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.

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