Batang Toru, North Sumatra. North Sumatra’s Batang Toru hydropower project has been empowering local communities to join its efforts in providing sustainable jobs in the area and protecting natural habitat teemed with indigenous and endangered animals.
North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE), the company behind the project, is building a dam and a 510-megawatt power plant that will help North Sumatra meet its power need by 2022.
The $1.6-billion project also tries to provide answers to local economic problems, ranging from labor to regional productivity, and environmental protection issues in nearby Batang Toru forest.
"Regarding labor, it is very clear a hydropower plant, wherever it is, does not need a lot of labor. So it is better for us to empower people rather than hire them as workers," Firman Taufick, the vice president of communications and social affairs at NSHE, told the Jakarta Globe in a visit to the project early this month.
Firman said the company has worked together with the government, NGOs and local community to support potential projects that have the potential to improve the local economy.
One of those projects involves Marihot Anton Sihombing, a fish farmer who has successfully cultivated Jurung fish, also known locally as Batak fish, which was previously thought to be impossible to breed in an artificial pond.
"In less than a year, Anton has been able to sow fish seeds and sell them, making hundreds of millions [of rupiahs]. This is better than recruiting him as an employee at our hydropower plant. Anton's business also has multiple effects in the surrounding community," Firman said.
Other local businesses backed by NHSE include the production of kolang-kaling (palm fruit), jengkol (Archidendron pauciflorum), palm sugar and ant sugar, coffee and rattan, which depends heavily on keeping the Batang Toru forest healthy.
"Local wisdom that forbids disturbing animals in the forest also helps us because we can be confident that the forest is maintained," Firman said.
Sampaitua Hutasuhut, the Sitandiang village chief, backed up Taufick's statement, saying the hamlet had received training several times, both from NGOs and from NSHE.
"We have received training from CI (Conservation International) regarding the biological wealth of forests near our hamlet. What to do when meeting protected animals, which plants are liked by animals in the forest and how to share [forest resources] with animals," Hutasuhut said.
“For example, we don't mind if our durian or jengkol is eaten by mawas or siamang [Symphalangus syndactylus]. After all, they were here first in this forest. So we shouldn't disturb them, and they won't disturb us either."
"NSHE also provides training to help us market [village] commodities, more effective ways to process them to earn more money," Hutasuhut said.
Hutasuhut said local farms are not affected by the hydropower plant because they use water from river tributaries and rainfall.
He also said that local residents support efforts to preserve Tapanuli orangutans, which are indigenous to the area, because the rare animals bring added value to their village.
"Several times researchers from Indonesia and abroad came to our hamlet. Indirectly, our hamlet earns additional income from the orangutans, although it was not a huge sum," Hutasuhut said.