Firman Taufick, two of the missing nine people – one Indonesian and one Chinese national – are NSHE employees.

A senior NSHE adviser told BenarNews last year that more than 120 of the 1,200 workers on the 510-megawatt project are Chinese nationals.

Firman stated that the company would do everything possible to locate victims who may be buried beneath debris.

“We are hopeful that the search will go smoothly. The company will do everything in its power. We were unable to conduct a search last night due to the difficult terrain, so it only began this morning, “he explained.

The Sumatra hydropower plant is one of several infrastructure projects being built throughout the Indonesian archipelago as part of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. The ambitious plan aims to create a Silk Road for the twenty-first century by connecting China with Africa, Europe, and Southeast Asia via a network of railways, ports, bridges, and dams.

The plant’s construction was halted in February because Chinese workers were unable to fly to Indonesia due to a travel ban imposed by Jakarta following the outbreak of COVID-19.

The plant’s commercial operations were supposed to begin next year, but NSHE has asked the project’s underwriter to delay them until 2025, citing manpower issues.

Last November, construction activity resumed, and a month later, a torrent of mud swept away a worker who was operating the company’s excavator to clean the site. Local media reported that search teams discovered the heavy equipment downstream but were unable to locate the body.

Firman stated that the landslide on Thursday was a natural disaster caused by heavy rain, not by construction activity.

Meanwhile, a local environmentalist stated that his organization has been warning that Batang Toru is unsuitable for the construction of a hydropower plant.

In addition to the risk of landslides, the area is prone to earthquakes, and the plant is located near an active fault line that runs the length of Sumatra Island, according to Doni Latuparisa of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment’s North Sumatra chapter (WALHI).

“Since the project was announced, we have stated that the Batang Toru hydropower landscape will have numerous ecological impacts. Floods and landslides are among them, “Doni told BenarNews.

“That is why WALHI has urged that this project be halted…

This incident demonstrates the seriousness with which we have expressed our concern. ”

WALHI filed a lawsuit in 2018 against the North Sumatra administration for issuing permits for the hydropower project, citing its potentially negative impact on the rainforest.

A year later, the court dismissed the lawsuit, stating that the permits were granted in accordance with established procedures and did not violate any regulations.

Environmentalists and scientists are also opposed to the project because the Batang Toru Ecosystem is the only known habitat for the Tapanuli orangutan, which was discovered in 1939.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classified these great apes as a distinct species in 2017 and listed them as critically endangered.

According to environmental groups, the power plant would fragment the habitat of approximately 800 Tapanuli orangutans, increasing the risk of extinction.

The NSHE had stated that the project would not endanger protected animals such as orangutans.

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