Lake Toba indigenous people fight for their frankincense forest against Sukanto Tanoto

It was a cool and foggy day in Dolok Ginjang forest, but that did not stop villagers of Pandumaan and Sipituhuta in North Sumatra from heading to work to extract frankincense from the trunks of its tall trees.

Frankincense, an aromatic tree resin used in perfumes and incense, is the primary source of income for local people in the area. Every Monday, most of the men would go to the forest to incise the bark of the trees. They would bring food, drinks, and supplies, working and sleeping in the forest before returning home at the end of the week.

However, that routine has been disrupted for the past few years as land conflict has erupted between villagers and wood pulp producer PT Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL), formerly known as PT Inti Indorayon Utama, over the forest area.

The 4,100-hectare frankincense forest, locally known as tombak hamijon, is located in three areas — Tombak Sipiturura, Dolok Ginjang, and Lombang Nabagas. According to research conducted by the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), villagers of Pandumaan and Sipituhuta have depended on the forest for their livelihoods for nearly 300 years and 13 generations.

The villagers have established customary laws in their lands. However, in 2009, the then-minister of Forestry, MS Kaban, issued a division letter for North Sumatra that included the districts of North Tapanuli, Toba Samosir, Samosir, Simalungun, Dairi, Pakpak Bharat, South Tapanuli, and Humbang Hasunduntan in the concession areas of TPL. The company was formerly affiliated with pulp and paper giant, Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL) and its parent Royal Golden Eagle (RGE), but is now independently listed on the Indonesian Stock Exchange in Jakarta.

“After the company came to this area, they cut down natural trees including frankincense trees. [If] the trees died, there will be less sap. Even if the trees were still alive, [the tree sap] won’t be enough [to extract]. This is really affecting local people’s livelihood,” said Reverend Haposan Sinambela, who is involved in defending the rights of the local people.

The area in dispute. Courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click here to enlarge.

Sinambela said that local people had managed their forest for generations and made a pact with their ancestors to guard the area.

“We extracted the sap without destroying the trees,” he added. “That way, the forest is still sustainable. We are forbidden to destroy the forest because natural disaster will occur. It is why we will always protect our forests even if our lives [are] at stake.”

The impacts of conversion were felt by Lambok Lumban Gaol, one of the villagers.

“The frankincense forest used to be cool and fresh, with birds flying free and we even [could] see bears, water was fresh. But, now, it is hot and arid land, logged timber everywhere,” said Gaol whose family has been living in the area for many generations. “[The weather] is not that cool anymore. We used to wear gloves and thick blankets at six in the morning. Now, the forest has been replaced by eucalyptus.”

 A TPL access road that cuts through an area of forest. Photo: Ali Made

Local People vs. The Company

As conflicts between villagers and the company increased, the National Forestry Council recommended that Pandumaan and Sipituhuta villages be excluded from TPL concession areas in 2011.

The recommendation was supported by Humbang Hasundutan Regional Representatives Council (DPRD), which asked in 2012 to revoke the 2005 ministry decision letter to the district government.

In addition, they recommended that the company stop operating in conflicted areas altogether until solutions were reached. At the same time, they also proposed adjustment of the company’s designated working areas, which was at the core of the problem.

However, these recommendations proved ineffective. In early 2013, local farmers from Pandumaan and Sipituhuta caught TPL employees entering their forest areas and cutting down frankincense trees. Clashes broke out between farmers and the employees in the ensuing days, resulting in the arrests of 31 farmers by the mobile police brigade, also known as Brimob. Police later released 15 of the farmers, with the other 16 remaining in detention. One of the detainees was Reverend Haposan Sinambela.

In September 2013, ten villagers accompanied by AMAN met with a Ministry of Forestry official, a Humbang Hasundutan district government representative, and TPL management, in Jakarta.

Pandumaan-Sipituhuta villagers meeting with representatives of the Ministry of Forestry, local government, and TPL, in Jakarta. (Sapariah Saturi)

Despite of villagers’ firm standing to exclude their areas from the concessions, the meeting concluded that partnership would be the solution. This allows TPL timber harvesting to continue in the concession areas, while allowing local villagers to take non-timber forest products as long as they don’t interfere with company oerations.

In addition to Pandumaan and Sipituhuta, eight other villages agreed to the partnerships — Pansur Batu, Aek Nauli I, Aek Nauli II, Hutajulu, Hutapaung, Simataniari, Habinsaran, and Sionam Hudon Timur.

Meanwhile, Dedy Sofhian Armaya, corporate communications officer of TPL, stated that the concessions located in the forest areas were authorized by the ministry.

“[The villagers] were the ones using violence to get land recognitions,” said Armaya, who believes there are more peaceful ways to raise objections. “They could talk to the ministry or go to court. The law and regulations allow for such objections. It is possible to exclude their villages from the concessions or enclave if they meet the requirements.”

However, local villagers opted instead for demonstrations, blocking TPL activities in the field, intimidating workers, damaging the pulping plants, and burning company-owned equipment. These actions, he said, prompted the company to seek for protection from the police.

Furthermore, Armaya questioned the legitimacy of the claims Pandumaan and Sipituhuta villages have to their customary lands.

“They claimed Toba Pulp Lestari working blocks as their customary lands with a 12-kilometer distance from [villages]. Meanwhile, closer villages don’t claim [their customary lands],” he said, adding that other villages wanted to cooperate and even requested road development so that they’d have easier access to the frankincense forest.

According to Armaya, the company managed only 75,000 hectares — or 40 percent — of their concessions, despite permit allowances of 70 percent management.

“The [company’s] policy provide more room for protection purposes,” he said. “[Frankincense] trees are important for local people’s livelihood. The company promised not to cut down those trees.”

Pile of timber logged from an area controlled by​PT TPL. Photo: Ali Made

Partnerships Denied Customary Rights

According to Andiko Sultan Mancahyo, Executive Director of the Assciation for Community and Ecology-based Law Reform (HuMa), partnerships cannot be forced. He believes this is especially true for situations that concern not only economic issues, but the values of local communities, as well.

“Indigenous people [do] not consider the frankincense forest merely in the context of economy, but also for its cultural values,” Mancahyo said.

Sandra Moniaga, a commissioner of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), believes that the claims local people have to their customary lands are human rights that cannot be treated as objects to be bought and sold.

“The [national forestry] council recommendation to exclude both villages from the company’s areas is in accordance with the human rights principle, but somehow the ministry [of forestry] overlooked it,” Moniaga said.

According to Moniaga, many of the villagers had no knowledge about the concession, even after the company established itself in the area.

“The company should be transparent about their concession areas and open a dialogue with local people to verify the areas,” she said. “Whether this is customary lands or not? If it is [a customary land], then there should be an agreement. If local people refuse, then they should leave, if they agree for partnership then proceed.”

The river in Register 41 in Pandumaan-Sipituhuta villages used to be clear and wide. Now, it is dirty and polluted. This image shows a drainage canal. (Ayat S Karokaro) after pulp companies cleared the area.

Meanwhile, AMAN secretary general, Abdon Nababan, said that the conflict originated from the ministry’s 2005 decision letter, which resulted in the granting of permits for timber concessions before legal designations had been established.

“The ministry of forestry misinterpreted the [1999] Forestry Law on Forest Area Designation, which was supported by the Constitutional Court in 2012, that there should not be any permits granted before the forest stipulation is legally acknowledged,” said Nababan. “TPL is an example [of many cases] that forest area designation has not been completed but permits were already granted. It resulted [in] land conflicts with local people and communities in the area.”

Without increased clarity regarding the status of land rights in North Sumatra, conflicts will continue to escalate. And while regulations set forth by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court do acknowledge customary forest rights, the continued granting of permits to companies before concessions are even designated undermines the rights of local people to access and manage their own forests.


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