The False Trade of Fankincense in Indonesia

Source: Super Foodly


Land conflicts between PT Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL) and the residents of Pandumaan Sipituhuta, Hasundutan Humbang District in North Sumatra, Indonesia flared up in February 2013 over dubious claims of frankincense being cultivated in the area. In response to questionable YouTube-esque clips of screaming people and Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Rainforest Action Network (RAN) allegations of human rights abuses, the German-based Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) listed the area in a complaint against paper and pulp giant Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), the parent company of PT TPL.

APRIL officials were quick to deny the allegations and denounced the claims by the NGOs as “ridiculous” and typical of the type of corporate “witch hunts” favored by the NGOs. APRIL further stiffened its resolve by withdrawing from the FSC in protest. APRIL’s strong reaction indicted that the company was fed up and not in the mood to continuing putting up with the militant campaigns perpetrated by the NGOs associated with the Global Activist Network (GAN).

APRIL, perceived by many to be a maverick in the paper and pulp industry, is known for going against normal conventions. The company has suffered repeated campaigns by militant NGOs, arson attacks, and the cold-blooded murder of one of its contractors. In March of this year Indonesian police finally made arrests in connection with the July 2011 murder of said contractor. Both suspects were associated with a local militant NGO splinter and affiliated themselves with Marx and Trotsky ideologies of the People’s Democratic Party and the defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The PRD is sponsored by retired General Prawobo Subianto, the powerful presidential candidate known for his human rights violations in East Timor who is aiming to return to parliament in the 2019 election.

Just this month other activists suspected of involvement in the murder were seen in Riau and photographed with the visiting mega star Harrison Ford, who was in Indonesia on a mission backed by the GAN. “We need to be clear on the message the FSC and the NGOs sent,” said an APRIL company official in Jakarta. “Remorseless killing of our staff is ok, and they expect us to kowtow to the foreigners and be blackmailed? No, the NGOs are out of control and penetrated by radicals who believe killing innocent workers is part of a global game.”

The February 2013 clash in Toba occurred because villagers accused APRIL of planting eucalyptus in the frankincense forest area in Dolok Ginjang. Residents who protested then clashed with PT TPL employees. Indonesian riot police, known as the Brimob, were called in and arrested 31 people. In the end, 16 protesters were charged with arson and 15 were released. A PT TPL official said, “The demonstrators were legally charged with arson by the police. The NGOs keep on arguing about criminalization of their struggle. They are right. They have criminalized their struggle by acts of arson and anarchy. Indonesia is now a developed country. It has laws, it has police and it has democratic mechanisms to address their grievances. But it seems that many of the activists are stuck in the pre-reformasi 1998 struggle and cannot get over it that society has evolved trying to get desperately back to an armed struggle, anarchy and insecurity for the Indonesian people”.  Over six months later, emotions in the Humbang Hasundutan area continue to run high. Unabated NGO allegations against APRIL haven’t helped the situation either and police officials have warned that all parties should remain calm. It seems a communal conflict has been created.

On the surface the argument appears to be a typical clash of civilizations between industry and the local community. The Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), a foreign-sponsored NGO, claims the forests in question are ancient land handed down for generations since the 1800s. But as is often the case, such claims take on an air of the mythical, superseding any remote basis in fact.

Indonesia, for the second time in its contemporary history since 1998, is experiencing a paradigm shift within its society. This time it is not the fight for democratic space but pure and simple land ownership. The cleverly promoted civil society concept of questioning the legal boundaries of properties stems from the U.S. concept of Participatory Community Mapping. In 2006, an Arizona State University professor wrote, “The true and only reason why we execute Participatory Mapping is to preserve power, retain land and support campaigns such as environmental, social or legal actions.”

The campaign pattern is relatively simple. First, GAN-associated NGOs identify an environmental protective area. Then the zone is subjected to a study. The NGOs often develop a network of relatively inexperienced rural residents and expose them to the concept of mapping their land, the legal advocacy on how to form and make claims against either a company or the state, and campaign training. In due course a special committee is formed. Often called a Communications Forum or Peoples Forum, the small group initiates protests that are supported and promoted by the NGOs. Once a protest is launched the foreign NGOs circulate their propaganda and call on the government to step in and take action. The government usually ignores the NGOs’ pleas and an escalation ensues.

By inserting doubt and injecting mapping claims into the narrative, the aim of the NGOs is to force the government to redraw its official maps and adopt a loose, often hearsay-based, legal position. Packaged as land tenure issues, spatial zoning, and other deliberately confusing terminologies, the inexperienced government officials are caught off guard. Such NGO claims of land grabbing are massively underway in Indonesia. The offenders are, however, not the paper industry, palm oil, and other industries of importance to society, but unscrupulous civil society organizations that have created legal uncertainty, raised false expectations among the rural populace, and blackmailed the state and private enterprise.


Frankincense is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia, particularly Boswellia sacra, B. carteri, B. thurifera, B. frereana and B. bhaw-dajiana (Burseracaea). The English word is derived from old French “franc encens” (i.e. high quality incense) and is used in incense and perfumes.

Frankincense has long been the stuff of legend. One of the three gifts the Magi brought to the Christ child, true frankincense has been used in the Arab world since Biblical times and is relatively rare. In the Middle Ages the crystals were brought back to Europe by returning Frankish Crusaders to be burned as an incense to cleanse houses of bad smells. Since the Franks introduced the crystals to Europe they owned the name: Frankincense. Frankincense today is an expensive item, which is mainly grown in Oman, where the lucrative trade is largely controlled by the Sultan himself.

The Indonesian version of frankincense is a poseur. The few local growers who claim to be growing frankincense in Sumatra are actually growing Benzoin resin. According to CIFOR and the French Perfume Association, Benzoin resin triggers skin irritation and is considered a dying trade. Because it represents a danger to the public Benzoin resin is a highly controlled substance traded only by experts who understand what it actually does.

On the Benzoin resin trail

An Indonesia-based independent center for investigative journalism, which will shortly complete its independent investigation, is following the trail of the Benzoin resin trade. The center confirmed that the dangerous Benzoin resin scrub is indeed masquerading as the rare Middle Eastern incense sold in East Java to Muslim traders. Since frankincense fetches a considerably higher price than Benzoin resin, the traders from Toba are in fact selling a false product.

Besides deceiving the public, the false product presents a danger to the buyer. Muslim Hamdani, an official with the Indonesian Ministry of Health, who was interviewed about the government’s policy said, “If we find evidence that the Benzoin resin is sold as something else, we will of course take action to protect Muslim buyers of what is a dangerous product and stop the trading of Benzoin resin.”

But the question of the legality of the trade is overshadowed by the interest of the GAN agenda, since the community in question claims 2,000 ha of the land belongs to the Benzoin resin traders. An Indonesian National Land Agency official in Toba, Mario Hutabalang, pointed out that today the problem is not the land permits and the leases but the drive by foreign interests to undermine the legality of the rule of land. “This chaos created by a few doesn’t benefit the community,” he said. “The traders are actually illegally settling on the land, which is land leased legally to the company. Like it or not the government has a valid agreement on the lease. The few demonstrators do not.”

Frankincense or Benzoin resin… So what?

While the debate over whether the Toba farmers are growing frankincense or Benzoin resin may seem trivial on the surface, it is part of a bigger issue created by the agenda-driven GAN. Indonesian police officials have voiced concern that the new wave of NGO-staged demonstrations is undermining the stability of the community. “All parties must refrain from creating a condition that creates instability to the community,” a police sector chief (Kalpoksek) said in a telephone interview “We will take a hard stance on anybody who is trying to disrupt the peace of communities. The arrests of demonstrators are in accordance with the law. They were destroying private property and firebombing equipment. This is not a peaceful demonstration but anarchy.”

And the issue reaches beyond the rural communities. The GAN agenda has potentially destabilizing implications nationwide. Security officials from the Indonesian National Counter-Terrorism Agency have expressed in private what the SBY administration has yet to recognize: The rise of new security threats emerging from the civil society groups affiliated with the GAN and the global anarchist scene. The anarchists have in fact already made their mark. In September 2012 the Indonesian splinter of anarchist cells linked to Greek groups took credit for bombing an ATM machine in Makassar, South Sulawesi. Although the perpetrators were quickly arrested and convicted, the trend is expected to continue. Security officials have pointed the problem out to the president but due to internal resistance by members of his pro-NGO cabinet the president does not want to act. In despair, one top government security official said “If Bapak, (president SBY) doesn’t want to act, what can we do?” Sadly, and has been too often the case in other venues across the globe, it will likely take another act of violence and loss of life before the pro-NGO president opens his eyes and starts to understand.

By: Benjamin Wolinski

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


11 − 9 =