Photo Blog: Journey to the Incense Forests

By Brihannala Morgan

One of my favorite parts of my job is the time I spend visiting communities at the frontlines of the forest movement. These are the people I find the most inspiring – the people who not only go to their rice, or coffee, or rubber fields everyday, but also spend their nights in meetings, their few spare hours in protest. These are the people who face threats of violence – or death – from the companies and their henchmen. They are the one who spend a substantial portion of their incomes on transportation to the cities, where they hold protests and meet with decision makers.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to visit one of these communities – the village of Pandumaan- Sipituhuta in North Sumatra, Indonesia. This is a community RAN has been talking about for a long time – they are fighting Toba Pulp Lestari – one of the worst pulp and paper companies. Their fight for land rights has been recognized by the Indonesian Human Rights Commission as one of the top 13 priority cases in all of Indonesia. My trip was facilitated by our incredibly inspiring partner organization – KSPPM – a local NGO that has worked directly fighting industrial expansion – and in particular TPL for over 20 years.

In this blog, I wanted to try and share that journey with you – what I saw and why it felt so important. If you have questions, please leave them in the comments! I’ll do my best to get you answers.

1. First Stop – Field Checking the devastation


This is a picture of a small corner of the forest, clearcut by TPL for the expansion of their eucalyptus planation. While TPL claims that none no natural forests are used in their products, our partners have told us that that doesn’t mean that they aren’t clearing! It just means that the natural forests that they are clearing aren’t all processed into clothes. Instead, the natural forest lumber is sold. These are the kind of forest-destroying semantics that companies use to get away with destroying vital ecosystems.

2. Next Stop: Meeting with the communities












One of the most important parts of any visit is actually sitting down to talk to community members. When we went to Pandumaan-Sipituhuta we had a number of different opportunities to sit down with the leaders of the movement, to learn, and to share information about our campaign with them. We learned about how TPL has clear cut their traditionally- owned benzoin forests (more on that below) and how they have been fighting for over 10 years to get their traditional rights acknowledged. We also told them about our campaign, and how we have been working to fight Ralph Lauren and the Fashion 15, and how that puts pressure on TPL to address their community conflict. As you can see in this picture, we printed all of our petition signatures and gave them to the community as a powerful prop they can use when they go and meet with the government and the company.

3. Learning about the traditional agriculture and the community’s demands


We also spent time learning about the traditional livelihoods and land use practices of the community. The communities of Pandumaan Sipituhuta farm coffee, rice, and vegetables – but their most important cash crop is benzoin resin. The picture, above, is of dried benzoin resin, ready for sale. Benzoin resin is a really unique thing – it’s a hard sap, which, once processed, is used for perfumes and incense, medicines, and for flavoring for everything from ice cream to baked goods. For the community in Pandumaan-Sipituhuta, these trees – which are grown within a diverse existing forest – are a gift from previous generations, enabling them to have enough income to even send their kids to college (which most children in from the village end up attending!).

4. Visiting the incense forests



The next day, we went and visited the benzoin forests themselves. My background is in community forestry, so this part of the trip is always especially interesting and inspiring for me. We hiked a short ways into the forest, where three of the community leaders showed us the incense trees, how to climb them, and how to tap them. I gave it a try and they told me I was a quick learner! Just being in the forest – especially after hearing the communities stories and seeing the devastating clear cuts.

5. Heading home and seeing the factory


After two full days with the village, we headed back to KSPPM’s offices. On the way back, we stopped by TPL’s one and only mill. We could only check it out form outside, and even then, our hosts invited us not to linger – the company doesn’t welcome foreigners checking out their operations. The one really inspiring piece of the visit to the mill was driving through the community of Lumban Sitorus and seeing the banner they had placed across the road – the main access road to the mill! – which reads “TPL/ originally Into Indorayon Utama, Return Our Land in Lumban Sitorus Village”. So inspiring!

It was just two days, but it is amazing how much you can learn in such a short time. I am incredibly inspired by the struggles of the community of Pandumaan- Sipituhuta. And the people we met in Pandumaan- Sipituhuta send their thanks! All the work that you do – call in days, email actions, and more – add to the pressure to make sure that TPL respects communities and indigenous rights. Thank you.

Join us in taking action to support the community of Pandumaan- Sipituhuta by clicking here.