Saturday, June 29, 2013

The cocoa empire begins to grow . . . Watch out, palm oil!

My most recent trip to Aceh was last November.  It was so good to see all my old friends and colleagues—I’d been away nearly a year!  We managed to go to Simpang Jernih as well as Lamno, on the west coast in Aceh Jaya district about 2 hours from Banda Aceh, where JMD still has ongoing projects and where one of my oldest friends in Aceh, Ali, still lives and acts as district liaison for JMD.  We’d gone to talk to the Robusta coffee farmers, because I still believe that farmers can really make some money producing good quality Robusta, which is extremely hard to find in most parts of the world.  The regular Robusta is common, but good Robusta is like gold.  However, the rehabilitation of 400 farmers’ fields was too much for just a little agency, and at this time the international donor community doesn’t want to invest in Robusta production (even though CQI thinks it’s the wave of the future) so JMD staff and I reluctantly agreed that Robusta was not in our immediate future.
I was so happy to see, then, that the women’s group in Simpang Jernih, Aceh Timur, was doing so well, and as I mentioned last time, I had some time in Jakarta to meet with the Finnish Embassy, who invited us to apply for their small grants program, called Local Cooperation Funds (LCF).

What LCF will help us do is increase the size of the current women’s coco production group in a way that is palatable to them and which takes into account the immense and multiple challenges facing a smallholder farmer in this region of Aceh.

First, I should say that no matter what other agencies may say or want to believe, smallholders in Aceh do not have good things to say about cooperatives.  Many, like our coffee farmers in central Aceh, view them as a necessary evil but understand that apart from the assurance of being able to sell the coffee they produce, the cooperatives do not exist for the betterment of farmers but for the benefit of administrators, who are not farmers but entrepreneurs.  So there is a disconnect between the farmers and the entity that is supposed to be for them and run by them. 

Unfortunately, donor agencies and certification bodies do not have much choice when they decide to work in a sector—it’s impossible to make agreements with each farmer so they do the next best thing, and require that the contract for services, money, training, or organic certification be with the cooperative.  Since the only large cocoa production in Aceh is done on large corporate farms, smallholders can’t get certified precisely because they are smallholders.  Certification certifies working conditions as opposed to cocoa quality, and measures things like days off and child labor and conditions for women.   Smallholder cocoa farming is a family business and so there are no “employees” except those who probably every day break some sort of labor law out of necessity.

So what JMD wants to do, little by little, and is starting to do with this 3-year LCF project, is work with small groups of cocoa farmers, primarily women, who have not yet been able to count on cocoa as their prime source of income due to not enough training, materials or encouragement. A “group” is something cocoa farmers don’t have a problem with, and they can even consider the term “association” without too much sneering—but JMD’s challenge will be to convince these small groups of 10-20 farmers working close together but in different villages in the district that there is power in unity, and if a group makes its own rules and shares information and cooperatively manages its finances, it can become a lead provider in the Indonesian cocoa market—a  pretty impressive feat for a part of the province literally ripped up by conflict and government apathy.

So with LCF we are working on our second group of farmers, and our Field Officer Robert has just come back from a series of community meetings and beneficiary identification sessions in the new village of Pante Kera, which is about 10k and 20 minutes from Simpang Jernih, a perfect distance . . . except for the additional river crossing (of course!) 

some of our potential Pante Kera beneficiares
Public Transportation, Aceh Timur style, on the river Tamiang Hulu
loks sorta comfy!
Pante Kera means “monkey beach” in Indonesian; this entire area on the buffer of the rainforest is full of rare and endangered species that until recently have been able to live fairly symbiotically with their human neighbors. 
The name also suggests the relative isolation of the inhabitants of this region of the province, which is one of the reasons, I believe, that so many illegal and self-serving land grabs and clear-cuttings and illegal transport roads have appeared here.
[I'm going to write to Norm Van't Hoff, who has some manificent photos on Flikr of the rainforest wildlife and the destruction caused by clear-cutting for palm oil, and see if we can get permission to link to some of them, as well as his useful and informative power point slide presentation on what's happening to Aceh's forests.]
The entire community is very excited, as are their neighbors and “colleagues” in Simpang Jernih  There are about 315 residents in 70 families throughout the village, and they have never received any assistance from the international community.  A few years ago the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry donated land on the Pante Kera side of the river and rubber tree seedlings, which some residents tend.  Rubber trees are another crop which, like cocoa palms, destroy the soil, cause erosion at the forest edge, and limit the sustainability of any other agriculture initiative.  But they’re easy to grow, with few pests, and you can make a quick buck, which is why the big corporations like them, and why many residents of this region have been forced to grow them and cocoa palm instead of labor-intensive iffy cocoa.  What JMD hopes to do is encourage enough farmers to eschew palm oil and rubber, which can be done given the right knowledge of pest management and organic fertilizing practices.  All global commodities signs point to cocoa as being a more lucrative product than coffee in the very near future, and if we can get out Aceh Timur farmers over the hump and working as a small but growing unified force, we hope to attract the positive attention of even more formers and the provincial/national government itself, which will support cocoa production over palm oil and rubber, and in so doing enact or preserve current protections on valuable rainforest habitat.
25 intrepid cocoa farmers with little experience embarking on a totally new way to become economically self-sufficient  can’t do it all—but we think it’s a great start.
JMD has just selected a trainer for the first of what will be 8 week-long workshops over the next 3 years.  This training will be In Pante Kera, and both communities plan on attending as well.  We’re hoping to get everyone involved in the training; learning about improving cocoa production is also useful for any farmer who wants to better understand soil composition, integrated pest management, working in the forest buffer, how to make organic compost, how to keep good records and grow your business, etc.  Plus, Robert has insisted on serving snacks—he’s a wise man, our Robert!


Thursday, June 27, 2013

How the Women’s Cocoa Production Group Was Formed

(Continuation from last entry)

For a year, JMD’s Field Officer lived and worked in the village of Simpang Jernih, and this is no small feat.  Simpang Jernih, or “SPJ” as we call it, is not exactly a hop, skip and a jump from Banda Aceh, where JMD’s main offices are located.  When I go to Aceh I try to visit SPJ and this past December I made the trip.  I have to say it’s no easier now than it was in 2009 when Robert first became our eyes and ears out there.  5 hours by bus to Kuala Simpang, then depending on the tide, a 5 to 13-hour boat ride down to SPJ, then a nice ten-minute walk to the village. 

 going upriver

I just love water buffalo.  And they make a lot of organic compost!!!

The absence of a farm-to-market road has always been an issue for people who live in this region.  There have never been any engineering studies done to see if a well built (ie not turning into a lake during the very long rainy season) road could be constructed that would not cause erosion and could interact in harmony with the surrounding forest and its rare and endangered tree and wildlife species. 
 This happens a lot

 so does this!

People here are very resourceful, however.  Collectors still manage to come into all the remote villages to buy cocoa, then transport it by boat to Kuala Simpang.  But appropriate roadways would mean that the cocoa producers in this area could interact as a group and sell their products as one production “bloc;” they could also easily travel from one farm to the other, and the sharing of best practices, equipment, and advice could turn this area into a smallholder’s paradise. 

I have a whole blog’s worth of stories about the road issue, but that can wait.

Anyway, so there’s Robert in SPJ and JMD has very little funds at this point to devote to Aceh Timur; most of our resources were going towards a 1,200-farmer coffee improvement project we were conducting with IOM to the west in Tamiang, Central Aceh. 

One of our agriculture extensionists shows Arabica coffee farmers how to select the best beans to pick

We asked Robert to ask the women what they needed most, to be successful.  They said they needed good pruning and harvesting tools, as well as some supplies to construct a cocoa tree nursery.  BBF looked everywhere for funds to help these women.  We applied to a variety of conservation, agriculture and sustainable development foundations and organizations for $9,000, and were put on hold or turned down every time, due to our economy of scale: the livelihoods of 10 women (who were doing a man’s job and taking 100% of the initiative, by the way) were just not something any agency wanted to bother with.  Large cocoa production companies like Mars and Nestle certainly couldn’t be bothered—no return there.  But Robert and his group of now-10 women kept plugging away, with Robert providing training and what amounted to ag extension services, and BBF coming to the rescue to buy the tools for each woman at JMD’s request.  And in the meantime Robert and the women started a cooperative nursery and began learning about different types of cocoa and which grows best in their soil, and how many to plant and how to fence the nursery to keep out the animals—and they were doing all of this by themselves with very little help from anyone, only their desire to have a successful group and make their cocoa better. 

Is this a beautiful nursery or is this a beautiful nursery?

Eventually, however, JMD could not pay Robert to remain in SPJ and he had to look for employment elsewhere.  About this time, JMD received an offer on a piece of equipment that it acquired in 2006 and which it had not used very much in recent years, so we decided to sell that and with some of the proceeds JMD developed the “Phase II” of the women’s cocoa project.  This 6-month phase, which just ended in May, created a small warehouse for the group’s tools and equipment and brought in a subject-matter expert to provide a week-long training on cultivation, grafting, pest control, and the importance of organic fertilizer use in areas near the rainforest.  And of course Robert came back to oversee it!

While JMD concentrated more on cocoa production (our coffee project was winding down) we began to learn more and more about cocoa as a strong global commodity and the potential it has to transform local economies in places where it grows best.  And since Aceh Timur was one of those places, JMD started thinking about expanding this project to include more groups in Aceh Timur who could be trained to rehabilitate their cocoa fields, improve the quantity and quality of their cocoa, and band together to sell the cocoa in bigger bulk, thus potentially eliminating many of the middle men and increasing profits for themselves and their families.  Strengthening smallholder cocoa production in this area also goes a long way to mitigating the devastating effects of the palm oil industry, which is currently overshadowing cocoa production due to its ease of cultivation and higher return.  The effects of palm oil cultivation on the landscape, the environment, and the local population, however, are truly devastating. []

 During my latest trip to Aceh via Jakarta, I had the good fortune of meeting with representatives from the Embassy of Finland who urged JMD to apply for Local Cooperation Funds, designed specifically to help small groups improve the welfare of Indonesian citizens.  We were awarded a 3 year contract that began last month.  Robert was named Field Officer for this project (of course!); he’ll be living back in his second home of SPJ for 2 weeks out of each month.  The current group could not be more excited, and our new beneficiary community in the even more remote village of Pante Kera is excited and ready to start work.
Next entry: we are finally caught up and I can tell you about “Phase III” of the Women’s Cocoa Improvement project so far.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Back to Simpang Jernih, where Cocoa is QUEEN

Apart from yesterday, it’s been a while since I posted to this blog as you can tell, and I am certain that my thousands of worldwide followers have missed these updates! (hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?)  But neither I nor JMD have been idle; we’ve just been laying the groundwork for what became in May the start of a three-year cocoa improvement initiative in Aceh Timur (East Aceh) funded by the Embassy of Finland’s Indonesia Local Cooperation Fund (LCF) that builds on the work JMD has been doing in the district since 1999.  Where to begin?
Since 2008 JMD has been serving communities in Aceh Timur in a sub-district called Simpang Jernih.  Simpang Jernih is a fascinating place, in part because incredible natural phenomenon, valuable and diverse resources, and man-made devastation have converged here to create one of the most beautiful, isolated, dangerous and challenging places in Indonesia if not the world. In fact, it was while we were in the village of the sub-district, also called Simpang Jernih, in 2009 that we heard about a group of about 200 Rohingya Muslims, refugees from Myanmar/Burma who had landed in the northern part of Aceh Timur.  I’ve written extensively in this blog and elsewhere about JMD’s efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya in the face of nearly every type of imaginable opposition or apathy, and the fight isn’t over.  But this strip of coastline is also part of the same district that is known in its southern reaches for having some of the most optimal soil in Indonesia for growing high quality cocoa. 

Since most of our programs stress the need to diversify crops to yield the highest return and not rely on a single crop that may or may not do well in a given season, we began working in Simpang Jernih with the entire community, conducting training in what’s called integrated farming techniques.  Our participants had multi-vegetable crops, beehives, goat herds, poultry barns . . . the whole agricultural enchilada. The community—and, in fact, the entire sub-district—was and continues to be faced with three enormous challenges--and these certainly aren’t all their challenges by a long shot, but they are all connected and they are three that we figured we could address.
This eastern section of Aceh is home to an enormous rain forest, identified as one of the three largest in the world, some of it protected and some of it awaiting protection.  One of the protected areas is the Leuser Ecosystem ( which spans some 4 million hectares (about 9,500,000 acres) and is home to an incredible number of endangered plant and animal species including the endangered Sumatran elephant, tiger, rhino, leopard and orangutan.  The trees in the forest are highly prized for both the type and quantity of wood they produce.  People who for centuries have lived on the edge of the rainforest like our communities in Simpang Jernih have until recently been able to live in, and off of, the forest.  A subsistence lifestyle was what sustained the majority of people living in this rural and isolated section of Aceh Timur.

The 30-year civil conflict between the Indonesian government and opposition forces in Aceh played out in guerilla warfare that spread throughout the province, using the most appropriate land as battlegrounds: remote, rugged, with densely forested hills and valleys in which to hide, attack, and destroy.  And destroy they did.  Although the 2004 tsunami wiped out coastal regions, the civil conflict wiped out the highlands, and with them went the largest economic exports the province had to offer: coffee and cocoa.  Thousands of hectares of fields were destroyed and lay fallow for years due to farmers’ fears that another battle could be right around the corner (and often was).  The peace accord of 2005 brought an end to the overt fighting, but it left behind thousands of acres of ruined agricultural land, a generation of women without husbands and children without fathers, and an opposition force returning home with no prospect of employment, government assistance, or livelihood.
To survive, communities on the buffer of rainforests took to illegal logging and poaching, and those who did not turned an understandably blind eye to their neighbors’ activities.  The international community had long ago targeted Aceh as a prime rainforest area deserving of protection but no one could figure out exactly how to protect it and keep its inhabitants alive at the same time.

 The government had an answer and it was Palm Oil.  Never known for its transparency or love of the outdoors, the Indonesian government (and to a great extent the provincial government) made it very easy for large international concerns to appropriate vast swaths of rainforest for roads leading into even vaster swaths of forest which were turned into palm oil plantations.  This type of farming is nearly permanent in its destruction of anything that can grow in its place, and it displaces vast numbers of animals and birds, many who will not cross a road and so end up starving themselves to extinction.  But the government is no fool and entered into several agreements promising to protect the forest and hire forest rangers to patrol it.  This plan, of which we were a part for a short and painful time, is so inadequate it makes you wanna cry.  For one thing, Jakarta will not allocate any resources to forest protection, and the ministry that does exist is populated by positions that for the most part do not exist.  Those few dedicated souls who actually show up to work and know a little about their assigned area are so overworked and overwhelmed that whenever we speak with them, instead of asking for or receiving information from them  we end up wanting to give them a cup of tea and a cookie send them to bed.

 So you’ve got a remote, isolated area in a remote, isolated province, with little or no access except to huge multi-national palm oil plantations (and oh yes, rubber), and the only legitimate economic activity is work for the plantation or grow your own palm oil for the plantation, and the illegitimate activity (killing animals, harvesting 600-year-old trees, growing marijuana in the forest) could get you murdered.

And in comes tiny little JMD, and we give a training in how you can be economically successful and protect the forest which us a resource in ways you don’t even realize, and say NO to palm oil and YES to integrated farming, and preserve your traditions and take back your sons who are now at-risk of joining small militias, and live with very little help from either us or the government . . . .and our first training, which was a week long, drew 65 people.  And after the training nine women came up to us and said “We want to make a living growing cocoa.  We have formed a group and we want you to show us how we can be successful.  We don’t know a lot and we don’t have any tools but we’re excited about trying.”

And so the Simpang Jernih Women’s Cocoa Production initiative was born.

 Now we are up to date, or at least to 2010, and tomorrow I will tell you about the first two phases of the project and how we got to our 3-year extension, which started last month.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Liberia Cocoa Improvement Project, now in its second year, mirrors JMD’s initiative in Aceh Timur: Guess Who Gets World Bank Support?

New Liberian Tree Crop Rehabilitation Project to Benefit 26,000 Farming Household Members (2012)

 What happens when a national government has programs and staff in place in its Agriculture, Land Tenure, Labor and Economy ministries to address standard of living issues in specific provinces?  It gets the attention of the World Bank, who finances a $24 million 2-year cocoa improvement project in Liberia.  A glance at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)’s Smallholder Tree Crop Revitalization Support Project (STCRSP)’s design report ( outlines a cocoa revitalization project so similar to JMD’s Aceh Timur Cocoa Improvement project it is downright spooky. 

 The executive summary mentions international cocoa market trends, environmental awareness, the need to re-integrate former combatants into a legal workforce, a high number of poor smallholder farmers with less than 2HA of land  who need to pool their resources to strengthen their product and raise profits, the need to target female heads of households, youth, and war-wounded/disabled. “Particular attention will be given to the participation of women and youth through their involvement as service providers in the value chain . . .” 

Now, where have we heard that before?

The proposed project aims to increase the incomes of the targeted cocoa and coffee producers through a raise in the quantity sold and the price received by poor farmers obtained by rehabilitating plantations, improving access to markets and by strengthening MOA and/or private extension services as well as farmers-based organizations/ cooperatives.”  Components include revitalization of cocoa plantations, training in green (organic) farming methods, Farmers Field Schools methodology, and management training.  

The only differences between Liberia’s project and JMD’s Cocoa Farming Initiative are the project’s scope (due to its extensive budget), its additional goal of creating farm-to-market roads (which JMD has advocated for at the provincial level since 2008) and the continued and supportive presence of government agencies and officials who are empowered to make policy decisions and who daily articulate the government’s support of and involvement in the project.

 "Over the last two years, we have been assisting the Government of Liberia in developing mechanisms for supporting the Liberian smallholder tree crop farmers in rehabilitating their tree crop farms. . . . This project, which will promote productive activities in agriculture in support of the Government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, will also serve as the preparation stage for a future long term program aimed at restoring a vibrant tree crop sector in Liberia, generating rural incomes and employment opportunities in the rural areas." –Inguna Dorraja, Country Manager for LIberia

 Why is government support so important for projects such as cocoa farm rehabilitation and improvement in post-conflict zones?  In order to receive World Bank support a government and its staff has to agree to be actively involved in the success of the initiative.  It also has to demonstrate that commitment by contributing a percent of total costs, which in this case is about 8% or US $2 million.

Without this government support, private companies such as major cocoa producers will not want to invest in the project.  No problem there for Liberia, who predicted it will receive 20% of project costs through a private funder.

 Known throughout southeast Asia and elsewhere as having some of the best growing conditions for quality cocoa, Aceh’s geographical and political relationship to Jakarta, combined with the 2004 outpouring of tsunami reconstruction aid, has resulted in a “donor fatigue” of sorts, an assumption that the province has “received too much” support and outside assistance is better spent elsewhere.  Adding to this misconception is the interesting phenomenon of government fatigue: the inability or unwillingness of the mainland Indonesian government to participate in its own betterment at nearly any level. 

 JMD will continue to implement its small, community-centered projects for which little or no local, regional or national government support or interest is available.  Our best wishes to Liberia, however: we hope you make good use of our mutual proposal and strategy :) !