23 January, 2020

Indonesia’s Batak Keen on  Recovering Grabbed Lands

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Indonesia's Batak

NORTH SUMATRA, Indonesia,  (Tebtebba Indigenous Information Service) – Manuhap Pandiangan easily climbed a 10-inch-diameter straight tree through two small pieces of two-foot long hard wood tightly fastened around the tree with a nylon rope. Then he uttered some prayers, and—around the tree up to about over 20 feet (5.88 meters) high—pierced the tree’s bark with a sharp knife, leaving several wounds on the tree’s bark. 
After two weeks, he expects the tree’s pierced barks to produce myrrh resin, a highly prized product used for various medicines, scents and incense for religious rites. “This (myrrh resin) is one of our main sources of cash,” says Pandiangan, a 39-year old father of three.
Myrrh is not only a major income source; it is also a source of pride among the Batak. They believe that myrrh—one of the prized gifts that one of the three kings gave to the newborn Jesus at that lowly stable in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago as narrated in the biblical New Testament gospels—came from Sumatra through an ancient flourishing trade between their community and the Middle East. 
Pandiangan and some elders of Pandumaan and Sipituhuta villages in North Sumatra province last August 28 accompanied participants of a global conference on mapping to the community’s forests, some tree species of which produce benzoin and myrrh resin. 
The indigenous Batak folk wanted to show the over a hundred participants from 19 countries that the diverse products from natural-growth forests could bring sustainable incomes. 
But the Batak people are lamenting that their natural forests, which bring food on their table and send children to school, are under serious threat. This is courtesy of a paper mill company, which, they say, has practically grabbed wide swaths of their tombak haminjon (benzoin forests).
After cutting down natural-growth forests and making a killing out of tons of timber, the paper milling company has replaced these with eucalyptus plantations. Eucalyptus is the main raw material for pulp or paper. Pulp is the material for finished products such as bathroom tissue paper and table napkins and other paper products. 
The benzoin and myrrh resin, along with other forest products such as rattan, various species of vines, wild fruits and wild game, have helped sustain the lives of the Batak for a long time. “But this paper milling company ruined our natural forests—our main lifeblood—and has continued to replace these with eucalyptus for the profit of a few,” farmer-elder Mangasal Lumbangaol from Sipituha village (also in Sumatra Utara province) tells the conference participants. 
The participants met the beleaguered Batak folk at a Protestant church in Pandumaan after a five-hour drive from Samosir Island in Lake Toba, the conference venue.
“We are thus determined to defend our ancestral land,” says Lumbangaol. “Please always include us in your prayers.”
The Jakarta-based Aliansi Masyarat Adat Nusantara (AMAN, Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago) arranged the field visit to Pandumaan village to give the participants a glimpse of what’s happening “on the ground.” 
AMAN and the Philippine-based Tebtebba, a nongovernment global policy research and education center focusing on indigenous peoples’ concerns, co-sponsored the three-day global conference on mapping workshop in August. The Washington D.C.-based Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI)—a global coalition advancing forest tenure, policy and market reforms—helped fund the workshop. 
The villagers of Pandumaan and Sipituhuta (population: 3,715) since 2009 have been in conflict with PT Toba Pulp Lestari or TPL, an industrial producer of pulp. Headquartered in Medan, North Sumatra’s capital, the company in its official website reported that it produced 176,686 tons of pulp in 2012, which it sold in domestic and overseas markets. 
 The villagers assert that their 4,100-hectare tombak haminjon or benzoin forests, which the company appropriated as part of its concession, are part of their ancestral lands. “Ever since the time of our ancestors, we have nurtured these bezoin forests for over 13 generations or three centuries ago,” says Lumbangaol. 
Villagers say these traditional benzoin forests are found in three areas—Tombak Sipiturura, Dolok Ginjang and Lombang Nabagas.
The villagers complained that the government has been favoring the pulp company. They cite the arrest by Brimob (police special force) last January of 31 residents, who attempted to prohibi
t the company’s workers from cutting down natural-growth trees, which they intended to replace with eucalyptus.
Sixteen of those arrested were detained, including Haposan Sinambela, a Christian pastor who was accused of violating Article 160 of Indonesia’s Penal Code or inciting others to “commit violent action against public authority.” Local police said the others committed “mob violence,” which authorities said was covered by Article 170. 
Those arrested were released on March 11 on parole so they still have to report weekly before prison authorities. 
Despite the arrests, the villagers say they will continue to defend their land. “The company tricked us into believing the government allowed the concession,” says Sinambela.
To help diffuse the conflict, the Humbang Hasundutan Regent and the Regional House of Representatives wrote the company to stop the deforestation of the Batak’s benzoin forests.
But villagers say the company continues to ignore the letter from the officials.
The company in its website says its pulp plantation was permitted by the government. In a July 11 post, it quotes Ir Bambang Endriono, Director General of Forestry Enterprises in the Ministry of Forestry, as saying the company has “met the criteria” to operate the eucalyptus plantation as part of “state-owned production forests.”
Still, the villagers are keen on reclaiming what they claim was originally theirs. They say that it is also part of their responsibility to protect an important resource whose worth is not only measured in terms of tons of pulp for local and overseas markets.
“These benzoin forests form part of the lungs of the world which we should protect,” says Ronald Lumbangaol, another farmer-elder. 
Sustainable income source 
“We plant millions of trees every year,” boasts TPL in its website. It says it maintains at least 2 million seedlings in its nurseries. 
But the pulp company only plants a single species—eucalyptus. After cutting down natural-growth forests, the company plants eucalyptus, transforming wide swaths of land into monocrop plantations, thus altering what used to be a biodiversity-rich landscape.
As a result, the villagers of Pandumaan and Sipituhuta have complained that the company’s eucalyptus plantation has deprived them of their traditional livelihoods. 
According to the local nongovernment Kelompok Studi dan Pengembangan Prakasa Masyarakat (KSPPM—Community Development Initiative), the villagers’ benzoin forests have been providing sustainable income. 
Before TPL encroached into their territory, a village farmer could gather as many as 500 kilos of first-grade myrrh resin in a year, says KSPPM. At 120,000 rupiahs per kilo of first-grade resin, a farmer could earn 60,000,000 rupiahs (US$5,245) in a year, an income which could supplement earnings from other forest products such as rattan, honey, wild fruits, other edibles, and cultivated crops such as coffee, rice and various root-crops.
With the company around, a farmer would be lucky if he could harvest 50 kilos of resin and earn 6,000,000 rupiahs (US$524) in a year, says KSPPM.
The income Pandumaan and Sipituhuta villagers earn from myrrh resin and other forest products are among the major reasons why they continue to assert their ownership of the land which they claim TPL grabbed. For the villagers, the benzoin or myrrh resin, which they also use as incense in their religious rites, is life. 
For example, Ompu Putra, a 57-year old mother, says the resin her husband would gather before the TPL arrived helped a lot in feeding and sending their 12 children to school. “So I join the rest of my community in defending and reclaiming our benzoin forests—our life,” she says. 
Villagers also noted other impacts of the eucalyptus plantations on their land. “Our coffee trees now bear less and less beans and they are easily infested,” says farmer-elder Mangasal Lumbangaol.
The villagers see one reason: the cutting by the pulp company of natural forests. After the natural-growth forests were gone, the diverse species of trees and plants that attract bees were gone. 
Villagers know that bees are crucial in pollinating farmers’ coffee and other crops. The threat to, if not outright extinction, of these pollinators as a result of the monocrop plantations, say villagers, explains the decrease in production of farmers’ crops such as Arabica coffee. 
Mapping and securing territories 
The villagers of Pandumaan and Sipituhuta have produced hand-drawn maps, based on GPS data, to show the extent of forest lands the pulp company encroached.
Through a mapping exercise in which all community members participate, Indonesia’s indigenous folk see the activity as one way to secure their lands and forests. “Let us map our communities before these are mapped (and appropriated) by others,” reads a poster accompanying photos of their mapping activities displayed at the global mapping conference.
Indonesian participants at the conference believe that detailed community maps could help them put a stop to the steady loss of traditional lands to palm oil production, logging and other industrial needs. 
“We need to take advantage of new mapping tools to accelerate the process of mapping the more than 30 million hectares we have left to document—before they are swallowed up by plantations,” says Abdon Nababan, AMAN secretary general, as quoted by the Washington D.C.-based Burness Communications. AMAN has helped communities across the country to map their customary forests as part of their efforts to defend their lands against development by palm oil and other industrial plantations and mining.
As of this year Indonesia has lost 40 million hectares—mainly in Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Papua—from a total forest area of about 140 million hectares, according to Indonesian activist Riko Kurniawan from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi). 
Walhi’s report released early this year says that mining and plantation companies have become the primary cause of environmental destruction. As of June last year, the government has given 50.4 million hectares, or 38.4 percent of Indonesia’s forests, to various companies across the archipelago, the report says. 
Indonesia’s 2,200 indigenous communities, scattered across the country’s 18,307 islands, are thus sharpening their mapping skills to continue mapping and finally securing their remaining forest lands. “Mapping could also be a way to recover forestlands the government gave away to companies like TPL,” says local leader Junpiter Pakpahan of KSPPM.
And Indonesia’s indigenous communities have reason to be hopeful. The Constitutional Court decided in May that a provision in the country’s 1999 Forestry Law, which states that customary forests are state forests, is not constitutional. 
The decision bolstered the spirit of Pandumaan and Sipituhuta villagers to recover their forestlands appropriated by the pulp company, TPL.
As this decision has to be first implemented at the national and local levels, mapping experts also say the recent court decision is an opportunity for Indonesian indigenous peoples to map, document and finally secure their forestlands. 
With this development, “we hope to help map all 40 million hectares of indigenous lands by 2020,” says AMAN’s Abdon Nababan. 
He also called on the national Parliament to speed up the adoption of the proposed Law on the Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is currently under review. 
In support of the desire of Indonesia’s indigenous communities to map and secure their lands and forests, Tebtebba head Victoria Tauli-Corpuz encouraged the conference participants to propose concrete actions to help their counterparts in this country acknowledged as the world’s leader in terms of deforestation. 
In what is called the “Lake Toba Declaration,” the participants thus urged the implementation of several Memorandums of Understanding or MoU between AMAN and the government—particularly the National Land Agency, Ministry of Environment and the National Commission on Human Rights. They recommended the use of maps to implement the memorandums. 
Backing AMAN’s call, the declaration called on the government of Indonesia to pass the proposed law currently being reviewed by the nation’s Parliament, which would finally protect the country’s 50 million indigenous peoples.
The participants likewise culled suggested mapping techniques and strategies from mapping experts and “best practices” from other indigenous communities where mapping helped them secure their lands and forests. - Maurice Malanes
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