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.

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