#SaveBenzoinForests has generated 23 thousand signatures to protect Indigenous people's benzoin forests in North Sumatra, Indonesia

By Fitri Arianti

This writing was first published by KSPPM on March 21, 2022.

More than 23,000 signatures of a petition by the Indigenous Peoples of Pargamanan-Bintang Maria in Parlilitan District, Humbang Hasundutan Regency, were submitted to the Regent to immediately issue a Regional Regulation (Perda) on the Recognition of the Protection of Indigenous Peoples (PPMHA) as a legal umbrella to save their benzoin forests. This benzoin forest has long been their source of livelihood but is now threatened to be taken over by the pulp and paper company, PT. Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL).

Thousands of People Demand Indigenous Pargamanan-Bintang Maria’s Benzoin Forests to be Protected

“We are here today asking the Humbang Hasundutan government to be more willing to take sides with the community and not only with companies. The company has entered our community and divided us by offering the Forest Farmers Group (KTH) scheme. Through this scheme, TPL wanted us to grow vegetables and then they will claim the conflict has been resolved. The community members who still want to maintain the benzoin forest do not accept this offer, we will continue to maintain the benzoin forest which was passed down from generation to generation from our ancestors. We don’t want to replace it with eucalyptus,” said Eva Junita Lumban Gaol as the representative of the Indigenous Peoples of Pargamanan. The KTH partnership scheme has been used by TPL to claim land conflicts with local communities have been resolved including in Pargamanan-Bintang Maria.

Representatives of the Indigenous Peoples of Pargamanan were immediately received by the Regent of Humbang Hasundutan, Dosmar Banjarnahor. He stated that basically, the conflict experienced by the Pargamanan-Bintang Maria Community was easy to resolve because there were still endemic trees such as benzoin. He also promised to immediately resolve the case of the Pargamanan-Bintang Maria Indigenous community as he did for the Pandumaan-Sipituhuta Indigenous Community and ordered the Environment Agency to immediately follow up on the community request.

Pargamanan-Bintang Maria Indigenous Community representatives, in dialogue with Humbang Hasundutan Regent, Dosmar Banjarnahor, March 21, 2022. The community demands the local government to protect their customary forest from pulp paper company PT. Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL).

Pandumaan-Sipituhuta is a neighboring Indigenous community to Pargamanan-Bintang Maria and was one of the first Indigenous communities in Indonesia to get their customary land rights recognized in 2016 after many years of struggle. It took another six years for all the necessary regulations to be issued and revised to recognize their land rights in practice. Despite the lengthy process, the victory of the Pandumaan-Sipituhuta community sets a precedent for other Indigenous Tano Batak communities in their struggle for land rights.

The Pargamanan-Bintang Maria community really hopes that the government can immediately resolve the conflict between the community and TPL and recognize their customary forest. However, this effort is further complicated by the fact that the Regional Regulation on PPMHA of Humbang Hasundutan Regency has not been ratified and is still under discussion. This condition then prompted the people of Pargamanan to make an online petition demanding the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF) and the local government to immediately save their benzoin forest. This petition was also spread to international networks and gained more than 11,000 signatures in global support.

President Joko Widodo directly handed over a decree on the determination of customary forests to six Indigenous communities in the Lake Toba area on Thursday 3rd February 2022. The determination is expected to be the starting point for resolving land conflicts that have been going on for decades. Some of the land has been in contact with industrial forest plantation concessions.

KSPPM Study and Advocacy Coordinator, Rocky Suriadi explained, “Even though President Jokowi has submitted the Decree on Customary Forests in Lake Toba in early February 2022, the Pargamanan Customary Forest was not included in the decree. In fact, the forest in this area is still very natural and is part of the 1,763 hectare customary area of ​​the Pargamanan-Bintang Maria Indigenous Community. However, more than 40 percent of the natural forest is now under TPL’s concession, of which almost a third has been developed into Industrial Pulp Plantation  (HTI) and the rest is still under threat for pulp and paper development. As a result, the community is currently being faced with disasters due to the conversion of this land, such as floods, landslides and droughts.”

For decades, the Pargamanan-Bintang Maria Batak Peoples in Humbang Hasundutan have lived side by side with the forest. Forests are a source of water, livelihoods, medicinal plants, and benzoin forests. But everything changed when PT. TPL started to plant industrial pulp on the community’s land. Now the ecosystem is damaged, floods have come and the Batak people have lost their land. In fact, for the Batak people, land is an identity. And President Joko Widodo himself said that the involvement of Indigenous peoples is important in overcoming climate change in his speech at COP21 Paris. That’s why Rajes Sitanggang and the Indigenous Peoples of Pargamanan-Bintang Maria made a petition to the MoEF to recognize the Pengamanan-Bintang Maria benzoin forest as customary forest, so that forest areas can be returned to Indigenous peoples.

The struggle to save the benzoin forest of Pargamanan-Bintang Maria Indigenous community continues with Rajes Sitanggang as the petition maker submitted a petition to the Director of Conflict Management, Tenure and Customary Forests of the MoFE, Muhammad Said in Jakarta on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

Rajes Sitanggang together with Eva Junita Lumban Gaol as the representative of the Indigenous Peoples of Pargamanan, handed over the petition that has been collected through Change.org and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) websites to the Director of Conflict Management, Tenure and Customary Forests MoEF, Muhammad Said.

During the dialogue Muhammad Said emphasized the Ministry’s commitment to protecting natural forests, “We must protect the natural forest from being destroyed,” said M. Said at the meeting, However, the MoEF cannot immediately ratify the Pargamanan Forest as a Customary Forest. He explained that there are procedures that need to be followed, and that proposal must come from the local government. Said suggested that first, there must be Information on the Areas of the Indigenous Law Communities plus the Local Regulation on the Recognition of the Indigenous Law Communities (PPMHA), then there should be an identification and verification process by a committee formed by the Regent followed by the determination of the Customary Law Community Territory by the Regent. After the stipulation, the Regent should submit an application for recognition of Customary Forests, and there will be field validation and verification by the MoFE. After all the processes have been followed,  there will only be the issuance of the Decree on the Determination of Customary Law. Therefore, Said promised to speak with the Regent of Humbang Hasundutan so that all these procedures can be passed.

Unfortunately, throughout this process the existence of the Pargamanan-Bintang Maria benzoin forests is still at stake, due to TPL that continues to clear land for planting eucalyptus, to make wood pulp, and viscose fiber, as a material for paper and clothes. In addition, the community also asked MoFE to temporarily suspend the concession permits of companies operating around Pargamanan-Bintang Maria benzoin forests while waiting for the issuance of a regional regulation to determine customary forest. Thus, the company does not continue to damage the environment by clearing land and destroying their benzoin forests.

We are now calling on the international community to stand together with Pargamanan-Bintang Maria Indigenous Community, which has a special connection to the benzoin trees, which are uniquely native to the region, and trading its resin has been the source of livelihood for the community for generations. We can show solidarity by taking a photo with the hashtag #SaveBenzoinForests and share it to social media while also helping support their struggle by signing the petition at change.org/protectourbenzoinforest.