Indonesia’s Sun Bear Rainforest: Then and Now

Canopy Senior Campaigner Catherine Stewart and I are now deep in the Indonesian Rainforest, negotiating with large Indonesian mills and meeting with local NGO allies and communities.

Seven months ago, the President of Indonesia excised 5,172 hectares of land from mill giant Toba Pulp Lestari’s forest concessions. The land was given “tanah adat” (customary land) status and returned to its traditional owners in the community of Panduma’an Sipituhuta. Given our current visit, it is time to look at this historical decision and see how it’s progressing.

The Pandumaan decision was part of an unprecedented “give back” of 13,000 hectares of traditional land to nine communities – the first such recognition of communities’ customary rights in the 71 years since Indonesia’s independence. During the announcement, President Joko Widodo, nicknamed “Jokowi” also announced a much more ambitious plan to repatriate 12.7 million hectares of traditional lands back to their community owners over the coming years. Given the complexity of land claims and land-use in Indonesia, it is a bold endeavour by the President that Canopy and its local and international allies are tracking and looking to help realize.

In the case of Panduma’an, that support has come in the form of Canopy’s customer brands and our direct engagement with the concession holder, Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL). With 100% of Toba Pulp Lestari’s product feeding into the global rayon supply chain, Canopy has worked with CanopyStyle clothing brand partners as of early 2014 to ensure brands and rayon producers were aware of the controversial social and ecological footprint of this pulp facility. This work was in tandem with international NGO’s and Indonesian civil society who have led the charge locally, running a strong legal and government relations strategy.

Canopy staff and I visited Panduma’an Sipituhuta on a number of occasions to witness first hand the impacts of Toba Pulp Lestari’s operations. Land clearing has resulted in a sea of eucalyptus plantations that have replaced the region’s natural forests, affecting water levels in community rice fields. Whilst there, we heard reports of intimidation and criminalization of community members who were opposed to the expansion of the plantations.



Resolving land claims in Indonesia is a complex process involving many stakeholders often with competing interests and needs. Not surprisingly, the Government of Indonesia is the ultimate decision maker, but local levels of government and the industrial concession holders also play critical roles.

Canopy’s work with the fashion industry was key in Toba Pulp Lestari’s management agreeing to excise these traditional lands from their tenure – it had been a core part of Canopy’s negotiations with the mill and a key concern to many of our fashion brand partners. In turn, the mill’s support of the government in resolving this community claim played an important role in the December 2016 announcement by the President.

Five thousand one hundred and seventy-two hectares is not a very large span of forest. But it’s incredibly meaningful to the community members of Panduma’an and the resident sun bear population. Although the last stage of finalizing this land hand-back has recently hit a significant obstacle as the local government and community try to agree on the boundaries of the land involved, we are optimistic that it will be settled in a timely manner.

Canopy is proud to support this remote community to reclaim their land and maintain their traditional economy of agro-forestry. The settlement of Panduma’an’s land claim will set an exciting precedent for other communities throughout Indonesia – including others with claims around Toba Pulp Lestari’s mill. More broadly, through our work with more than 100 clothing brands and hundreds of other forest product customer companies, I look forward to more conservation wins for the world’s endangered forests.


photo credit : Andy Wright