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!


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