Indonesian pulp and paper giant Toba Pulp Lestari has been operating recklessly in North Sumatra for years. The company’s mill has been poisoning communities and disrupting life and livelihoods for the local people who call this area home. The mill, and it’s operators, are responsible for horrific land conflicts between the company and villagers who hold traditional land rights to the company’s concessions.
These communities, whose land is protected by customary rights under Indonesian law, rely on these forests for their life and livelihoods. As reported by RAN’s on-the-ground partner, Kelompok Studi dan Pengembangan Prakarsa Masyarakat, well over 17,000 hectares of natural forest have been destroyed, impacting or displacing over 13,000 Indigenous people.
These communities are fighting back, and at least 59 activists have been arrested for resisting Toba Pulp Lestari’s continued expansion and destruction. In the past few years, land conflict has only escalated between villagers and Toba Pulp Lestari employees over the forest area. Meetings with government representatives and Toba Pulp Lestari management have brought no results, and local villagers have resorted to protests and blockades of company operations in order to protect the forests.
The behavior of Toba Pulp Lestari employees shows clear disregard for the livelihoods of local people. In February 2013, local farmers from Pandumaan and Sipituhuta Villages caught Toba Pulp Lestari employees entering their forest areas and cutting down frankincense trees. Instead of apprehending those causing the destruction, resulting clashes between farmers and the employees led to the arrests of 31 farmers.
The harvest of frankincense is essential to the local economy. These communities, who have farmed this land for generations, extract the frankincense without destroying the trees in order to maintain the health of the forest and keep this vital source of income intact for future generations. When the forests are wiped out for pulp plantations, Toba Pulp Lestari destroys not only the livelihoods of the community, their childrens’ livelihoods, and the ecosystem, but it destroys their culture as well.
Local communities have opposed the mill since it began operations in North Sumatra in 1989 due to the rainforest destruction, land grabbing and toxics pollution central to the company’s business model. In 1990, 10 elderly women from Sugapa Village were arrested for pulling up and destroying eucalyptus plantings on their traditional land. Protests by the local community escalated in 1998 and temporarily shut down the mill. But in recent years, the company has changed its name from PT Inti Indorayon Utama to PT Toba Pulp Lestari and reopened the mill; it is now in the process of expanding its destructive operations further into pristine rainforest. Along with name changes, the company has changed affiliations multiple times in order to hide its destruction. The company was formerly affiliated with pulp and paper giant, Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL) and its parent Royal Golden Eagle (RGE), and is still controlled by notorious Indonesian business tycoon Sukanto Tanoto through holding companies.
This may seem like a conflict far away from those of us in the Americas, Europe, or Australia, but it’s closer than one would think. A wide variety of consumer products contain pulp from rainforests like those in North Sumatra, including paper, food, cosmetics, household goods—even clothing. This pulp, and the conflict that produced it, is sold on store shelves in your neighborhood – unmarked and unidentifiable.
Unless Toba Pulp Lestari respects the rights of the Indigenous people, including the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), conflicts will only continue. And while Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has acknowledged the customary forest rights of the communities, Toba Pulp Lestari’s concessions and operations continue to undermine the ability of local people to access and manage their own forests.
We plan to keep you up to date on this conflict and bring more information continue to explore and expose the pulp supply chains threatening global rainforests…. stay tuned.