Apr 24, 2023 - Energy & Environment

"Green Nobel" winner is reclaiming Indonesian forest land

A woman stands in front of a cluster of campaign signs in a forest

Delima Silalahi has been fighting for forest preservation and the reclamation of Indigenous land since 1999. Photo: Edward Tigor via Goldman Environmental Prize

Every year, six environmental activists from each of the world's inhabited continental regions are honored with the Goldman Environmental Prize, or the "Green Nobel."

Driving the news: One of this year's cohort has spent decades fighting for environmental preservation and Indigenous Indonesian rights, protecting tens of thousands of acres of carbon-rich biodiverse lands from industrial exploitation.

Context: Based in North Sumatra, Indonesia, 46-year-old prize winner Delima Silalahi has been leading a campaign to reclaim ancestral tropical forest land for Indigenous Indonesian communities since 2013.

  • Last year, the Indonesian government granted territory land rights over 17,824 acres of forest land to six communities in North Sumatra, reclaiming it from a company that had partially converted the land to an industrial eucalyptus plantation.
  • Indonesia is one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases, much of which comes from forest and peatland clearance, Reuters reports.

What they're saying: "It has a deep meaning for us. It feels extraordinary," Silalahi tells Axios in an interview. "Before, when we fought, it felt like David vs. Goliath. It was us against a government-supported company."

  • Ever since the government's ruling in their favor, the Indigenous communities have begun reforesting the land with native species.

The backstory: Silalahi is Batak, meaning she belongs to one of several ethnic groups of north-central Sumatra, from the village of Siborong-Borong.

  • She's the executive director of Kelompok Studi dan Pengembangan Prakarsa Masyarakat (or the Community Initiative Study and Development Group), an Indonesian NGO focused on traditional forest protection.
  • She started working for the NGO as a volunteer in 1999, and has remained in the role despite resistance she says she's received from fellow Indonesians unhappy with her career choice.

Zoom in: "It is not easy, not just at home, but in the bureaucracy. There are stigmas about women that leave home for days. Women who speak in front of the public are considered disobeying their husbands. Men often harass me," says Silalahi.

  • The world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia has long-faced gender-based issues. (A 2023 Human Rights Watch report flagged "numerous abuses" committed by Islamist groups against women and girls in 2022.)
  • "As a woman, I try to build a dialogue that women should have a space to speak and share their opinions," Silalahi tells Axios. "More people need to be involved in the environmental movement, and also in the Indigenous movement."

Zoom out: According to a 2022 paper in the journal Trees, Forests and People, North Sumatra's forests are a source of economy for local communities and Indigenous peoples, particularly in harvesting non-timber forest products like benzoin resin that can function as a safety net amid food shortages.

  • "We have a very strong connection to the Benzoin forest. It's very related to our tradition," says Silalahi, noting that other than serving as a source of an income, the forest land holds personal meaning for Indigenous Indonesians.
  • "The land for Batak is identity. The loss of land means loss of identity. The land is the space for living, for people to have their livelihood," says Silalahi.

Of note: Plus, tropical forests are valuable carbon sinks, storing around one quarter of the planet's terrestrial carbon in trees and soils.

  • Much of that carbon is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming, when forests are lost to drivers of deforestation like large-scale plantation expansion.

What's next: "17,000 acres is only a small portion of the land. Many of the other communities are still struggling. We are still fighting to restore the land," says Silalahi.

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