Delima Silalahi, Indonesia, Southeast Asia

Environmental Justice and Conservation efforts go hand in hand. Delima Silalahi of North Sumatra, Indonesia, is a defender of the last intact Sumatran rainforests and the rights of Batak Toba Indigenous peoples to maintain control over their ancestral area. She heads a nonprofit advocacy organization, KSPPM, focused on forest protection on Sumatra — home to carbon-storing peatland and critically endangered tigers and rhinos. She led a campaign to reclaim nearly18,000 acres of customary tropical forest from a pulp and paper company that had partially converted it into a non-native, industrial eucalyptus plantation. That land is now under the legal stewardship of six Indigenous communities that are working to restore it, creating valuable carbon sinks of biodiverse Indonesian tropical forest.

Indonesia is among the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, the result of cutting and burning forests and peatlands to establish industrial plantations. At the same time, Indonesia has the third largest total area of rainforests in any country, with vast, biodiverse forests that store enormous quantities of carbon essential to combating climate change. For decades, Batak Toba Indigenous communities in Lake Toba region have been fighting to protect their forests. Since the 1980s, their forests have dwindled as Procter & Gamble-tied pulp and paper producer TPL has cleared large swaths of land for plantation development. The lack of official recognition of community-managed forests enabled TPL to seize these territories. Over the years, Batak Toba people shave resisted TPL, but the most significant victories have only come on the heels of Delima’s Salalahi local and national organizing.

Delima is a Batak woman from North Sumatra who began her advocacy for Batak Toba in 1999 when she joined a Sumatra-based human rights and forest advocacy organization KSPPM as a volunteer, working with villagers experiencing land grabbing. She explained her reasons for fighting: “I have seen the forests being destroyed by the big pulp and paper company and peoples’ lives turned upside down. I wanted to bring back the area to the way I remembered it.” In 2013, a precedent-setting constitutional court ruling confirmed that customary forests are not state forests, creating the opportunity for Indonesian Indigenous people to claim legal stewardship of their traditional forest territories.

Delima and her team at KSPPM began organizing local communities to legally claim their traditional forests. Delima traveled from village to village and educated communities about laws that support the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights and claims to customary forests. Women in Tano Batak communities are often excluded from decision-making, but she made sure that their voices were heard throughout the process, incorporating gender education as a central organizing tool. Delima herself faced many challenges as a female leader and was criticized for being away from her husband and children for weeks at a time.

In 2018, Delima became KSPPM’s executive director and co-led several mass mobilizations in the years that followed, including a broad coalition of Indigenous communities and NGO’s under the “Shut Down TPL” movement. These activities put significant pressure on Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry to recognize the six Batak communities’ customary forest claims. Delima explained importance of forest for indigenous tribes: “Forests are their livelihood. They have this way of protecting their land that has been passed through generations. They know how to preserve and manage the land. But the presence of the pulp and paper company has replaced this forest with eucalyptus trees. That creates ecological disasters, like floods and drought, which affects food production. Women must travel farther to find clean water. That’s why we’re fighting so hard to keep what is ours.”

Finally, in February 2022, due to Delima’s and her community’s dedicated campaigning, the Indonesian government granted six Tano Batak communities legal stewardship of 17,824 acres of their customary forests. These six communities have begun reforesting the area with native forest species. Delima and KSPPM are supporting the communities as they replant and restore the ecosystem while boosting the forests’ tree cover and natural climate resilience. This was a win for climate resilience, biodiversity, and Indigenous rights.

Delima won Goldman Environmental Prize in 2023. She views it as a steppingstone on the way to helping Batak Toba communities overcome their decades-long struggle. We see Delima’s story as an inspiration for our community, not only members of Native American tribes living in the Bay Area, but also all of us who are concerned and interested in conservation and environmental justice. (This year the Coast Miwok Tribe bought back 26 acres of their ancestral land in Marin — a small achievement when compared to Delima’s, but an important step.)