Chinese state-owned company accused of endangering rare orang-utans

A Chinese state-owned company that trumpeted its green credentials when listing on the London Stock Exchange has quietly acquired a development in Indonesia that scientists warn threatens the world’s rarest great ape.

SDIC Power signed off plans to invest in the $277mn Batang Toru hydropower plant in Indonesia less than two months after completing a listing in 2020 that was backed by big western banks and strongly supported by the LSE.

But environmentalists have argued the dam is not needed and questioned whether the project was pushed through for political reasons to support China’s Belt and Road Initiative. They also said that the development risked the extinction of the critically endangered Tapanuli orang-utan.

SDIC Power’s acquisition of a 70 per cent stake in the project, unreported until now except in company disclosures, has fanned concerns, too, about companies overstating their environmental credentials in the growing market for responsible investments.

Activists have called on Beijing to withdraw from the development in Sumatra, in western Indonesia, as it prepares to host the UN Biodiversity Conference this year.

A Tapanuli orang-utan
Up to 800 Tapanuli orang-utans were discovered in the region in 2017 © Tim Laman/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

“We had these high hopes China was becoming a responsible financier on the global stage,” said Amanda Hurowitz, a director at campaign group Mighty Earth. Now “a Chinese state entity is involved in this project that could lead to the extinction of a species. I’m just heartsick.”

SDIC Power, part of the State Development and Investment Corporation, listed in the UK in October 2020 via the London-Shanghai Stock Connect, a programme launched the previous year to boost links between the financial centres. HSBC, Goldman Sachs and UBS were bookrunners for its London debut. The LSE’s then interim chief executive Denzil Jenkins hailed the listing as a “milestone for [SDIC Power’s] business”.

The group said approximately 70 per cent of the proceeds would be used for investing in overseas renewable energy projects.

The Batang Toru dam is considered part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, one of Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy projects, designed to build infrastructure and win political influence around the world.

Opponents, however, are sceptical about the merits of the development. A 2020 report commissioned by Mighty Earth and co-authored by a Stanford University lecturer found there was no energy deficit in north Sumatra, the region the hydropower dam would supply, where 80 new plants were planned to be built or developed in the next decade.

The acquisition could be “geopolitical”, said one environmentalist. “We question whether SDIC is involved because the Chinese state wants this.”

Critics said the project had been shrouded in secrecy since it was launched in 2015 by North Sumatera Hydro Energy, a Chinese-backed company that SDIC Power bought a majority stake in last October. Campaigners began targeting the development when up to 800 rare Tapanuli orang-utans were discovered in the region in 2017.

Tensions escalated in 2019 following the “extremely suspicious” death of an environmental lawyer in Sumatra. Golfrid Siregar, who had opposed the dam, died three days after being found beaten on the side of a road, environmentalists said.

The lack of awareness of SDIC Power’s stake in the project has highlighted “how complicated [responsible investing] is”, said Serge Wich, a professor in primate biology at Liverpool John Moores University who has opposed the dam. Although investors often “hope they are doing the right thing”, they may still be “investing in questionable projects”.

SDIC Power and HSBC did not respond to a request for comment. The LSE, Goldman Sachs and UBS declined to comment.


Business Asia
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