- The volcanic crater lake of Toba in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province is the site of what the government is touting as a new tourism hub.
- The area has for generations been home to the Indigenous Pomparan Ompu Ondol Butarbutar, who now face eviction and have seen their farms razed to make way for the tourism resort.
- The group is filing lawsuits to prevent its eviction from what it considers its ancestral land, but faces obstacles because its customary land rights aren’t recognized by the government.
- The tourism project is one of several large ventures underway in this region; there are also power plant projects and a planned zinc mine near Lake Toba, some of them funded by Chinese investment.
SIGAPITON, Indonesia — In mid-August, when Mangatas Togi Butarbutar visited an ancestor’s grave in this village on the shores of Indonesia’s biggest lake, he had to tread carefully.
Though the area had long been claimed by his Indigenous community, known as the Pomparan Ompu Ondol Butarbutar, construction of a government office building was in progress. Heavy machinery could be seen on newly opened roads. Signs reading “The Caldera Resort” indicated that the location would be developed into a luxury tourism destination.
“This is our ancestral land where we have lived for eight generations, but now we have been intimidated with eviction,” Mangatas said.
Indonesia is a vast archipelago replete with beaches, mountains, rainforests and scores of distinct ethnic groups. Yet despite its natural and cultural riches, the country lags many of its Asian neighbors in tourism revenue. To change that, President Joko Widodo has announced a plan to establish 10 new tourism hubs, dubbed “10 New Balis” after the nation’s most famous tourist destination.
One of these hubs is Lake Toba, a giant volcanic crater lake in North Sumatra province to be ringed with new tourism developments, including the Toba Caldera Resort in Sigapiton. That project will feature a five-star hotel, a luxury shopping mall, an amusement park and a golf course, among other facilities.
Mangatas says his people have inhabited the area for the past two centuries, since before Indonesia existed as a nation. Now, they have been plunged into conflict with the Lake Toba Tourism Authority, known by its Indonesian acronym BPODT, the government entity established to manage the project. According to Mangatas, who is leading the Pomparan Ompu Ondol Butarbutar’s legal pushback against the project, members of his community have been evicted from their homes and had their farmland destroyed to make way for it.
Like the vast majority of Indonesia’s hundreds of Indigenous groups, the Pomparan Ompu Ondol Butarbutar’s land claims aren’t recognized by the state. With the help of NGOs, some communities have obtained formal recognition of their land rights under a process established several years ago, but they remain few and far between. The process remains murky and can take years to navigate, and many communities are unable to do it successfully.
Lacking formal recognition of their claims, groups like the Pomparan Ompu Ondol Butarbutar are legally considered to be squatters on state lands, with little recourse when officials earmark their territory for development.
Nurpeni Butarbutar is a community member who says her land was grabbed by the project developers. Late last year, plots of corn and coffee she tended were razed by a bulldozer.
“They said it was for road construction. All my corn and coffee was destroyed, the BPODT destroyed it,” said Nurpeni, 52, sobbing.
The conflict in the name of developing “world-class tourism” adds to the long grief caused by the customary land conflict in Sigapiton that has flared since 1952, when the government requested the community’s land for reforestation.
In 1975, the district forestry service came again, asking the descendants of Ompu Ondol Butarbutar, the ancestor of Mangatas, Nurpeni and dozens of household heads, to hand over of their land.
Their land was then planted with pine trees, but by the 1990s, they were logged for timber and paper production, leaving it barren. Seeing that, the community retook control of the land and planted crops there.
In 2013, the forestry service returned and said the community could farm on the land but had to sign a statement declaring their status on the land as borrowers, because the land was state forest area. The villagers were shocked and refused. “How can we borrow our own customary land?” Mangatas told Mongabay. “Since when did this [our ancestral land] become a [state] forest area?” He says the community submitted a formal request to the nation’s forestry ministry asking for the area to be rezoned, but never received a response.
New problems arose in 2016, when the government formed the BPODT to manage the tourism project in Sigapiton and two neighboring villages. Asserting their historical claim to the area, villagers began to protest, followed by dozens of village meetings and demonstrations.
Petitions they sent to the forestry ministry and the BPODT were discussed at two meetings in Jakarta chaired by Indonesia’s chief investment minister, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, and attended by other officials and some representatives of Indigenous groups, including Mangatas, in mid-2018. But their efforts were ultimately in vain. After that, Mangatas said, “We waited and waited but we got no response at all.”
The BPODT continued the development of the tourism project. While waiting for the results of the 2018 meeting, villagers began to receive threats of eviction from the agency, and their farmland land was razed with bulldozers.
The following year, when the BPODT built a road to another development within the larger tourism megaproject, called The Caldera–Toba Nomadic Escape, dozens of Indigenous women clashed with police during a demonstration in which they removed their clothes to the point of almost being naked in protest at the project.
The BPODT has reported some villagers, including Mangatas and Nurpeni, to the police for various offenses, accusing them of illegally cultivating land, burning land within the development area, and stealing pine resin. Some residents have been detained and imprisoned. Residents have also received letters of eviction, forcing them to vacate their houses.
“We don’t want to be removed from here for tourism development,” Nurpeni said. “If our fields are destroyed, where will our livelihoods come from?”
A promotional video for the Toba Caldera Resort project.
A pitch to China
Luhut, the investment minister, has reportedly sought to court Chinese backing for the broader tourism initiative in Lake Toba.
In December 2020, while the land dispute in Sigapiton was ongoing, he invited the Chinese ambassador to Indonesia, Xiao Qian, to visit The Caldera–Toba Nomadic Escape, which is already built on a hilly area with a view of the lake. In January, he met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the same spot to pitch him on investing in Lake Toba’s tourism sector. Luhut also sought to attract Chinese investment in Indonesia’s tourism sector during his own visit to China in June.
At least 23 Chinese companies have already invested in North Sumatra as part of the country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), according to data from Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board, or BKPM, including a power plant project near Lake Toba. Some of these projects, like a zinc mine to the west of Lake Toba and a hydropower project being built in the only remaining habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, have drawn criticism for threatening the environment and Indigenous communities.
Shohibul Anshor Siregar, a researcher at Muhammadiyah University of North Sumatra, said the BRI and other development projects would cause problems if they went ahead without respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples. To avoid potential social conflicts, he suggested the Indonesian government involve communities as shareholders in projects involving foreign investors.
“Let’s say from the calculation that each family head sells their land for Rp 1 billion [$71,000], half of which is invested as shares in the company that will operate. That way, people will own the company and enjoy its benefits,” he said in an interview.
“Even if the government involves Chinese investment in Sigapiton, the community should be involved and become actors, not spectators in their ancestral lands,” he added.
Neither the investment ministry’s communications chief, Khairul Hidayati, nor Luhut’s spokesperson, Jodi Mahardi, responded to a request for comment.
Development for whom?
With their demonstrations and efforts to obtain formal recognition of their land rights going unanswered, the people of Sigapiton have turned to the courts.
In September 2019, the Pomparan Ompu Ondol Butarbutar sued the BPODT and the head of the district land management agency at the Medan State Administrative Court in the provincial capital. However, their claim was rejected. The judges considered that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing as a community with rights to their customary land to file a lawsuit.
This past April, the community again sued 12 parties, including the Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Investment and the Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning at the Balige District Court. The lawsuit is still ongoing.
This failure to recognize the existence of the Sigapiton Indigenous community, based on a study by the Community Initiative Study and Development Group, an NGO concerned with the issue of Indigenous peoples’ conflict in the Lake Toba area, indicates that investment interests are forced through without first addressing community rights.
“The government is more likely to side with investment without seeing the Indigenous peoples whose living space is there,” the group’s director, Delima Silalahi, told Mongabay.
BPODT director Jimmy Panjaitan declined to be interviewed for this article, though he did respond to some questions sent in writing.
“Basically, BPODT is very open and ready to synergize with all parties to accelerate the development of the Toba Caldera Resort (TCR), [through] both domestic and foreign investors, including China,” he said in a statement.
Panjaitan did not respond to questions about Chinese investment in the Lake Toba tourism project.
Roganda Simanjuntak, chair of the Tano Batak region for the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the country’s largest advocacy group for Indigenous rights, said the Sigapiton community was a sovereign Indigenous people with rights over their customary lands. The group is also recognized by Indigenous peoples in other villages, he said, making their position as a community strong. The BPODT, he said, should have identified and verified the presence of Indigenous peoples from the start instead of developing their territory without their consent.
Instead of expelling them from their lands, “the BPODT should instead encourage local governments to issue laws recognizing and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples,” Roganda said.
According to Panjaitan, the BPODT has indicated that if there are problems or land disputes with the community, the settlement approach is still carried out in a traditional and “familial” manner. “But if there is no agreement, then the legal route is the last resort or step to obtain legal certainty between the disputing parties,” he said.
In 2020, the BPODT offered compensation of $350 per plank house and $1,400 per concrete house, which the community refused. It also offered compensation for land, but the community refused that too.
“We are not anti-development — if our rights are fulfilled as an Indigenous community we will agree,” Mangatas said. “However, if development will actually drive us away, it is better not to have tourism development here.”
Mangatas says the community want their land returned and hope the government acknowledges their rights to their land.
“I heard that the president once said that customary land should be returned to the community,” he said, referring to Widodo’s remarks when he met with dozens of Indigenous leaders at the State Palace in Jakarta in 2017.
“I hope they were not empty promises.”
This story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
Banner image: Nurpeni Butarbutar (left) and Mangatas Togi Butarbutar (right), representatives of the Sigapiton Indigenous community still struggling to restore their customary land, show summons from the police. Both were accused of managing and occupying land without a permit on their customary land. Nurpeni’s field was destroyed for the construction of a road to a tourism site built by the Lake Toba Authority Executing Agency. Photos courtesy of Yudha Pohan.