Togu Simorangkir lives in North Sumatra. A postgraduate from Oxford University, he is an author and environmental activist. Over the past weeks, he marched for 42 days, walking with friends across Sumatra for approximately 1500 km, and reaching Jakarta a few days ago.

He did not do it for sport but as a call for public support. Togu is the ambassador of a large movement of local communities, Indigenous peoples, religious leaders, and NGOs demanding the President and the Indonesian government revoke the permits held by the pulp and paper company Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL).

Since it was established in 1983, the company started clearing traditional forests, and the disrespect for local communities triggered a number of conflicts with the Indigenous Batak Communities. 

Traditional Indigenous communities look after and plant kemenyaan (benzoin) trees, which produce a fragrant resin similar to frankincense. This resin is sold internationally and the revenue is crucial to the local economy, and helps farmers pay for travel, health care, and education, including sending their children to college. The Batak communities have farmed their land for generations, and they 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. 

TPL bulldozers are clearing the forest, including the benzoin trees, to replace them with pulpwood plantations based on eucalyptus, wiping away precious ecosystems, the livelihoods of the community, their children’s livelihoods, and their culture as well.

Over 17,000 hectares of natural forest have been destroyed, impacting or displacing over 13,000 Indigenous people. The company’s activities have also affected the quality of the drinking water for entire communities, impacted by deforestation and the plant discharge system. 

Local communities have opposed the mill since it began operations in North Sumatra in 1989 due to the rainforest destruction, land grabbing, and toxic pollution central to the company’s business model. In 1990, 10 elderly women from Sugapa Village were arrested for pulling up and destroying eucalyptus that had been planted 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 connection with the paper giant Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), controlled by the same owner (TPL also supplies pulpwood to APRIL).

In 2009, and again in 2013, the community of Pandumaan-Sipituhuta took action after they found TPL employees clearing some of their resin forest and expanding plantations on customary lands. Roughly 250 residents came out to protest, confiscating the chainsaws being used. TPL called in the police, who arrived in the middle of the night and threatened the community with rifles—searching through the houses of sleeping families. The police arrested 31 farmers. Local people were beaten with truncheons and elderly community members were assaulted. According to the National Commission for Human Rights of the Republic of Indonesia, the police methodically devastated villagers’ huts, after arresting  community leaders.

In 2017, the Aek Lung community planted “guerrilla crops” on traditional land that was under the control of TPL. They received death threats, and they accused the company of burning down their huts, poisoning crops and calling in the military police, who beat them. During 2020-2021 alone, at least 8 conflicts affected 12 people, with 9 villagers reported to the police by the company. PT TPL also intimidated 3 communities (Huta/Kampung) not to grow crops in their customary areas and destroyed their crops. In the past few years, land conflicts have escalated between villagers and Toba Pulp Lestari employees over the forest area and at least 59 activists have been arrested for resisting Toba Pulp Lestari’s continued expansion and destruction.

Last May, the conflict escalated when TPL decided to plant eucalyptus in the land of the Natumika Indigenous Community. Ten trucks and 500 company workers broke into the traditional land escorted by police and military personnel. TPL employees assaulted with rocks and sticks the Indigenous community members blocking the road to their own land, leaving twelve of them injured.

A survey done by EPN and Indonesian NGOs in 2019 identified 26 social conflicts between TPL and local communities.

According to a paper released mid-July by local NGOs (Jikalahari, KSPPM, AMAN Tano Batak) and Indigenous people representatives, the TPL concession was illegally awarded, as it is located on ​​11,582.22 ha of forest allocated for protection (Forest Areas with Protected Functions) and other areas not suitable for conversion. Inside its concession, TPL also converted areas that were supposed to be preserved, and logged protected Kulin and Kempas trees. 

The NGO coalition has asked the Minister of Environment and Forestry to close down the TPL plant and to return the land to the Batak communities. 

PT TPL destroys the environment and impoverishes Indigenous peoples. The Batak Indigenous people depend on natural forests that have been destroyed by PT TPL,” said Roganda, the chairman of Aman Tano Batak.

The NGO coalition wants the government to revoke PT TPL’s permit in the Lake Toba area and immediately establish a protected forest area by involving Indigenous people in all processes of forest area gazettement.

“We have been walking for 42 days to convey everything that has happened because of PT TPL, which has damaged the environment around Lake Toba,” said Togu. “We are doing this so that all Indonesian people know that there is injustice happening in North Sumatra,” he said.The Rainforest Action Network recently published an alert with actions that can be taken to stand in solidarity with the Movement Alliance to Shutdown TPL.