Friday, November 30, 2012

An Unsettling Homecoming

Well, I’m back in Aceh, after too long an absence.  It has been wonderful to get around the province with our new (as of this year) Associate Director and one of our Field Officers who’s been with us since JMD first opened.  We visited the Lamno (Aceh Jaya) projects and spoke with a number of Robusta coffee farmers regarding our ongoing attempts to assist them in reclaiming their approximate 1,000HA of coffee plantations virtually destroyed by the 30-year conflict.  We braved the bad roads (and lack of roads) to get to what is probably the current project dearest to my heart: an intrepid group of women cocoa farmers who, with very little equipment funding and lots of training and support from the Aceh Timur district Field Officer, have actually managed to make a go of cocoa as a sustainable (and growing) economic force in their community.
But as I returned to Banda Aceh I was struck by how . . . quiet things are here.  This visit marks the first time I have been to the province since the mass exodus of the last of the post-tsunami international NGOs, and while I expected the international activity level to be much less, it is accompanied by something a little harder to put my finger on.  A circling of the local wagons, if you will.  A change in the climate.  I’m not sure it bodes well.

As I reported here several months ago, Aceh’s elections resulted in Zaini Abdullah replacing Irwandi Yusef as Provincial Governor.  Since his election he has made sweeping changes in personnel that has resulted, at least on a local level, in an incredible slowing-down of government services and activities as these new appointees learn (or choose not to learn) their jobs.  Before, you could always see the indomitable spirit of regular citizens showing through  in all aspects of public interaction—from laughing and joking on the street to pleasant and cheerful conversation even in the face of hardship.  Now, it seems that every face everywhere—in the street, in offices, in the shops-- is very dour.  So much seriousness and sadness.  It is very strange.

Also, for the first time in the eight years I have been coming here, Immigration officers came to our office looking for foreigners that were reportedly living and working here.  JMD’s Aceh Registration allows for one international person to work at an NGO, but an Acehnese colleague told me that for some reason, government officials are coming down hard on foreigners, checking everyone’s papers, etc.  Each time a foreigner goes to a new district he/she has to register with the Chief of Police and have a travel permission document. This seems so counterproductive, especially when harassment is directed at one of the only, if not THE only, local livelihoods NGOs in the entire province.  What are they thinking?  Anyone not Acehnese is made to feel not welcome.

I wonder: are they doing this to tourists?  International Palm Oil representatives?  Coffee and Coca companies like Starbucks, Mars, and Nestle?  Or is this new provincial government bent on eliminating its entire local humanitarian and social services base entirely?  And what will the province be like when that happens, which from what I can tell will be quite soon?