Saturday, March 5, 2016

JMD cotinues to grow, and help cocoa farmers in the province

Even though Building Bridges to the Future is no longer able to fund JMD’s projects, staff continues to let me know about their progress in Aceh, and over the past few months they have accomplished great things.  First, a grant from the International Foundation will allow the agency to do a cocoa farming project in Pante Bidari sub-district, Aceh Timur, which is about 60 miles to the west of Pante Kera and Simpang Jernih.  They’ve been doing a 4-month multi-village training initiative in Pante Bidari, teaching cocoa farmers (including many women farmers) about organic fertilization and pest management.  What’s amazing is that before the project, this area was completely opposed to any NGO coming into the area and doing any projects. (remember the $6.7 million project presumably conducted by AAA that had never been done? This was one of the areas they supposedly "helped." No wonder the community distrusted anyone who said they were going to do any training.)  JMD finally found one village that accepted assistance, and when the training started it was such a success that all the other surrounding villages realized that JMD was not an outsider to be suspicious of but a very, very good friend.  People practically fell all over themselves asking if they could join the training (of course JMD said yes!)
 Our intrepid trainer has stayed with JMD since 2011 and everyone loves him. Here's a scene you don't see every day in Aceh--men and women learning together.

So the camats (chiefs) of the village begged JMD to continue with other projects after this multi-training project ended, which it just did last week.  Robert went back to Seunebok Tuha and Pante Rambong village to distribute fertilizer to 80 farmers. What great timing: the International Fund money will be able to support 10 of those farmers—all women-- in Pante Bidari similar to the one JMD had run in Simpang Jernih and Pante Kera.
 Cocoa farmers (men and women) practice making organic fertilizer.  I could have done without the cigarette, but hey.--baby steps!!

And what of Simpang Jernih, that original group of cocoa farmers who asked for assistance in 2009?

JMD staff had managed to wean them off of any commercial fertilizer and pesticide, and they are now fertilizing and controlling pests with only materials found right in their villages, such as eggs, honey, ginger and bamboo shoots.  The transition from chemical fertilizer, which is far too expensive for most farmers, to organic fertilizer, has been gradual and painless. Besides saving money and insuring continued fertilization and pest control, the organic farming practiced by the women now insures that the surrounding forest vegetation and wildlife is also protected. 
 Wetting down the fertilizer before it's covered with black plastic to get it fermenting

I am so proud of this little agency, that did what much larger agencies have continually failed to do in Aceh: create a sustainable project that provides economic benefit to the community, a chance for women to improve their daily lives, and the incentive for younger generations to stay in the area and continue cocoa farming, which is slowly growing into a provincial commodity.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

How to do a REAL cocoa improvement project

A few months ago I posted some information on an international agency that had received 6.7 million in 2008 from the post-tsunami economic development funds to do a massive cocoa improvement project in 5 districts, one of which was Aceh Timur.  Its final report to World Bank indicated that of the over 4,500 farmers the project was going to serve, at least 1,200 were in Aceh Timur. Since JMD had never heard of either the agency or its proposed project, or that there were 1,200 cocoa farmers receiving services in the district in which JMD worked, staff visited the area in 2012 and found . . . goose egg.  No one had received services, promised facilities had not been constructed, the 9 requisitioned vehicles were nowhere to be found, and $6.7 million had disappeared—poof!  like that.
Which is one of the many reasons why my blood boils when I am told that large contracts should only go to “established” international agencies because they are the only ones capable of handling the money.

Well, they handled it all right.

Anyway . . .
What JMD did find in its visit to the northwestern part of Aceh Timur was a 10-village community in the sub-district of Pante Bidari with fertile soil, great conditions, and great potential for growing cocoa, but whose farmers had received no training in how to do really good organic pest management, which makes the difference between weak, scraggly, non-productive trees and the trees we’re now seeing in Simpang Jernih.
Like Simpang Jernih sub district, the communities in Pante Bidari lie on the buffer of the rainforest, and citizens are still recovering from the effects of the 30-year protracted conflict.  So JMD asked its current project donor, the Embassy of Finland’s LCF (Local Community Funds) program, to divert some funding that was to be used for a Rainforest Alliance pre-certification visit and allocate it to a 4-month cocoa improvement project in Pante Bidari.  Unfortunately, as we found out, Aceh Timur is still lagging behind when it comes to cocoa farm certification, and so a visit at this time wouldn’t be too beneficial, since buyers are paying the same amount for uncertified cocoa as they would for certified.  An RA visit is an expensive proposition also, and so the nice people with LCF agreed to allow the transfer so that residents could begin to re-claim the livelihoods their ancestors lost during the conflict.

 Here's a map of Aceh Timur (most of it) showing Pante BIdari.  Simpang Jernih, about 40km south, is the dot right below the magnifying glass and to the right a bit--see how it's right on the river (that you have to cross by raft to get from Simpang Jernih Village to Pante Kera.) Pante Bidari is about 4 hours from  the main road  which should make for easier farm-to-market access, but JMD reports the connector road is still pretty bad.

Our plan is this: JMD is contracting with our very intrepid trainer to conduct 3-day pest-control trainings in 4 separate communities.  These trainings will be similar to the training that farmers received this past summer (weeding, pruning, maintenance for healthy plants, integrated pest management) and include training in how to create liquid organic fertilizer/pest control.

We’re estimating that estimate that 20 cocoa farmers, predominantly women, will attend each training. 

So for a relatively small amount of funding JMD will be able to reach at least 80 farmers, and through one training component they will have tangible evidence that it’s possible to re-establish cocoa farming as economically viable livelihood.  In this way, Aceh Timur district will be closer to the economy of scale necessary for an organic certification process to make an economic difference in the lives of these farmers.

Junaidi and Robert will be traveling to Pante Bidari next week to meet with lots of people, including all the village chiefs (Camats) as well as representatives from the Forestry and Agriculture Department.  Plus (and this is where it gets interesting) they have submitted requests and itineraries to the Aceh Military base and local police departments because (of course!) the bad guy du jour, one Din Minimi, and his band of separatist thugs are said to be holed up somewhere in that very sub district, and gunfire has been exchanged in recent weeks.  I am extremely concerned for the staff’s safety, but I wanted to mention this because this tiny agency is going where no one else dares to, and it can’t even get funding from any international agency (besides LCF) to increase its programming or administration.  World Bank gives $6.7 million to an agency that disappears, but because JMD is local they get bupkus . . . and still they are going to go try to make a difference in the lives of the rural poor in the province where everyone else is too frightened to venture.

I’ll try to post some photos when I get them.  Go to JMD’s website.  Make a donation.  Support this agency and help these cocoa farmers.  This matters.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

August in Simpang Jernih: the harvest season begins with great training and healthy trees

Robert’s been helping some of the farmers with some early harvests these past weeks—Aceh Timur has begun the season, which is a long one due to the variation in elevation and temperature on the farms, even though they’re quite close together.   

The rainforest has its own micro-climate and really affects when and how the cocoa ripens.  Speaking of the forest, the monkeys are really at it this year, due in part to the drought that has pushed them out of the forest to look for other food, and finding their absolute favorite (cocoa), the farmers and their families have been run ragged trying to keep them away from the trees.  But look at these babies!  This is what organic fertilization and pesticide can do to a tree’s production in just one year!

Both Pante Kera and Simpang Jernih farmers received their 6th training in August, under the Local Community Grant from the Embassy of Finland.  (Yay, Finland!)

This time, three trainers were on hand to discuss proper seedling planting, paying special attention to tree placement in relation to shade trees, and how to measure correct distances from shade trees to allow for the cocoa tree’s growth. 

 Farmers still have about 500 trees that were grown in the nursery early this year, and in the coming weeks, in addition to the harvest, they’ll be planting these new trees in the perfect spots for them to be as productive as possible.   

Add to that their grafted branches from superior varieties, and cocoa production should really soar.   

 Robert and the farmers have a harvest chart that tracks production so at the end of this harvest we’ll be able to see what percent increase they realized.  

 I think everyone’s going to be happy!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

If you ever wanted to support JMD, now is the time

This is a hard post to write. 

For over ten years I have had the privilege of being involved in the development and support of Jembatan Masa Depan (JMD), which was originally comprised of tsunami survivors who wanted to help their communities recover from the devastation that claimed the lives of over 200,000 people in Aceh in 2004.  During that time, I have witnessed firsthand (and reported in this blog) what has been documented in many World Bank, UN and BRR (Indonesian recovery agency) “exit” documents: the greatest failure of the recovery effort was the international community’s lack of support and training of existing local agencies.  Instead, international NGOs created their own temporary programs, recruiting local staff and effectively destroying any local organizational capacity in the province.  None of the billions of dollars spent on reconstruction was allocated to administrative support of local organizations.  As a result, today there are no more than a handful of local NGOs in the province, none of which are deemed “administratively competent” enough to receive larger grant funds, especially funds for sustainable livelihoods, conservation, or services for women.  When small agencies are denied all but the smallest grant funds, which must go to direct services, they have no chance to expand their administrative capacity—or, for that matter, to fund an appropriate administrative and fiscal oversight component.

The post-tsunami/post-conflict multi-donor fund helped Aceh get back on its feet after one of the worst disasters in history.  But make no mistake, it made a lot of international NGOs very wealthy, and gutted Acehnese civil society to a point where I am concerned about its ever recovering. 

Building Bridges to the Future Foundation (BBF), the US-based non-profit we established to help support JMD, has begged the international donor community to change its funding policy to include appropriate capacity building and administrative costs in its grants to local NGOs in Aceh—some small compensation for the toll taken on locally-led initiatives over the past 10 years.  It has also urged donors to accept the fact that some agencies, such as JMD, actually managed to develop sound administrative and fiscal management skills despite the international community’s best efforts to the contrary. 

But sadly, 2015 is the same as 2005: no capacity building is forthcoming, no local organizations are encouraged to autonomously serve their province, and no international donor believes that Acehnese-led organization can deliver services without the help of a much higher-paid international “implementing partner.”  The absurdity of this was made especially clear when two of JMD’s EDFF (multi-donor economic development fund) proposals were appropriated by World Bank, modified slightly, and given to international organizations to implement, one of which hired JMD as a subcontractor for the work it felt JMD was “capable” of performing.

Since 2005 BBF has assisted JMD with this glaring issue by providing annual funding for all the agency’s administrative services and equipment, while small grants and sub-contracts have provided direct service costs.  This marks the last quarter that BBF will be able to do this.  JMD staff is now working on a plan for a year-long transition to autonomy (since they have about 12 months of operating expenses in reserve), at which point other administrative funds will have to be secured or the last sustainable livelihoods NGO in Aceh province will be forced to close.

I still have hope, however, that this extremely difficult challenge will turn into an unforeseen opportunity, as JMD works with its Board of Directors to re-visit its mission and vision, and searches for other agencies with whom it may be able to partner, providing an agricultural livelihoods arm that few current international organizations working in the province possess. 

I’m going to continue to post updates on JMD here from time to time, but I urge you all to visit their website ( as well as their Facebook page (Bridges to the Future/JMD) to keep track of all the good work this agency continues to do for the people of Aceh province.

Friday, August 7, 2015

“It’s reasonable now to talk about genocide prevention in Myanmar.”

The New York Times hasn’t let up on the Rohingya crisis, and it’s taken a nasty turn--as if it could get any nastier.  (Rohingya Women Flee Violence Only to Be Sold Into Marriage, August 2)
In true malicious-government fashion, Myanmar has forced so many Rohingya men to flee to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia that a new and nefarious demand has cropped up—Rohingya men want to start families where they live and so are paying traffikers (again, Rohingya) who see a good market and trick young women into traveling out of the country with their families—only to be sold to the Rohingya men.

For the Myanmar government, this is perfect.  Where have we heard this refrain before: “See? It isn’t our fault—they’re doing it to themselves.”  East Timor, Aceh . . . sound familiar?  You dehumanize a population to the point where it is impossible to act for the good of the group; everyone is relying on blind and desperate instinct, and morality falls away. As Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights says, “It’s reasonable now to talk about genocide prevention in Myanmar.”  And Rohingya activist Nur warns, “If this keeps up, in 30-40 years there will be no Rohingya culture.  Everything is shutting down on us.”

Ambiya Khatu, center, with her niece and mother, married a man in Malaysia who paid $1,050 for her release from smugglers. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

“I was allowed to call my parents, and they said that if I was willing, it would be better for all the family,” said Shahidah Yunus, 22. “I understood what I must do.”
She joined the hundreds of young Rohingya women from Myanmar sold into marriage to Rohingya men already in Malaysia as the price of escaping violence and poverty in their homeland.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Rohingya Update: As you can see, Myanmar is really taking the world’s message to heart . . .

The Burma Times seems to be the media outlet closest to the Rohingya crisis that is sticking its neck way, way out in reporting on what’s new in genocide-happy Myanmar.

Three reports appeared this week on its site, including reports of “barriers” imposed on Rohingya trying to leave the flood-affected area of Pungná cwéng, where already 9 people are missing, as well as prohibitions against entering the village with any type of aid.  (Rohingyas prevented from moving out of flood inundated village in Pungná cwéng)



Another article, No aid for Rohingyas, reports that “in Kyauktaw, Rohingyas were turned out of shelters while in Akyab they have been warned not to move out of their neighbourhoods even when they are submerged in flood water.”

“The Rohingya village in Pungná cwéng lies in the midst of hostile Rakhine territory and there has been a continuous blockade leading to chronic food shortages. 
“There was no food stored by the villages and in the midst of the floods, the Rohingyas are suffering from a lack of food and lack of drinking water.
"Much of the poultry and the livestock have also been washed away by the floods.
“In the last few days, the villagers are spending their times in knee deep water as they continue to be refused permission to reach the flood inundated village. At present, there is up to three feet of water.”

The articles note that “this is a crucial election year” and that possibly the government will provide at least some marginal, face-saving assistance to the Rohingya.

But I’m not holding my breath.  With a 90+ per cent Buddhist majority, who needs any other votes?  Let ‘em drown.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The True Asians: time to allow the Rohingya to receive “stateless passports”

I read an English summary of a really interesting article last week, by Rossen Yankov, a Bulgarian journalist, who was advocating for the issuance of a European passport for the Roma ethnic group, many of whom live in Bulgaria but being nomadic are really stateless and should be given stateless citizenship/passports. “They are not Bulgarian; they are European,” states Yankov.  The entire article, which was in Bulgarian, was difficult to translate, but lest we think that Yankov is nothing but a warm and fuzzy humanitarian, the objective behind his argument Is much like that of the majority in Myanmar: Rohingya may live here, and may have lived here for generations, but this isn’t really their nationality, so why should we have to bear the sole burden of caring for them?  Of course, Myanmar doesn’t spend any time thinking up solutions like Mr Yankov; they just torment and kill their ethnic minority, forcing them to either get out or die.  Which got me thinking: there are two types of nomads in the word: nomads by tradition, like the Roma, the Tuareg, the Berber . . . and then there are nomads by necessity, like the Rohingya.  
Shouldn’t the Rohingya be considered nomadic now?  Expelled from their country of origin—and make no mistake, Myanmar is where these particular individuals originated—they are forced to wander the world in search of employment, sustenance, peace.  And if they are considered nomads, wouldn’t the Roma/EU argument apply—that they should be given stateless citizenship/passports?

Some governments make concessions  for nomads—access to pasture, participation in government, voting rights that are fluid across states depending on where the Nomad is in the yearly travel cycle.  Some nomads stay within country borders, some do not.  

So what happens if a country through torture, genocide and exile, creates a nomadic tribe, and the world through its inaction is complicit in this creation-- should that group not be given the same opportunities that the traditional group receives?

Of the Roma, the largest minority in Europe, Yankov says, “They are the eternal strangers here, there, and everywhere else. . . . They are the true Europeans.”

The Rohingya, also, are eternal strangers everywhere.  Are they now not the true Asians?