Junpiter Pakpahan: Empathy in Leadership

This week I’d like to showcase an incredible leader who invited me into a life-changing internship with the Center for Peoples’ Initiative Development (KSPPM), a land rights advocacy organization in rural Sumatra, Indonesia.

I met Junpiter Pakpahan when I was 18. He was in Seattle on behalf of iLEAP, a non-profit that sponsors cohorts of leaders from the global south, inspiring, connecting, and providing them renewal to ignite social change. Junpiter is an organic farmer, educator, activist, remarkable networker, organizer, politician, father, husband, and Christian. After earning an agricultural degree in Medan he started working for KSPPM in the rural town of Parapat. He traveled around the largest volcanic lake in the world, Danau Toba, visiting farmers, educating them about their legal rights and encouraging them to organize and protest. Since the early 70’s the major issue in the area is a Japanese-American pulp producer called Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL). TPL is responsible for massive clear-cutting and erosion—hopeless farmers—millions of dead fish—furious fisherman—and widespread pollution-related asthma.

Junpiter demonstrated himself as a leader with KSPPM. Farmers listened to and followed him. The women and men he educated self-organized and staged dozens of protests in front of government offices, demanding recognition of indigenous land rights. He showed these people their own potential and initiative. He raised funds to buy two acres behind the main office, employed two young men and taught them how to restore vitality to soil damaged by years of pesticide and fertilizer use. Through the Batak Protestant Church, he was recommended as a candidate for the Asian Rural Institute, a leadership development and sustainable agriculture training center in Japan. It was there that he learned English, his third language after Indonesian and Batak, and was recruited for iLEAP’s program in Seattle.


Junpiter 3rd from right with Semasta cofounders and high schoolers

In recent years Junpiter tired of KSPPM’s “hard” approach to improving the lives of their clients—an exhausting combination of protests and legal advocacy. Much to the dismay of his wife, coworkers, and boss, he left KSPPM to start a new organization, Semasta, which stands for Prosperous Sovereignty in Tapanuli (the name of the area). Semasta is still focused on education and empowerment but their efforts are based in community and sustainable agriculture instead of advocacy and protest.

There are four reasons why I think Junpiter is an exemplary leader.

  • He is unendingly creative. He ran a campaign to serve as an Elections Oversight Officer, a position that monitors political corruption, knowing he could use the car and laptop he receives as part of that position to mobilize resources for Semasta. For someone without access to capital this has proved an ideal solution. Junpiter approaches problems as opportunities. He teaches people that they can turn their weeds and food waste into highly nutritious fermented pig and chicken feed.
  • He has a big heart. When I interned with KSPPM, Junpiter had already quit. Despite some peoples’ frustration with his decision to leave, he would ride his motorcycle 30 minutes out of the way to check on me when I became terribly sick. I cherished our conversations because he, perhaps more than anyone else at KSPPM, was willing to listen about the challenges I was facing in such unfamiliar context. After Moe and I visited Semasta’s new training center, he planted a tree for each of us, complete with a placard of our names, to honor our visit during the early stages of the organization. These small actions reflect why poor, rural farmers more readily follow and heed him—he practices empathy.
  • He reaches out for help. Semasta, the new organization Junpiter directs, is not his project alone. He recruited five other remarkable people—local pastors, expert farmers, entrepreneurs, and educators—to join Semasta’s cause. He arranged a meeting between Moe and I and the governor of North Tapanuli. Keep in mind this is someone who has spent years picketing in front of government offices. He was willing to shake hands with people who used to be his enemies because of the opportunity therein. As a result of the meeting the governor agreed to visit Semasta’s training center and is considering sponsoring a socially-minded tourism initiative.
  • He nurtures his spiritual self. Like many entrepreneurs, Junpiter packs his schedule tight. But when he hosted me and others in his home he always led prayer before diving into his wife’s delicious cooking. This small practice is an act of leadership because it expresses gratitude. More than most Christians I knew growing up, Junpiter walks in Jesus’ way. He sees himself as a servant of his community, one that, like Jewish villagers under Roman rule, is oppressed by the powerful forces of the industrial profit model. Prayer, song, and the tight-knit church community keep Junpiter grounded in his deepest desires for his homeland.

I hope that readers are inspired by Junpiter story. Keep in mind that his story is ongoing and the Batak people he works with are presently struggling as climate change throws a hammer into the predictable pattern of rainy and dry seasons. I’ve learned so much from Piter, as his friend’s know him. If you’re interested in learning more or contacting Junpiter, please comment below.

Jim Morris