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Resistance in the Palm Wine Forests: Our Journey to Nagahulambo Village

We stepped out of the car, and walked to the banks of what was once the rushing Sepingan river. What we saw, instead, was dry riverbed, filled with the trunks of small eucalyptus trees which had washed down the muddy cliffs in the recent rain. This was the river that once fed the rice fields of the people of Nagahulambo village, in North Sumatra. This was just one of the impacts of the destruction of a natural forest can have on the river, and on the people who depend on it. This is the impact the the pulp and paper company Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL) is having in the beautiful Toba Lake region of North Sumatra.


I had come to North Sumatra to meet with our partners, Kelompok Studi dan Pengemangan Prakarsa Masyarakyat (KSPPM), who have been organizing with communities to fight TPL for over thirty years. At RAN, we've been partnering with KSPPM for the last year and a half, working to bring international pressure to support the rights of over 13 communities whose land and livelihoods have been destroyed for the pulp that finds its way into our clothes and paper. This was my first trip there, and – even after a decade of working to protect Indonesia's forests – I was shocked by the devastation of the forests, and by Toba Pulp Lestari's casual disregard for the rights of people who depend on the forest.

Our first stop – after a day long meeting with our NGO partner – was the TPL plantation. This was land that was traditionally owned by the Batak people of Nagahulambo and surrounding communities. They still practice traditional agriculture, harvesting the sap of the Aren palm (Arenga pinnata), which they ferment and sell as palm wine. This tree, which grows naturally in the region, is planted in between existing forest trees, and supplemented with coffee, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, and other crops. It's a diverse polyculture that gives the community access to the cash economy through palm wine sales, and to food sovereignty through their farms and gardens.





Now, however, that diverse landscape is threatened with monocrop eucalyptus trees, as far as the eye can see. TPL's plantations are over 180,000 hectares, producing over 178,626 tons of pulp in 2012. As we drove through the plantation, we saw the logs of the natural forest piled high by the saw mill – huge trees being milled into railway ties and boards for houses. Even more shocking was seeing a traditional grave – sacred to the community, and once perhaps deep in the forest – in the middle of a clear cut, right next to the sawmill. This blatant disregard for traditional cultures and the rights of the local communities didn't come as a surprise; this is how TPL has been treating the people who depended upon the forest in the area for decades.


Our next stop was to meet with the community at Nagahulambo. When we went to the village, we were welcomed by farmers and palm wine gatherers who have lived there for generations. It's a small community – only 44 families – where almost all the men gather the sweet sap of the Aren palm to make palm wine. They took us to visit their Aren palm garden. It was only a 5 minute walk from their house, but from there we could already see the tops of the eucalyptus plantation towering not far away. They showed us how they gathered the sap – and I amused everyone by trying to climb their small bamboo ladders to the tops of the trees. I didn't make it very far. Back in the village we saw the turmeric, ginger, and coffee drying in the sun, ready to be processed by hand. Some will be sold, some will be used in the village.





Still, this community is very poor. This community used to make use of thousands of hectares, growing and gathering food and other resources. Now there is only 153 ha left of land that has not been converted into plantations. The community is fighting TPL to get rights to 350 ha of land, including the remaining forest, and TPL is fighting back. A few months ago, Jahotman Nainggolan, one of the community leaders, was arrested on trumped up charges and was put in jail for 3 months and one week, only recently being allowed to return to his wife and baby boy.

We sat down with ten leaders of the community. They had just received a letter from the local forestry department warning them that if they don't give up rights to the last remaining piece of forest, they were going to authorize TPL to “use repressive force”. Really. TPL is so powerful in the region that the government backs up even the most egregious land grabbing and violation of community rights.

Our partners, KSPPM, talked through the letter with the community, making plans to write a strong response, and warning the community members about what to do if and when TPL comes back to the village. The villagers were strong in their commitment to protect their land, while still being scared of what was to come with TPL. It was so inspiring to see their resistance, and to see how KSPPM supports them.

I explained briefly about RAN's campaign, and told them about the support that all of RAN's members had for their fight, and about how over 10,000 had signed a petition, and had taken action in US stores. They were very happy to hear that people on the other side of the world had heard about their struggles and were taking action to support them. At that moment, I was so grateful to you – our members – for taking action and standing up for the rights of communities all over the world. You provide such an important tool against companies like TPL. Instead of just the community of Nagahulambo, along with their partner, KSPPM, holding the line against the destruction of the forest, we are pushing back on them from both directions – the international marketplace and the front lines – and for that we are so much stronger.


Please join us in supporting the community of Nagahulambo. Our Out of Fashion campaign is holding companies responsible for sourcing from companies like TPL who are stealing the lands and the livelihoods of communities across the world. Please go to to take action to today and join us in this important fight.

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