How Orangutans in Sumatra have been directly impacted by XR Protests in London

29 May 2019 Ape Alliance News

A follow up to the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests in London
Ian Redmond is Chairman of the Ape Alliance – a coalition of around 100 charities around the world, dedicated to protecting apes and their habitat.
A very unassuming and naturally humble man, Ian afforded me the privilege of sharing this fascinating story after comparing our experiences of the Extinction Rebellion protests at Marble Arch and Waterloo Bridge around Easter 2019.
I walked down from my house in Slad valley to see him this afternoon as we are literally only a street apart in Stroud. His ‘office’ is a small room in the basement of the local RSPCA charity shop which doubles as storage space for items brought in for sale. Hardly grand – yet very welcoming and comfortable in Ian’s presence.


Originally a field biologist, studying and protecting mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in the 1970s, Ian’s work led him to be appointed as Ambassador for the UN International Year of the Gorilla in 2009, then more recently as Ambassador for the UN Convention on Migratory Species   Ian is intimately involved in trying to protect and support the survival of increasingly threatened apes and elephants.

In a remote area of Sumatra called Batang Toru, lives a species of Orangutan called the Tapanuli. These were only first recognised and described by science as recently as 2017.

Interestingly, Ian informed me that the very word Orangutan means a ‘being’ or ‘person’ (Orang) of the ‘forest’ (hutan) in Malay and Bahasa (Indonesian language).

Indigenous peoples regard such apes as fellow beings and not as somehow ‘separate’ from us.

Only around 800 Tapanuli orangutans are believed to exist, in three connected pockets of a forest divided by a large river. For around 15 years there has been a plan to dam the river for hydropower. If this were to happen, then it is likely to significantly impact the viability of this new species of orangutan – “the most recently described member of our family” as Ian so eloquently expressed it. The dam project is a joint public /private partnership initiative, with finance that was due to be provided by the Bank of China.  Preparatory work in building roads to enable the dam building is apparently already underway.

Given the key involvement of the Bank of China, the Ape Alliance arranged a protest outside their London offices and elsewhere on 1st March 2019 to lobby them to withdraw their support.

And this is where it starts to get really interesting


The protest outside the UK HQ of the Bank of China, resulted in the bank clarifying on 4th March that the project funding had not in fact yet been formally approved but was ‘under review’.  This was news.

A further protest by the Ape Alliance was planned a couple of weeks later, on 21st March.

However, the week before this, two smartly dressed gentlemen turned up at the RSPCA charity shop, asking if Ian was available. It turned out to be the UK Deputy Director of the Bank of China, plus supporting staff. All this just down the road in little old Slad Valley in Stroud. Surreal.

Ian offered them a cup of tea and listened considerately as they explained the position: The funding wasn’t yet fixed. It was undergoing a review process. They wanted the protest called off.

Ian said he would discuss this with his Ape Allies and associates.

Two or three days later, on the Sunday, Ian took a phone call. It was the Deputy Director of the Bank again. His boss, the CEO of the bank in the UK wanted to talk.   It was urgent enough for him to visit Ian at his home the very next morning. Once again, tea is shared. It would appear that someone very senior in China had asked for these protests to be halted.

The Ape Alliance and its friends agreed to hold off their actions until the Bank Review process, considering funding for the dam, was complete.  In return the Bank of China agreed to host a round-table meeting, bringing the head of the Indonesian branch to London to hear the expert opinion of scientists among the Ape Allies.

Meanwhile, the Ape Alliance had also been lobbying a company called Jardines Matheson who not only own the biggest company in Indonesia. but have a gold mine operating in the same area of Sumatra where the endangered orangutans live.  The postponed protest at the Bank of China was relocated to The Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London – Owned by……. Jardines Matheson.

Jardines Matheson’s position on the dam was that whilst they weren’t pushing for it, since their view was that there was already enough electricity in the grid for their smelters, but equally they were not lobbying against it and so far they had not publicly opposed it.

They agreed to meet Ian alongside Ape Alliance’s US allies -appropriately called  “Mighty Earth”.


 Extinction Rebellion kicked off the climate justice protests in London over the weekend of 20th and 21st April.  I joined the intrepid and brave souls who had marched in from all over the south west – some from as far as Lands End – for their final day, ending up in Hyde Park on Sunday evening of 21st.
The next day, along with others from Stroud, we made our way to join in the early occupation of Waterloo Bridge, being transformed from a busy thoroughfare jammed with traffic, into a tree lined garden bridge. The sun was shining on us. It was glorious and inspiring.
At the same time, unbeknown to me, Ian, having caught the train from Stroud to Paddington, was cycling across London down Oxford Street to Marble Arch. “it was wonderful “ he said. “No traffic” Just cyclists and pedestrians.
Along with his Mighty Earth colleagues, Ian had a meeting that morning with the head of Jardine’s Matheson -Lord Sassoon – at their HQ in central London.  “It was a ‘suit and tie’ job” said Ian.
Ian was able to illustrate and underpin his arguments by pointing outside to the changed streets of London and say” “which side of history do you want to be on?” – As well as being highly symbolic, it gave added power to the meeting. Ian is convinced it shifted the dynamic in favour of the Ape Alliance arguments. The ground was shifting.

Afterwards, shedding suit and tie and donning his Ape Alliance T shirt, he cycled to Waterloo Bridge where he joined in the carnival atmosphere. We didn’t see each other in the melée. It turns out he would love to have given a speech at this point. I wish he had met someone who could have enabled that for him.  My own money is on him being the next natural successor to David Attenborough. You only have to meet him to understand why. Later he cycled to ‘The Pink Boat’ at Marble Arch, before heading back to Stroud on the train, quietly encouraged.
That wasn’t the end of it however.  The next week, he was again in a high powered meeting in central London. Again he cycled across the traffic free city, marvelling at its freedom and cleaner air.  And on 30th April the promised round-table was held with the Bank of China, whose stated aim apparently, is ’to be a leader in green finance’ (which Ian took the opportunity to remind them of). This was a more formal affair, where once again, Ian and friends were able to call on the powerful example of Extinction Rebellion in full flight. As Ian once again reiterated: “We are living in a time of change; which side of history do you want to be on?”
It changed the whole flow of the meeting says Ian: “After 40 plus years of arguing this stuff, finally the tide seems to have turned:  The actions of XR “put wind in my sails”.

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