Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Real Meaning of Sustainability (a several-part series), Part I

How're You Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Cocoa Farm?

I’ve been spending the past two weeks alternating between elation, frustration, deep depression, and white fury as I try to sort out what seemed to be a simple, straightforward approach to one of the issues JMD will face and is facing in the implementation of this 36-month Phase III of the Women’s Cocoa Initiative in Aceh Timur.

The next few blog posts (possibly interspersed with some news that doesn’t make me want to leap out a window) will be a sort of chronological reporting of the scavenger hunt that has been my search for information about the true nature of the community in East Aceh.

It all started with a meeting I had with an old friend last December in Jakarta; he’s head of a pretty large company with a branch in Indonesia and was eager to see what he could do about getting the company to donate funds to one of our agriculture initiatives, specifically one that included goats. It was perfect timing because we were about to start Phase III of the Aceh Timur cocoa project, and we were curious about whether we could establish another group in the district that had never worked their cocoa fields before, and basically had to start from scratch. With this group we’d also start doing 100% organic fertilizer right away, without having to “wean” the trees (and the farmers) off the chemical stuff. This would require a lot of animal manure so there was (happily) and goat breeding/fattening component to the project. We sent Robert the intrepid Field Officer off to the more westerly wilds of Simpang Jernih sub-district to find some suitable villages, and we had great success. My friend assured me that the funding was practically a done deal. We submitted the application and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Then came the news that the Board of Directors needed to review the proposal. No, everything looked good, nothing wrong.

Then more silence.

Then, after another gentle prod on our parts, we got the sense that funding yet another agriculture project to yet another group of women was somehow. . . boring to these corporate philanthropists. We racked our brains to think of what could “sell” this project.

And we thought we found it in the body of a GTZ-funded project in Sierra Leone overseen by ACDI/VOCA through their Agribusiness Systems International (ASI) program. What appears to capture the interest of global donors these days is providing projects for people in post-conflict areas. And if you can serve youth in post-conflict areas, more’s the better. Now, BBF and JMD have been serving post-conflict individuals since the agency started, and I am too much of a gentlewoman to remind those who need to be reminded that although we begged BRR and the Indonesian government and World Bank AND the Multi-Donor fund to share the tsunami recovery money with conflict-affected communities, we were in effect shooed out of the building.

But now, post-conflict is the new black. And in Sierra Leone, a multi-million dollar cocoa and coffee improvement project was established that would “target youth employment through agricultural development” and “implement interventions that utilize[d] training, organizational and operational skill development, and increased access to agricultural production to integrate young people and increase youth employment.” Trainings would include “materials that will be used to increase production and marketing opportunities in coffee and cocoa for program beneficiaries,” and staff would be charged with “organiz[ing] and lead[ing] youth in forming marketing associations, LLCs, and/or linking with existing coffee and marketing organizations to sell coffee and/or cocoa products.” The project would also “work with producer organizations and other program beneficiaries to increase their understanding of the qualities and quantities required by international buyers and identify new markets,” and “explore existing end market opportunities for local cocoa producers and marketing associations and . . . facilitate value chain workshops for coffee, cocoa and other agricultural value chains that are important to [the area’s] agricultural industry.”

So I thought two things:

1) When did we create a parallel proposal for Sierra Leone?

2) If this is the new angle (get youth to do it,) maybe my friend’s company would like our proposal better if we mentioned that we also used “children of conflict” in our projects, not just those conflict widows and female heads of households who’s plight was so passĂ© these days. In fact, some of our most successful goat-rearing projects involved pairing a widow with a young man from another family who was at risk of engaging in criminal activity (illegal logging, poaching in the protected forest, growing marijuana) just to have income for his own family.

So in July we called ACDI/VOCA to see if they were doing similar projects in Aceh (which we knew they weren’t because no international NGO is doing anything there these days in the field of sustainable livelihoods, and local NGOs don’t exist anymore). But we wanted to let them know that if they were thinking of establishing one, or wanted a local partner to implement one, JMD was the agency to call. It’s now August and although we have contacted people who have put us in touch with other people and everyone has assured us they’d get back to us, silence has reigned supreme.

Nothing new.

But I digress.

In the meantime, of course, was our successful first training in Pante Kera. Lots of community members attended. Women brought their kids. I started to think: will these kids want to be cocoa farmers? Will the sub-district be in the position to take a stand and “declare” that smallholder cocoa farming is how they want to “brand” their region? It was then that I started thinking about what true “sustainability”means. After JMD leaves Simpang Jernih and Pante Kera, the women farmers will have had enough positive reinforcement through more money and a better quality of life to continue the practices that they’ve used for the past three years. Okay so far. And maybe other community members join in the association. But what happens in the next generation? Will these people be able to convince their kids, and their kids, that the family business is not only lucrative but fun and fulfilling and helping their region become culturally alive and educationally superior? In other words, how you gonna keep em down on the cocoa farm?

We hear a whole lot about NGOs going into places and providing a service or developing a project that the NGO, not the community, thinks should be in place. Wouldn’t it be helpful, in this wild and desolate rainforest scarred by guerilla war and hospitable to only those who have known it for generations, to understand what makes those people tick? JMD’s staff has many close friends and colleagues in Aceh Timur, and from an agricultural, training, and in some instances a “case management” perspective, they know the people and their cultures and traditions better than most outside agencies do. But if we want to do pilot projects in Simpang Jernih that eventually tie in with the women’s cocoa initiative, if we want to insure that cocoa production is a part of all generations of the community like fishing is to Gloucester or cattle ranching is to Texas or tourism is to Athens, then we have to have in addition to specific demographic information a real sense of who are the next generation of East Acehnese men and women. What are their hopes and dreams, do they see themselves leaving as soon as they can (have some of them left only to return because they were not able to survive outside the district), do they continue to live in their villages out of obligation or lack of options, are they very religious, do they like Kayne West and BeyoncĂ© and Indonesian Idol, do they play games and cause mischief, can their current educations get them good jobs outside the area, do they love the lives they have?

Do they remember what it was like when people were fighting and dying? Do they still think about that? Do they fear the government—and if so . . . which one? Do they think that they should protect the rainforest, or do they care? Are their parents dead or disabled? Do they hold grudges? Do they believe that the mainland has forgotten them?

It seemed like the stuff of a documentary. And it seemed really important that we know it in order to truly work towards sustainability of a project that has so many strikes against it I can’t begin to count: economy of scale, poor infrastructure, competition from mining, petroleum and palm oil interests, lack of government services including healthcare and education, and a global community that thinks that Aceh has received “enough” aid and now it’s time for corporations to roll in and extract wealth, throw money at “environmental” groups to “purchase” production rights and begin to wipe the third largest rainforest in the world and all its inhabitants right off the map.

Next time: the start of the hunt for actual information on Aceh Timur and its residents.


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