It was 8:30 PM when we finally sat down with the community leaders in Pandumaan-Sipituhuta. These leaders work all day, tapping the benzoin trees in the jungles of Northern Sumatra. These trees produce a sap used for products from incense to medicine. Only once the community leaders come back to the village, often after hours of walking through the forest, do they have time to sit together and talk about how to protect their land.
The men and women in this gathering – maybe about 10 people total – knew each other well. They have been fighting Toba Pulp Lestari, a pulp and paper company that produces the pulp that is used for rayon, viscose, and modal fabrics, for over a decade. Toba Pulp Lestari, or TPL, clear cut part of the forest that the community owns and relies on for their livelihood, and has threatened to cut down more. The community has stood up in protest many times, and has stayed strong despite intimidation from the company and from the government. The people of Pandumaan-Sipituhuta are demanding that TPL commit to never clearing on their land, and that the government gives the community legal rights to their land.
I was at this meeting because RAN has been working closely with this community, making sure that clothing brands in the US – like Ralph Lauren and the Fashion 15 - acknowledge and support community rights. We also wanted to give them an important tool for their campaigning – a tool our supporters have given us - an inch and a half thick binder with the printed out names of the almost 20,000 people who have signed onto our petition of support.
In this era of clicktavism, it can be incredibly hard to understand the impact that signing an online petition can have. It feels like our support disappears into the ether – sometimes landing on the ears of people who are ready to make changes, sometimes not. But, when those petitions are directly in support of specific communities and their struggles, those signatures can have a direct, and powerful, impact.
Communities like those in Pandumaan-Sipituhuta often fight their fights in isolation. It’s only recently that the community has been able to get cell phone service, and there is still no internet access aside from the slow data connection available on phones. Almost no one has email, let alone access to a network of allies that could make online organizing a useful tool.
In a place like this, every demonstration of support is important. People in these communities are often very surprised to hear that people on the other side of the world know who they are, let alone support them in their fight for justice. Just knowing that 20,000 people had read about who they are, and had added their name to the petition was a big source of inspiration for people who have been fighting for justice for decades.
But this binder of petition signatures wasn’t just an offer of inspiration and support. It is also a real tool. As the community leader told me, when Toba Pulp Lestari comes back to town and threatens any more community-owned land, they plan on bringing out this binder, and show it to the company as proof that the world knows about that is happening in Pandumaan-Sipituhuta. This is the kind of thing that just might give an overzealous police officer, or company official, pause.
The petitions you sign with the Rainforest Action Network really do make a difference. They inspire. They connect a grassroots struggle to a world of support. And they give activists on the ground a tool to show that there is global support for their fights. Thank you.
And…. If you haven’t signed the petition to demand an end to deforestation in communities like Pandumaan-Sipituhuta for fabric – click here to sign now! You know how much it will mean.