Movimento Mundial pelas Florestas Tropicais

Indonesia: Giant eucalyptus plantation company destroys Benzoin forest gardens

Kemenyan or locally known haminjon is a fragrant resin of benzoin. It has been cultivated and traded from Batak highlands of Indonesia’s province of North Sumatra for centuries. Benzoin is produced from benzoin trees (Styrax benzoin) and is highly valued as ingredient in incense for burning in rituals ceremonies, for traditional and modern medicinal purposes, perfumery and for fragrant cigarettes.

On Batak highlands, the farmers have been collecting benzoin from natural forest for at least 10 centuries and started planting and growing benzoin trees at least for more than two centuries. The large blocks of hundreds or thousands of hectares of Benzoin trees extending between the village’s open farmlands and natural forests have evolved into complex and biologically-diverse forest gardens.   These Benzoin forest gardens are socially defined by bundles of rights and are the foundation of local economy and identity of people in the plateau of the Toba Batak highlands.

However, many foresters, forestry companies and the government elite have systematically ignored this community-based management system. The dominant forestry ideology and economic systems have excluded these farmers from the management of forestland and resources. Instead, they promote logging and the artificial simplification of the ecosystem structure, such as monoculture tree plantations.

Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL) Tbk or formerly known as PT. Inti Indorayon Utama (IIU) is the owner of viscose staple fibre (rayon) mill with production capacity about 165,000 tonnes yearly operating in Porsea, near Toba Lake in North Sumatra.  In November 2009, this company announced that they were to expand the capacity of eucalyptus pulp production up to 300.000 tonnes per annum in 2011.  This company is also expanding its plantation despite the land conflicts and the resistance from local people.

TPL is notoriously known as a troublesome company who is facing fierce resistance from local communities since the mill started operating in late 1980.  The resistance from Porsea communities who live surrounding the mill resulted in the closing down of the mill in 1998.  However the then President Megawati reopened the mill operation in 2005.

In order to maintain the supply of raw material, TPL is now expanding its eucalyptus plantation.  This expansion has destroyed natural forest around the district of Humbang Hasundutan and is now cutting down thousands of hectares of the productive and community-based managed benzoin forest gardens around Pandumaan and Sipituhuta villages to replace them with monoculture eucalyptus.

Since last year communities in Pandumaan and Sipituhuta villages have mobilised and managed to stop the clearing operation near their villages.  Since then resistance has sparkled and struggle has arisen from these villages with lots of action and seeking solidarity locally and nationally.

Benzoin trees are grown with many other diverse trees – since the Benzoin tree produces a good resin as long as it is naturally surounded by other trees and vegetation. These forest gardens have evolved into a delicate system that needs lots of work and preservation. The benzoin farmers are highly skilled in maintaining a balance between high light and low temperature in the micro management of the benzoin trees and the other trees.

Benzoin trees can be tapped after eight years and resin can be extracted for 60 years.  As long as benzoin trees are tapped for resin, the trees are carefully managed with a skillful practice developed along centuries with almost no impact to nature. The benzoin farmers have been safeguarding and maintaining these forest gardens for centuries. They have been climate heroes!

Despite the evidence of thousands of benzoin trees which have been felled by TPL, the company denied their action and claimed that they have never destroyed the benzoin trees.  A community map made by benzoin farmers shows that more than 5000 ha of benzoin gardens in Pandumaan and Sipituhuta have been clearcut by TPL.  TPL also proclaimed that they preserve the benzoin forest gardens, and said that they have planted more than 55,000 benzoin trees.  However, the benzoin farmers think that this is a big joke since the monoculture benzoin trees may grow but they will never produce the resin like the one grown in the benzoin forest garden which is maintained by local communities.

By: Longgena Ginting, [WALHI of North Sumatra]. For more information, contact the author at longgenaginting@gmail.com