Nearly three years ago, several residents of Sihaporas Village were walking home from their fields when they came upon a grisly scene.

Hundreds of dead fish, crabs and frogs were washed up along the banks of the ​​Sidogor-dogor River, which runs through Simalungun Regency, in Indonesia’s North Sumatra Province. 

Among the dead animals identified in October 2018 were Batak fish, a vulnerable freshwater species only found in that part of North Sumatra, which the indigenous Sihaporas people use in farming rituals dating back to the 1800s.

A few kilometres upstream, in a section of forest controlled by the eucalyptus pulp manufacturing company PT Toba Pulp Lestari Tbk (TPL), the villagers found 12 empty bottles of insecticide, according to Lamtoras, a Sihaporas community organisation that advocates for the rights of the indigenous group. They reported the bottles to the local police, who took no action.

Staff from a nearby government health clinic took samples of the water where the bottles were found, but no results were ever released.

To the Sihaporas villagers, the authorities’ inaction was one of countless examples of Indonesian authorities ignoring indigenous peoples’ historic ties to their land in favour of TPL and its US$120 million pulp and paper operation. Since 1992, the company has controlled around 1,500 hectares that Sihaporas residents claim as their ancestral, customary land. In that time, TPL and local authorities have blocked the villagers from accessing the land, while the company has razed forests, planted eucalyptus monocultures and allegedly polluted waterways.

Ellena Ekarahendy

These activities threaten not only the livelihoods of the 600 residents of Sihaporas but also prevent them from performing several traditional rituals passed down across generations.

“The water used for our rituals is always sourced from natural springs in the forest,” says Mangitua Ambarita, the community’s 65-year-old spiritual leader. “However, now the springs are starting to be polluted because of the chemicals used for eucalyptus plants.” 

Rituals Under Threat

It is 25 April, and the noonday sun shines brightly over Sihaporas Village. The residents gather under a canopy of palm branches near the village entrance to observe the Mombang Boru Sipitu Suddut ritual—one of seven annual rituals of the Sihaporas people, in which they pray for a bountiful harvest.

Mangitua and three other local spiritual leaders wear white shirts and sarongs and traditional fabrics known as ulos wrapped around their heads and draped over their shoulders. They begin to recite prayers in the Toba Batak language, spoken by the Batak people, one of the largest ethnic groups in North Sumatra. They recite prayers to their supreme god Debata Mulajadi Nabolon, and to their ancestors, for the village to grow enough rice, corn, sweet potatoes, cloves, coffee, chillies and vegetables to sustain them in the coming year.

Two elderly women sit before the crowd on a woven mat, serving as intermediaries between the villagers and their ancestors. In front of them, various offerings are on display: a slaughtered white goat, three chickens, slices of watermelon and a platter of itak gurgur, a traditional Batak food made of ground rice and coconut. Between these offerings sits a white cup containing water, kaffir lime and a piece of betel leaf, and a metal bowl diffusing burnt frankincense throughout the crowd.

Indigenous Sihaporas people of North Sumatra in Indonesia participate in a traditional ritual in May 2021. Tonggo Simangunsong

The spiritual leaders drape special garments over the two elderly women, who fall into a trance. Mangitua begins reciting another prayer for the women to convey to Debata Mulajadi Nabolon. He finishes the prayer, and the women drink from the white cup. He recites another prayer with his hands clasped above his head.

One of the women places a betel leaf into the cup and sprinkles water onto Mangitua and the three spiritual leaders beside him. The crowd sits in silence for a few minutes before the leaders begin to speak quietly. The two women chew betel leaves.

In the afternoon, the villagers gather for a feast of rice, mutton, fish, soup, watermelon and a palm wine called tuak. Then, as evening falls, the Mombang Boru Sipitu Suddut ritual concludes with Mangitua inviting the community to gather once more at the village entrance. There, he and the other spiritual leaders use a long bamboo pole to hoist a chandelier-like ornament made from woven betel leaves above the villagers’ heads.

“Everyone can make a wish while hoisting the betel leaf,” Mangitua says. 

He adds that the seven rituals offer the community spiritual protection from diseases.

“Thanks to God because, so far, not one of our villagers has been affected by COVID-19,” Mangitua tells New Naratif.

Lost Land

The people of Sihaporas trace their seven rituals to the 1800s, when their forefather Ompu Mamontang Laut Ambarita, founded the village. Originally from the nearby volcanic island of Samosir, Ompu Mamontang Laut settled in the village’s current location following a stint living as a hermit at the top of Pusuk Buhit Mountain, which is considered sacred to the Batak people.

In 1913, Ompu Mamontang Laut’s descendants lent around 2,000 hectares of their customary land to Dutch colonial settlers, who used it to plant pine trees. After Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands in 1945, the Indonesian government took over the land and categorised it as state land. 

Under Indonesian law, the government can issue concessions for private companies to develop delineated tracts of state land, but this did not happen immediately in Sihaporas. For almost 50 years, the descendants of Ompu Mamontang Laut Ambarita lived off the land undisturbed.

“The water used for our rituals is always sourced from natural springs in the forest. However, now the springs are starting to be polluted because of the chemicals used for eucalyptus plants.” 

In 1992, however, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry granted a concession to TPL, which is owned by Indonesian billionaire Sukanto Tanoto. According to the international environmental conservation organisation Greenpeace, Tanoto’s businesses are the “largest single threat to responsible forest management in the pulp and paper sector in Indonesia”. 

With TPL’s takeover, the villagers were confined to a 500-hectare section of their ancestral land. The frankincense, betel leaf, bamboo, palm trees, fish and natural spring water necessary to perform their annual rituals have grown steadily rarer and farther from their homes.

In 1999, the community set up Lamtoras and launched a campaign to reclaim the approximately 1,500 hectares they had lost to TPL. In 2000, Lamtoras sent letters to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and held demonstrations at the Simalungun Regent’s Office and the North Sumatra House of Representatives building in Medan. These actions prompted a delegation of government officials and TPL representatives to visit Sihaporas, where the community showed them evidence of their ancestors’ long history in the area: graves, heirlooms and bamboo planted by previous generations.

The campaign drew national attention to the villagers’ plight. Later that year, the Ancestral Domain Registration Agency (BRWA), an Indonesian civil society collective that compiles data on indigenous groups’ customary land claims, recognised the Sihaporas villagers’ claim to ​​2,050 hectares of communal land. But the government has yet to recognise the claim.

Over the next few years, villagers began entering TPL’s concession to plant crops. According to the villagers, these incursions triggered violent reactions by TPL employees and, in a few cases, resulted in villagers’ imprisonment.

Dispute Turns Violent

In September 2004, Mangitua was planting corn on a section of historic Sihaporas land that lies within TPL’s concession. While he was working, around 20 police officers arrested him and brought him to their station. He later learned that TPL had reported him for trespassing on company property, he says.

At the time, Mangitua’s family was broke, and he needed to raise money for his son to attend university. He asked the panel of judges presiding over his case to temporarily suspend the charges so he could work. 

“More than a temporary suspension, you can even go free today, as long as you make a written statement that the land is not your ancestral land and never sue for it,” one of the judges said in court, according to Mangitua.

Mangitua refused the judge’s condition. In December 2004, he was sentenced to prison for one year. He served the sentence and was released in 2005. 

Spiritual leaders from the indignenous Sihaporas community conclude a traditional ritual by hoisting a woven betel leaf ornament above villagers’ heads in May 2021. Tonggo Simangunsong

In September 2019, almost a year after the mass death of fish in the Sidogor-dogor River, another Sihaporas resident named Thomson Ambarita was clearing land to plant crops when around 20 TPL staff arrived and tried to stop him. Thomson recalls saying: “Why am I not allowed to plant on the land that our ancestors had?”

Thomson resisted the TPL employees’ pressure, and a brawl broke out between the company staff and several villagers. Thomson says he saw a TPL employee try to strike a resident with a stick, and when the resident dodged the blow, it landed on a 3-year-old boy. 

When Thomson tried to intervene, he says, “one TPL officer hit my right shoulder”. 

The following day, the community reported the alleged assault on the child to police, who rejected their complaint. A few days later, Thomson and the child’s uncle, Jonny Ambarita, were summoned to another police station, where they were arrested in response to a complaint by TPL. Both were tried and convicted under Article 170 of Indonesia’s Penal Code for “commit[ting] violence” against a TPL employee. In February 2020, they were sentenced to nine months in prison.

The lawyer for Thomson and Jonny said the judge ignored testimony and video evidence that corroborated the villagers’ account of the scuffle.

A March 2020 statement from TPL said the Sihaporas villagers started the fight by hitting a company employee with a wooden bat. It also said 10 TPL employees were injured and required hospitalisation. 

Claiming Indigenous Rights

In the same 2020 statement, TPL claims that “both Jonny Ambarita and Thomson Ambarita are not members of Simalungun indigenous tribes” and “there are no indigenous lands in the Simalungun District”. These claims encapsulate the legal basis for the Sihaporas residents’ dispossession, which they are now working to overturn.

“TPL has a legal operating permit from the government,” TPL spokesperson Dedy Armaya tells New Naratif, referring to the company’s concession permit, issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. He also denies that the company has caused any environmental damage.

When the permit was issued in 1992, Indonesian law made no distinction between state forests and customary forests; both could be signed away to private companies for development. 

In 2013, however, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that land categorised as customary forest—located in “indigenous peoples area”—should be excluded from forest concessions and instead managed “according to the rights of indigenous peoples”.

The ruling created a legal opening for the Sihaporas community to have their customary land excluded from TPL’s concession. But in order to do this, they first need the government of Simalungun Regency to pass a bylaw recognising their customary rights to the land as indigenous people. For a neighbouring North Sumatra indigenous community, the process of having their customary rights recognised—also over land claimed by TPL—took nine years.

“Thanks to God because, so far, not one of our villagers has been affected by COVID-19.”

Many indigenous groups in Indonesia have spent years demanding the passage of an indigenous rights bill, which would expedite the process of recognising customary land rights by tying together all of the rights afforded to indigenous peoples by various laws and rulings, including the 2013 Constitutional Court decision.

On 20 May, the Sihaporas villagers met with the newly elected Simalungun regent Radiapoh Hasiholan Sinaga and made the case for their customary rights to be recognised. They received no response at the time, but the regent later told New Naratif that he had to “study the history first”.

“I’ve only been in Simalungun for four months. We will sit together later with all elements of society so that we can avoid horizontal conflicts. There are no problems that cannot be solved if we work together to solve them,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Sihaporas villagers’ homes and farms remain confined to a small portion of their ancestral land, surrounded by 1,500 hectares of TPL eucalyptus plantations. Visitors to the village have to go through an entrance guarded by two company security guards.

Since his community’s dispute with TPL began 22 years ago, Mangitua’s hair has turned white, and he is no longer as physically strong as he once was. Nonetheless, he says he never gets tired of fighting for his people’s land. He continues to join protests and public forums on indigenous rights, demanding that the Simalungun Regency government recognise the Sihaporas as an indigenous community. Mangitua also continues to lead his village’s traditional rituals. 

“In every ritual, we always ask for our ancestral land to be restored to us,” he says. “We will not stop fighting until our customary land is returned.”

Tonggo Simangunsong

Tonggo Simangunsong is an Indonesian journalist based in Medan, North Sumatra. His work has appeared in New Naratif, the South China Morning Post, VICE, ChinaDialogue, JakartaPost and more, covering environmental issues, culture and identity.