Thursday, September 26, 2013

Where are all the updates on the RSPO's "sustainable palm oil" activities?

A friend and colleague just sent me a link to Liberty Mutual Insurance Company’s corporate responsibility arm, called The Responsibility Project.  A 2010 article titled “A Better Future For Palm Oil” 
applauds the Dutch palm oil market’s plans “to only purchase palm oil from Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) members to ensure the sustainability of the palm oil supply chain. The 450 members of the RSPO, an international multi-stakeholder group formed in 2004, represent almost 50% of total palm oil production.”

I wonder how that is working out.  There does not seem to be a follow-up article, and as you know, we have seen the RSPO regulations and have questioned their ability to monitor their “members’” activities.  We have also commented on the absence of smallholders from RSPO’s activities, due to their belief that getting smallholders to participate is “difficult.”  And we have wondered, sardonically, why that might be . . . We have applauded the RSPO’s announcement that they will work to bring smallholders into the certification process, but have questions if that might only mean addressing those farmers who sharecrop for the large plantations, and even then, we have remained skeptical that this will ever happen, at least in Aceh Timur.

We are thinking of writing to Liberty Mutual and asking if their corporate responsibility department’s responsibilities extend to been tracking the “progress” of the Dutch palm oil market.  It seems as if some people feel that as soon as you say the word “sustainability” it’s like walking into an embassy and shouting “political asylum--” a big omnipotent mechanism will creak to life and relieve you of the, well, responsibility of having to do anything else or think any more about it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Organic fertilizer made from local materials: you think it’d be an easy sell . . . .we’ll see

JMD is about to start its second cocoa cultivation improvement training under the Finnish Embassy’s Local Cooperation Fund 3-year grant.  This will be a great training for farmers and community members in the riverside villages of Simpang Jernih and Pante Kera.  Since Pante Kera is the newest community in which JMD is working, we decided to hold the first training there, and our intrepid Simpang Jernih farmers made the trek across the river each day. We realized that this was rather a hardship for these women, and took away from valuable training time, so JMD decided to offer the training twice this time, first in Pante Kera and then, after the weekend, in Simpang Jernih.  We’re hoping that people will come to both, and we may get our wish since this is such an important issue: the creation and application of organic fertilizer made completely from materials grown and naturally occurring in the area.  The two villages, while close together, have some marked differences regarding what’s growing where—Pante Kera, for example, is home to many more water buffalo than Simpang Jernih, meaning a LOT more available nitrogen and . . . well . . . quantity of raw materials.

I mean, look at this guy.

That’s a lotta organic fertilizer!

Anyway, one of the things that JMD will be doing is assessing what types of things can grow best in each area that are the best for organic fertilizer (soy, peanuts, etc.) plus materials with sulfur content, and all the crop and food detritus that comes from a household.  Originally we had thought that farmers would want to use a mechanized thresher to grind up all the materials but we learned after a year that they really preferred a manual method, even making as much as would be needed to fertilize up to 1HA (2.5 acres) of trees.  So JMD has been altering the plan to suit the specific wishes of the community; we put the money received for threshers into what are basically weedwackers, one of the few power tools that they really adore in Aceh Timur, and so useful around cocoa trees for keeping weeds down and pests off.  During this training farmers will also learn how to make liquid fertilizer that they can spray on the plants as a pesticide.  Some farmers are reporting a 75% loss of beans from pests; we hope to reduce this significantly by the end of the project.

Just because the materials are plentiful and cost next to nothing does not mean that farmers will rush to take this idea to their bosoms.  Those farmers who have in the past used fertilizer buy it, and it is a chemical mix.  It’s fast, lightweight, and no one has (in recent memory) used organic fertilizer, at least in a mixture that appropriately blends the right concentrations of the needed ingredients.  So the training will focus not only on how to make the stuff, but the real, tangible benefits of doing so, so that farmers will a) want to fertilize, and b) want to do it so that it doesn’t hurt the forest.  But saving money is the first carrot. It’s hard to think about esoteric matters like environmental protection and helping the world’s oxygen supply when your kids go to bed hungry and a flood has just taken away all your possessions for the 6th time in as many years.

Staff just completed a very thorough (and very depressing) baseline survey that showed that the majority of farmers in Pante Kera had received no assistance, ever, from the provincial or national government by way of tools, training, or support in making cocoa economically viable.  Many women were using regular scissors and dull hunting knives to do whatever pruning they thought should be done, but really had never had any training in it. 

The government did, however, plant several small 2-5HA plots of .(wait for it) rubber trees in Pante Kera, as part of their “reforesting” initiative.  Hmmmm . . . I wonder where they got the idea that this was an environmentally appropriate and helpful crop?  Could it have been from the palm and rubber companies up the road? Remember in my previous post I spoke of the Bumitama company in palm oil-strangled Kalimantan—its representative said he could not understand why their workers/indentured farmers did not take advantage of all the wonderful things the company had done for them—like all those rubber trees they’d planted for them to tend . . .

Even though cocoa farming is generations old here, remember that the last generation was wiped out by the conflict, and for 30 years there has been no one to teach, no one to be taught, and nowhere to show how to conduct good farming.

The cocoa fruit is growing now, and farmers are getting ready to harvest, so the fertilizer will be applied after the harvest; now is a perfect time to learn how to make organic fertilizer, and all community members can benefit.  Whose garden does not need a little assistance?  Staff and the trainer are expecting about 30 participants in each training, which include all our farmer beneficiaries.  I told them to take lots of photos.

Here is a group of some of our newest farmer beneficiaries in their fields.

We’re going to try and get them to smile for the cameras during this next training, but as I know very well, the Acehnese have not had very much to smile about lately.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Down the Rabbit-Hole Again, Chasing Sustainability Certification

Sept 10, 2013

Dear Globalfilms:

I have a question regarding your film “The Sustainability Lie” dealing with palm oil plantations in Kalimantan. It’s a very interesting film and speaks to what the agency we support is facing in Aceh province Indonesia. The introduction to the youtube video states:

Wilmar International, the world's biggest palm oil supplier, clear-cuts the Indonesian rainforest without legal permits, contaminates rivers and lakes and uses force to drive people off their homesteads -- all this in the face of sustainability certificates.

Our question is: who gives out these sustainability certificates? NGOs or government agencies or both? Can you give us examples of specific corporations who received them (their names, the district/village, and how many HA these plantations have?)

Jembatan Masa Depan is also trying to create sustainable livelihoods on the buffer of one of the largest rainforests in the world and it is currently being taken over by palm oil concerns. We’d like to make sure that the information we are passing along is accurate, and so we’d like to know where these “sustainability certificates” come from and what they certify.

Thanks so much for your time.

So far, no answer.

I know the question is a little unfair, because there are a lot of certificates floating around—“certified” is the big buzzword in specialty coffee and our Arabica and Robusta projects were no exception. We bumped most disturbingly into this issue, however, when we were first doing program planning for our cocoa farming initiative. One of the things JMD wanted to do was to see if the small (but growing) group of smallholders, after they pooled their beans together to sell in bulk, could have the product certified and thus gain a higher price. As it is, we received funding for a Rainforest Alliance Certification pre-visit, scheduled for next year, but the whole thing is rather disheartening.

First, none of the certifying bodies are really monitoring the product. They want to make sure that “worker rights” are being protected, so they count how many hours someone works, how many kids are working, if women have worse conditions/longer hours than men, if the machinery is safe, etc. They also look at how a business operates within the natural resource and whether it is being environmentally sensitive and employing “organic” (green) farming practices.

All this is fine but as you can see, the certifying bodies are not going to visit small farmers who own their own land and who naturally have to work long and hard hours and so do the kids. They are interested in working only with cooperatives and large plantations where the workers are employees, not owners. There is, as far as we can tell, no such thing as smallholder certification, unless the farmers are part of a cooperative. So adored is the cooperative concept that many philanthropic arms of large chocolate and coffee companies will not consider funding projects that benefit independent farmers. And the co-op situation in Aceh is so bad that we don’t even say the word to our farmers. Co-ops here are never owned and managed by farmers. They are not collectives; they offer no training, no extension service, no bulk purchasing of seeds or fertilizer . . . in a word, they offer bupkus. Except as a large collection station and so farmers are guaranteed a sale of their product. These are the institutions that are “certified,” and how one certifies that this livelihood is “sustainable” is beyond me.

The two bodies/standards I know of that are doing cocoa certification of some sort in Aceh are Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certified.

Rainforest Alliance has been around since the 1980s and in Indonesia is committed to conserving rainforests and their biodiversity by establishing standards for large farms that employ workers. Their emphasis is on developing farm management plans and “improving workers’ welfare,” (says Wikipedia.)

Although we may be working with Rainforest Alliance, it’s still a mystery as to what they will “certify,” since neither they nor any other certifying body seems to recognize smallholder groups as being capable of consistently producing a uniform product and making decisions about their own farms and“welfare.”

Utz Certified was primarily a coffee certifier but has since branched out to cocoa I believe. It’s very active in Aceh but again, it deals with accepted formalized bodies such as cooperatives and large corporate/single owner farms. Its mission is to “create an open and transparent marketplace for socially and environmentally responsible agricultural products.” It focuses on environmental practices and “social benefits (e.g. access to medical care, access to sanitary facilities at work).” See how this could be difficult for a smallholder?

There are no certified cocoa beans being grown or purchased right now in Aceh Timur, so it’s difficult to convince people to work towards those standards—it’s harder, more time-consuming, and the greater returns are not seen until some future time when smallholders, if they waited that long, would be destitute. There also are no “certified organic” products being grown/sold there. This certification is based on the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) standards and is “the leading global umbrella organization for the organic farming movement,”according to Wikipedia. To be certified organic under IFOAM a farm must meet requirements “including the omission of agrochemicals such as pesticides and chemical-synthetic fertilizers. The use of animal feeds is also strictly regulated. Genetic engineering and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are forbidden.”And all this sounds great but leaves me wondering again and again, who is monitoring all this?

While Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade (which is not in Aceh as far as I know) standards were developed by social movements, many “sustainability standards” and regulations were developed by the large companies themselves including Utz, Starbucks Kraft Foods, Sara Lee and Nestle. Obviously, the object of big coffee or cocoa importers is to make sure to have access to a lot of product. One would assume that this is even truer in the case of palm oil, where the product is inserted in so many things of which consumers are unaware. But who gives out the “sustainability certificates” for palm oil cultivation?

GreenPalm ( defines “Certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO)” and palm kernel oil (CSPKO) as being produced by “palm oil plantations which have been independently audited and found to comply with the globally agreed environmental standards devised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). These stringent sustainability criteria relate to social, environmental and economic good practice.”

The RSPO was founded in 2003 and “spearheads the global drive for environmentally-friendly production of this crucial crop.” Members include growers, manufacturers, and conservation/social services NGOs.

The principal objective of RSPO is “to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through cooperation within the supply chain and open dialogue between its stakeholders”.

Forty per cent of the world’s palm oil producers are members of the RSPO, says Green Palm. Other members include Wetlands International, Rainforest Alliance, Cadbury, Marks Spencer, Unilever, Walmart, Oxfam and others.

RSPO ( put out a guidance document in 2007 (why rush?) called Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production. This is a 53-page document that lists indicators for sustainability. These include:

·         transparency, compliance with “applicable laws and regulations,” and a demonstrated right to use the land without interfering with the “customary rights” of those already there (in my experience just the opposite is true)

·         Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability,” (for whom, it does not say),

·         use of appropriate best practices (this refers to practices that insure the optimum yield of the crop, and not the adaptive re-use of the fields. RSPO’s standards do not address the fact that land that is planted with Palm Oil never recovers and is not really usable again. Local farmers who remain in their communities after the palm fields have been exhausted lose all form of sustainable income in the future.)

·         surface and ground water maintenance, controlled and minimal use of chemicals, no pro- active chemicals

·         worker safety plans (I confess to letting out a small guffaw at this)

·         “Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity” “Responsible consideration of employees and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills”

·         sexual harassment policies in place

·         “responsible” expansion

·         continual improvement of all indicators

So there you have it. I’m trying to report this objectively here, but I’m sure I’m not the only person working in Aceh who thinks that this set of regulations should be in the “Fantasy” section of the sustainability library.

So . . . .who goes out into the field and evaluates which companies are worthy of receiving RSPO certification?

According to RSPO’s website, “Independent third party certification bodies which are approved by the RSPO carry out the audits and take care of the certification procedure.” There are 12 bodies for certification for growers. These bodies are accredited by Accreditation Services International (ASI) which has “demonstrable expertise in monitoring the performance of certification bodies globally through a well-developed accreditation process.” That made my head hurt.

 [Addendum: from our “I Couldn’t Leave Well Enough Alone” Department: I had to see who this ASI was, and so I did. ASI ( is based in Bonn, Germany and is “one of the world’s leading accreditation bodies for sustainability standards systems. . . . .ASI assesses organizations that issue certificates for a range of standards, ensuring that audits are conducted with competence and global consistency. As the sole accreditation body for environmental standards systems such as the Forest Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, [my emphasis] ASI oversees the correct application of a standard’s criteria for certified operations worldwide.”

But get this: “ASI’s activity does not constitute an accreditation within the meaning of Article 2(10) of Regulation (EC) No. 765/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 9 July 2008. Nor does it constitute proof of any audit that may be required by the European Union or any of its Member States with regard to the sustainability criteria set out in Article 17(2) to (5) of Directive 2009/28/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009. ASI bases its assessment and accreditation of certification bodies exclusively on privately set standards, and they do not comprise an assessment or accreditation by public authorities.” [my emphasis].

So the private company sets its OWN standards, and ASI makes sure they are followed.]

Rather cozy, n’est-ce pas?

But let’s press on, shall we?

To get certified, a producer “must show a plan to have 100% of its associated smallholders meet RSPO standards within 3 years.” But what if it has only employees, and no smallholders? I am curious now about what the industry means by “smallholder.” I suspect that as in everything, economy of scale prohibits for-profit companies from addressing the needs of the neediest.

But how a smallholder would be able to abide by those standards is beyond me.

So that’s when, I suspect, the company comes in and says“there, there, don’t you worry, we’ll complete and sign off on your paperwork, just give us all your product.”


The certification assessment procedure "includes documentation review, field checks and interviews with external stakeholders (statutory bodies, indigenous peoples, local communities, workers’ organizations, smallholders and national NGOs) to ensure that all relevant issues concerning compliance with the RSPO Criteria and Principles are identified and assessed. If a certificate of conformance is issued, a public summary is included that outlines the main findings of the certification assessment, including non-compliances identified or issues that were raised by stakeholders. Public summaries are published on the RSPO’s website."

So for fun I did a search on “Wilmar.”

Only thing that popped up was Complaint on : PT Agronusa Investama (Wilmar) which was closed on April 2013, and involved from what I can tell the company taking over and deforesting land that was not theirs. (Shocking!) The outcome of the case stated simply that the occupants “gave up their claim on the land.” I suspect they were bought out, or out-maneuvered in court (not hard to do), or were on the wrong end of a deal made between Wilmar and government representatives to alter land records or “re-zone”that portion of the forest, which seems a very popular pastime these days (see previous posts).

RSPO’s FAQ also discusses the “trouble” that smallholders have in being certified:

“Smallholders are often not aware of the benefits of being certified - they do not know how to receive funding support and they do not have the expertise or capacity to adopt sustainable production methods. Given the significant ratio of smallholders in the palm oil sector, smallholders are central in RSPO’s strategy to catapult sustainable practices in the sector towards market transformation.” I have not seen anyone rushing to build that catapult for smallholders.

RSPO goes on to say that it has “been collaborating closely with major producing countries around the world to build capacity amongst independent smallholders in the past few years.” Not in Aceh it hasn’t. The RSPO also provides financial support to smallholders. In 2012, the RSPO established the RSPO Smallholders Support Fund (RSSF) whereby 10% of income generated from the trading of RSPO certified sustainable palm oil will be allocated for smallholders. [my emphasis] In addition to this, 50% of any remaining surplus of income within the financial year of RSPO is used in support of smallholders.

Now, I am going to have to find out about this because what I believe they are saying is that the “smallholders” who are in line to receive this support are what we would call sharecroppers—people who work for the big company, or under the big company’s rules, it being a kind of co-operative of the type that the coffee farmers loathe so much, that keeps them in debt by overcharging for seeds and materials and piling on the interest until quite soon they are indentured servants who “owe their soul to the company store.” And if I am right then in effect the money is just going right back to the Wilmars of the world—IF indeed this regulation is even being followed, which I doubt it is. And what exactly is the “income generated from trading palm oil?” What does it mean to “trade” palm oil? Does this mean that the oil itself, the finished product in a barrel, is kept track of separately by another company or a branch within the main growing company (Wilmar for example) and this particular link in the value chain is monitored (by whom?) and reported back to RSPO, who says, “Okay Wilmar, now give 10% of this back to . . . whom? The farmers who work on your farm? That’s great but it also cleverly encourages the cycle of dependence on Big Oil—Wilmar can say “if you don’t allow us to destroy more forest to produce more palm oil then the little guy won’t get that bonus at the end of the year.” 10% divided among how many“smallholders?” And you have to be in the “club” to profit from it. You cannot be independent. You cannot condemn your master’s disregard for the environmental or safety standards by which they are supposedly abiding. You cannot set your own regulations and help your own community and shrink up the middlemen so that you are making a good living.

You are not a “conservation refugee;” you are a conservation inmate.

Next: Who exactly is Big Palm Oil in East Aceh?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Speaking Truth to Palm Oil: A Close Encounter of the Oily Kind

There aren’t many documents or films about the people of Aceh specifically, as we have seen, but I wanted to find out if there was video information about the forests in Aceh, and how palm oil plantations are affecting it.

And yes there are. Many, in fact.

Some are Kickstarter projects (good news for us!) that were funded or are on their way to being funded, and are now on youtube:

Palm Oil’s Deforestation of Indonesia

And one from World Wildlife Fund called “Sustainable Palm Oil Production” to name just two, although WWF’s figures (45% of palm oil is grown by smallholders) are a bit misleading—these smallholders are not independent but are usually sharecroppers for the large concerns.

“The Sustainability Lie” (right up our alley) is a proposed project that is absolutely fascinating, and scary, since we were very close to being on the wrong side of this particular issue, right smack in the area that is the focus of this film.

The Sustainability Lie: how palm oil is destroying Indonesia Globalfilm productions, 2010


Europe wants green energy and low-priced fat. To meet these demands, international conglomerates build oil palm plantations as far as the eye can see -- and cut down the rainforest in exchange. Sustainability certificates and eco-labels are meant to set the consumers' minds at ease. However, this documentary from Indonesia shows that sustainability does not exist: Wilmar International, the world's biggest palm oil supplier, clear-cuts the Indonesian rainforest without legal permits, contaminates rivers and lakes and uses force to drive people off their homesteads -- all this in the face of sustainability certificates.

Since I am an egalitarian type of gal, however, and even though I’ve lived and worked in Indonesia for over 20 years I am woefully under-informed about palm oil, I wanted to see if there were any palm oil apologists out there making films.

I fear I have bitten off more than I can chew. But I’m going to pursue this a little further because I think it’s important and I cannot for the life of me understand why the international investigative journalism community has not tackled this, the issue of Big (Palm) Oil, and how complex and incredibly creepy it truly is.

First, let me say that there are a few websites out there that talk specifically about the nutritional value and health benefits of palm oil as opposed to other oils. [cf the American Palm Oil Council, I am not going to debate the merits of the product itself. I am only interested in how the product is grown and the damage it is doing to the environment and to people who have the misfortune to be living near the forests which are being eliminated in order to grow it.

[I understand that these two issues eventually intersect: if indeed palm oil is dangerous to our health, yet its marketing is so good that we grow and consume more than we should, then we would stop growing it if we knew its dangers. Let me tell you, that step is so far down the road you’d need the Hubble Telescope to see it.]

At first, I thought that there were several organizations extolling the virtues of palm oil cultivation, and I spent a lot of time tracking down web links and addresses and names of authors. It took a long time (which is why this post is late) but I was finally able to figure out that there is a compendium of, er, one agency that is very, very interested in keeping large-scale palm oil plantations alive and well in Southeast Asia. It is called the Palm Oil Truth Foundation and it first appeared to me as a “comment” in a blog called which condemns non-sustainable palm oil monoculture. Interestingly, 2 out of 3 comments referred back to the Palm Oil Truth Foundation.” (my comments in red)

You need to check your facts, cold and hard ones!

I live in Malaysia, and I am not affilifated to any of these sites below:

there’s one (Apparently, the foundation was set up because there are SO MANY organisations which have been misled; an example of the herd mentality of humans. (this refers to the article in #3, below, so it’s probably the same author)

(2) discussed)


This last was actually an article on a self-help website called “Palm Oil & Deforestation: Truth or Fiction?” by one “Frank Tate” whose bio states that “Palm Oil Truth Foundation (TRUTH Foundation) is an international non-governmental and not-for-profit organisation, without strings to the world of commerce and power.” The article is concerned with palm oil plantations in Malaysia, the lemming-like behavior of NGOs who “buy into” the “myth” that palm oil deforestation is responsible for the dwindling orangutan population, and the sleazy tactics of an agency called the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and its Executive Director, Mark Jacobsen. I could only imagine that Mr Jacobson did something really, really bad to Frank Tate because this whole campaign seemed incredibly personal.

As far as I can tell, and from the extensive on-line chatter about it, the Palm Oil Truth Foundation is the only “organization” that publicly supports large scale palm oil cultivation, disputes “myths” about deforestation, calls environmentalists and conservation groups everything from paranoid to capitalist to in league with the EU to keep palm oil all to itself . . . for a minute I thought Rush Limbaugh had embarked on a new career.

I was thinking I’d dearly love to be able to ask one of ‘em, “Have you ever been to Aceh, or are you just locked in a closet somewhere in Brixton with a laptop and an overbearing mother?”

But I read further and I suspect that they are not a “they,” they are a “he:” the redoubtable “Frank Tate.” And he writes of his “seminars” where he speaks to his “delegates.” But he is not just one “he,” he writes under so many aliases that it took a well-known watchdog conservation agency to help me uncover them all.

“Frank” writes for the Malaysian Palm Oil Consortium, which has the world’s biggest share of palm oil plantations in Kalimantan, Borneo. This makes sense because many of the palm oil concerns Indonesia/Aceh, and certainly the largest ones, are Malaysian. My discovery (I love this stuff!) was confirmed by a comment thread on this same conservation website,, where several staff and members of the public spend lots of time debunking anti-conservationist claims across the globe, and this includes taking Frank Tate and his aliases to task for their bizarre propaganda.

“Dave Scott,” a Frank alias, writes, in response to a comment about Mongabay’s motives: “Mongabay, like Greenpeace, FOE and Wetlands have a common agenda and it's not environmental. Their real raison d'etre is to inflate their own bank accounts. Why don't you own up that you've sold out and are operating strictly as a lobby for either "big oil" or one or more of the competing oil seed industries? . . .”

One of the comments that follow: “Dave Scott? Haha, that must be Frank Tate, Mandy, Sheila or any of the other people that the Sya family in Kuala Lumpur is impersonating while they harass NGO websites and blogs that are critical of palm oil. . . . The Sya's run the Palm Oil "Truth Foundation" and "Deforestation Watch". . . . Sya is clearly connected to Yusof Basiron but recently MPOC seems - at least on the surface - to be disassociating itself from Sya's Truth Foundation, that is it has taken out the link to the Truth site. Maybe a result of the KK conference which has made some MPOC people aware that they have to be less blatant in their claims.

[I have not found out yet who the "Sya family" is. Any help with that would be appreciated.]

I confess that up to about a year ago I didn’t know much about the long and unsettling reach of these big companies . . . until one came knocking at JMD’s door. We received a note from a representative of Bumitama Agri Ltd, ( which has some of the largest palm oil plantations in Central Kalimantan (Borneo), to the north of Aceh; Kalimantan is the subject of the documentary “The Sustainability Lie,” and the area where, as you will recall, MPOC has its largest reserves. We did not know much about Bumitama, only that it grew oil palm, and that we were being asked to “develop integrated agriculture projects” around the plantations there. We thought that this was a wonderful thing, that the company wanted JMD to set up an office in Borneo and assist people who were living on the buffer of both the rainforest and the plantations. I sent them a letter [some portions abbreviated]:

Dear M:

Thanks so much for getting in touch with JMD regarding your CCS [corporate responsibility] department’s proposal to implement some integrated agriculture projects in the areas around Bumitama’s plantations in Central Kalimantan.  I would be delighted to speak further with both you and the plantation manager regarding JMD’s past integrated livestock/agriculture projects and our planned future projects, which involve possible expansion into areas outside of Aceh province.

One of JMD’s areas of expertise is the development of projects for people living on the edges of restricted areas, either privately owned enterprises or publicly protected preserves.  As you know, it’s important for these projects to address residents’ needs as comprehensively as possible in order to establish a mutually beneficial and sustainable partnership between the larger entity (whether public or private) and the economic and social needs of the area’s permanent residents.  In the case of palm oil plantations, integrated agriculture projects on the buffer, combined with pilot projects that reclaim adjacent land no longer usable by the palm interest, are key to maintaining the sustainability and economic growth of both the private interest and the community in which it operates.

JMD’s web site provides a sample of the projects we have undertaken and I’d be delighted to forward you summaries of additional livestock and multi-crop agriculture initiatives at your request.  I look forward to learning more about the type and scope of the project you are envisioning so that JMD may best position itself to help you meet your community outreach/economic augmentation goals.

Something like that. It kind of pains me to re-read it.

At this point, we knew we were being asked to leap into bed with a less than savory partner, but the fact that they had shown such willingness to learn how to make their enterprise sustainable had us all a-twitter. We were so starry-eyed, so naïve . . .

And then came their next communication.

We soon learned that not only did they not want JMD to go to Kalimantan and implement a program, they wanted (free of charge and without our input) a copy of our project outline so that their management staff could run a “model” farm for employees to see what one was like, and somehow by seeing this they would run home to their own small farms and replicate this on their own. There was to be no direct benefit to workers whatsoever; the people with whom we spoke (and had Skype conversations) seemed genuinely puzzled that 95% of their workers (their figure) were not taking advantage of the projects Bumitama had “given” them, namely rubber farms and other non-sustainable crops these residents had traditionally never grown. Further, the reps told us that they were kind of nervous since people seemed to be “a little angry.” At this point we were still trying to figure out how we could be involved so we were polite, and didn’t say “Oh, so you say they’re rejecting your handouts and you don’t know why, even though you’ve ripped up all the forest they used to use for their livelihoods and tried to buy them off with rubber plants, is that what’s bothering you, Bunky?”

It dawned on us that in order to show “corporate responsibility” this entity had to hook up with a local livelihoods agency in some way and then demonstrate to a possible outside monitor that it was adding a “sustainable livelihoods component” to its plantations in order to meet some government or conservation regulation that said you had to offer people alternate livelihoods. And they’d figured outa way to do this without actually improving the lives of any of the employees. Genius!

I believe that there are many other instances in which this sort of shell game does occur, and passes for “paying attention to community needs” thus getting the “palm oil mafia” off the hook in terms of having to care about the workers it is exploiting.

Needless to say, we declined to show them our projects or become involved any further. No Christmas cards for us! We even had thoughts of going up there ourselves and just setting up shop . . . but Aceh has enough of this going on that we should probably stay where we know the territory . . . more or less.

There’s still a whole lot we do not know or understand about how the palm oil giants get to operate and evade all corporate and social responsibility in this part of Sumatra. But I’m learning more every day.

Addendum: if you’d like to read more about the Palm Oil Truth Foundation, never let it be said that I stifle the opposition : However, be prepared to not be able to see its content unless you give them your email. You’ll be treated to a little block of soundbites, blocking out its links and tempting you to read further:

FREE REPORT: The European Commission Uses Green Group Surrogates As Attack Dogs Against Palm Oil!
Civil rights group Libertiamo's "Disarming The Greens" Free Special Report reveals: How the WWF, Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth work with each other to distort facts about palm oil
Names of Activists working in cohort with the environmental groups for money
Manufactured claims against palm oil by European NGOs to protect the European Union's own edible oil industries!

Even if you go to their Facebook page, ( where they have 2,000 “likes,” egads!) and go to their charmingly titled “Daily Bash,” they will not let you see any of the content that they purport is the “truth” about how this is one big conspiracy by the EU to hog palm oil all to itself. You can, however, see their exposés on a site called newsvine, which I guess isn’t too picky about checking to see if anyone’s taken their psychotropic medication before posting, because these things are strange, even for panting propaganda

And to give equal time to the watchdog:
With more than one million unique visitors per month, is one of the world's most popular environmental science and conservation news sites. The news and rainforests sections of the site are widely cited for information on tropical forests, conservation, and wildlife.

Next: Sustainability Certificates: how do I get one?? Plus palm oil updates: the world has weighed in since August, it seems

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What to Include in a Documentary About What Sustainability Should Really Look Like

As you remember, this series of blog posts started out as notes to myself and my colleagues to help remind us of research we’d done into getting some additional funding to expand our cocoa farming improvement project in Aceh Timur, beginning in Simpang Jernih sub-district.  We wanted to make sure that, as in all JMD’s projects, “sustainability” really means something other than the right word to say when you’re hoping a donor checks off the box marked “okay to fund for another quarter.”

So among other things like adding to our knowledge of the political, social and environmental realities of the area, we wanted to discover personal realities: how people view themselves as citizens of the province, citizens of Indonesia, where they see their future and their kids’ futures, and how content they are to continue old traditions and strengthen their communities . . . or is everyone ready to give up and leave as soon as any outside assistance leaves?

What better way to do this than in some type of documentary form, whether through a “professional” documentarian, a university  or film school student specializing in documentaries, or a filmmaker interested in new ways to get people to speak honestly to “the rest of us” about their lives and feelings and hopes? 

I think we have built enough trust in the community to be able to get some pretty good data on what initiatives and activities could be sustainable in the district, and how they would remain so. I haven’t figured out the instrument yet (maybe it would be best to give video cameras to different groups of people and have them go film their peers and ask questions; I can’t find this anywhere but about 10 years ago a documentary filmmaker did this with young girls in street gangs and it was fascinating) but I think that OF COURSE we’d need to raise money for this too . . . and what better place these days than Kickstarter?

Sometimes, when we’ve done surveys in Aceh, we've found that just like anywhere else we get more honest answers when people are not given a lot of time to think about their answers, or that we are coming to do some interviews.  But I do want to make sure that people would feel comfortable answering questions coming from strangers about:

• What you want to see for your kids’ future
• How the conflict affected you personally (physically, possessions, loss of family, displacement, etc.)
• Did it disrupt your family life?  Is anything the same
• What you feel about your government
• Sharia law
• What you think about big companies from outside Aceh working in your district?  Do you know what they are doing in your area, and how they are doing it
• Personal anecdotes about the forest and its plants/animals, the conflict, illegal activities you know/knew about
• Would it be okay to talk to your kids privately about this stuff?  What age were they during the conflict
• Would it be okay to film you

Re: Cocoa specifically (this should also be asked of government officials):
• Do you think that Aceh Timur can overcome its obstacles and be successful? (name the obstacles or what you see as obstacles) and how you’d define success
• Are you willing personally to hang in there and stick with cocoa farming
• Do you believe women can (or should be allowed to) change or assist in changing the economic face of this region?  Are they doing so now

We also need interviews with:
• Palm oil manufacturers and the large cocoa plantations, if they’ll consent
• Anyone who believes that large agribusiness is good for the region
• Maybe the Kalimantan guys (oh, do I have a next installment on that one for you)
• Representatives from the Ministries (agriculture, environment, forests, etc.)
• Representatives from international conservation NGOs
• Forest rangers
• Anyone doing social services (mainly to show that they don’t exist)
• Possibly the author of the book on “Conservation Refugees”

As part of the process it might be appropriate, although we haven't done it in the past, to give people something for their participation, like seeds, or vouchers for motorcycle fuel or some small token.

It would also be great if we could give the 2 villages that we’re interviewing some communal thing, like needed materials for an existing school, or repairs to a health/community center.  But all of this would have to be part of the funding we’d need to raise.

The documentary would have to also be able to explain how the world cocoa market would benefit from Aceh Timur’s smallholders being allowed to utilize full potential of their cocoa plantations

It would also have to effectively demonstrate how the protection of the rainforest is key to the economic success of the smallholder and the preservation and sustainability of this local farming population.

Easy peasy.

Can’t wait to start.

In the meantime, however, JMD staff is preparing to start Training #2 this week—let the organic fertilizer production (and the organic integrated pest management) begin!

Next: Speaking Truth to Palm Oil: current documentaries on rainforest destruction in Indonesia, and JMD’s Close Encounter of the Oily Kind in Kalimantan

Monday, September 9, 2013

Updates: Interviews with Aceh’s Conflict Survivors

I’ve been looking at the traffic on this blog and it went way up when I was talking about the Leuser Ecosystem, the danger to the environment that mining and palm oil present, the importance of forest stewardship, and the Rohingya.
So from now on, even when I’m talking about things like conflict survivors I’m going to throw these words in there so you’ll read about this stuff because friends, it’s like plumbing—it’s all connected. 
You cannot have a good forest stewardship plan in Aceh without addressing the inequities and suffering of people who have lived through, and are still living through, the effects of the 30 year conflict with the Jakarta government.  Until that very sizeable minority is assured that both the provincial and national government cares about their well-being they will place rainforest health and conservation second, and survival and justified resentment first. 
So: rainforest, rainforest, rainforest, tiger, tiger, tiger, Sumatran Elephant, orangutan, Leuser, tree, plant life, water, water, river, river.
Do I have your attention?
A few posts ago I wrote about some questions I had regarding Steven Shewfelt’s Legacies of war: How Violence Shapes Post-Conflict Life, so I wrote him asking if I could reproduce some of Chapter 5 Displacement in Aceh here. He has graciously consented.  There are 2 reasons I wanted to post this section on Aceh.  First, this is one of the few documents that refers to anyone wanting to know about what conflict survivors are thinking: about their homes, their safety, and the future of their province, and it also specifically mentions Aceh Tiimur.  Second, and perhaps conversely, this lack of any other survey of this kind leaves poor Dr Shewfelt at a disadvantage, since his pool of respondents are pretty much the only respondents ever to be asked these types of questions.  And I believe that the people who spoke with him may not really represent residents of Aceh Timur as a whole, but I could be wrong.  He conducted focus groups with both men and women but does not say how many or where. He also interviewed a group of 20 Javanese men in both Aceh Timur and still in North Sumatra where they had fled from Aceh Timur during the conflict.

So I’m going to ask him if there is a part I missed, and if he did indeed interview more than 20 people individually, and how many 8-12 member focus groups he conducted, and if the individual interviewees were not just men, and if these men were not just Javanese.
Because as we have seen in the previous posts, Javanese make up only about 25% of the Aceh Timur population, and there were no ex-combatants or women or youth interviewed individually.
So while it was heartening to see an attempt to find out how people were doing after 2005, it really may not be sufficient to make any conclusions about anybody but these 20 guys.
But there are some interesting bits.  I think his main conclusion is that the trauma suffered by people as a result of their being displaced from Aceh is not as severe as the trauma suffered by people who remained in Aceh and who to this day experience the effects and after-effects of this war that’s now gone underground.

(My comments are in red and in brackets; the italicized or bolded sections are also my emphasis).

"Respondent after respondent during these interviews and focus group discussions in Aceh pointed out that one of the consequences of the conflict was that the security situation made it impossible to harvest crops. Once the conflict ended, clearing fields, planting crops, and rebuilding living accommodations became a primary focus of many rural villagers’ lives. Moreover, several villagers noted that “staying busy” by engaging in these kinds of activities and organizing others to work on them together was one of the best ways for people to move beyond the trauma they had experienced during the war. In one village in which loyalties during the war had been divided between villagers sympathetic to GAM and villagers sympathetic to the government, people from these different factions were unwilling to speak to or deal with one another during the conflict. Government sympathizers would “walk to the other side of the road” when they saw a villager approaching who they knew was sympathetic to GAM, and vice versa. I asked a number of people in this village to describe if, when, and how relations between people on either side of the GAM / government cleavage had changed. Without exception, the villagers noted that these sympathies no longer mattered. And the most important factor in generating this change was the signing of the memorandum of understanding that ended the war in August 2005: [because everyone in the villages was told that they would be compensated and be able to make a living.] . . .  Previously there were some pro-GAM and some pro-TNI people in the village. . . . . Things changed little by little [after the singing of the peace agreement].  As the peace agreement has been implemented with considerable success, [really???] people who live in the province and see the day-to-day improvements in the security situation, even if they have not returned to their homes of origin, are less likely to hold on to the polarized sentiments through which they see a potential enemy in everyone who is not a known compatriot. [true, but most do not believe that the government upheld its promise of providing reparations to conflict survivors—see Aceh Village Survey] This dynamic was evident in a focus group discussion with people who were still displaced but lived in Aceh. Interviewer: Now, after the MOU, are you worried, afraid of experiencing prejudice or something? Respondent 1: There is no prejudice anymore, because it’s not only Javanese here, there are also people from Gayo, Sumatra and Aceh. No matter here or anywhere else, the people of Aceh are now united. And there are ex-GAM members, for example in Sindang Balik, and they live here now, so [there is] no more prejudice and we are not worried.
"Rather than security concerns, which would be most likely to be related to polarized sentiment, these respondents (all Javanese) [my emphasis] gave economic explanations for the fact that they were still displaced.
"The most notable exception to this pattern came from the respondent in the focus group who had experienced the most severe trauma during the conflict. . . . That the respondent who experienced the most severe trauma during the conflict would be the lone person concerned about security may be explained by the findings in the previous chapter that higher levels of trauma are associated with increased polarization and decreased trust. [it’s my opinion that the majority of people in Aceh Timur have experienced that trauma, so I’m unsure how the interviewer was able to recruit so many well-adjusted respondents.]
". . . The stories told by displaced people living in Aceh were considerably different from the stories told by people who left the province. Interviewees in [Langkat] North Sumatra consistently gave security concerns as the main reason for their failure to return to their homes of origin.. . .

"Whereas the respondents who were still displaced but lived within Aceh gave economic explanations for their displacement status, these respondents tended to focus on security concerns.
Respondents who live in Aceh, having observed the changes underway in the aftermath of the conflict and likely having had more significant opportunities to interact in everyday settings with people across the lines of cleavage that defined the conflict, better understand the reality of post- conflict life in the province and are less terrorized by their memories of the way life in the province functioned at the time they were displaced. In contrast, those who live outside Aceh have an image of life in their home of origin that hinges more on what it was like when they were displaced than it does on the current reality, which is in fact largely secure.
[It almost seems as if Dr Shewfelt is equating being “less terrorized” with being mentally equipped to handle the realities of post-conflict life, when in fact I'd argue just the opposite.  Prolonged exposure to horror produces shock, numbness, mental shutdown . . . you say you’re fine when in fact you are anything but.] 
". . [The] security concerns [of Javanese living away from Aceh] are all rooted in past experiences.  . . .
"We might assume the security concerns expressed by the respondents in North Sumatra reflect more severe traumatic experiences. Such an assumption would probably be wrong. As noted above, survey respondents in North Sumatra scored lower, on average, on the traumatic events index than did respondents in Aceh . . .for Javanese who remain displaced).
". . . A final explanation for the finding that interview subjects in Aceh and North Sumatra give different reasons for why they have not returned is that the dynamics of the places in which they live have affected their understanding of life in their homes of origin. The fact that respondents in Aceh are less likely to identify security concerns is consistent with the idea that living in Aceh has provided them with a balanced perspective on the current reality in that location and has begun to break down the perception that the ethnic “other” is by definition a potentially lethal enemy. By the argument presented above, this would occur because survival strategies in the reasonably stable post-conflict Aceh context [I am not sure what he means by “reasonably stable.”  In what way?] involve engaging across lines of cleavage [meaning, I think that in order to survive, people in Aceh had to be friends with everyone, or at least pretend to be], which is likely to lead to decreases in concerns about security, decreases in political polarization, and increases in social trust.
". . .  the narratives suggest that there is something different in the evolution of political perspectives when one lives in the former conflict zone than when one lives outside that conflict zone, . . . One explanation for this difference is that people living in Aceh see in their daily lives the changes brought on by the peace process and are quicker to let the emotional scars of the war heal . . .[and this is where our differences lie, I think]
". . .  I viewed this investigation as the first step in disaggregating traumatic experiences into more than one type in order to better understand if and how different kinds of trauma differently affect post-conflict outcomes. I argued that the international attention paid to IDPs and refugees makes this a reasonable place to begin. The non-findings in the chapter are as interesting and important as are the findings. First, the evidence suggests that displaced-related experiences have almost no independent effect on post-conflict social and political life. This contrasts with the findings in the previous chapter that traumatic experiences, of which displacement-related experiences are a subset, do have an effect on post-conflict social and political life. It seems that, as compared to the other traumatic events people in a conflict zone tend to experience, those related to displacement are not particularly meaningful. . . .  As much as intuition may suggest and as much as  policy-makers tend to focus on displaced people when providing humanitarian and reintegration assistance, this study suggests such a focus may be misplaced if the goal is to stabilize post-conflict political life. In this sense, the findings here are consistent with findings in other post- conflict settings that a disproportionate focus on the needs of the displaced is often perceived by those who stay behind in the war setting as unjust. Such perceptions create tensions that interfere with the peacebuilding program (Demichelis 1998; Pickering 2006). . . .  a more fruitful avenue might be to focus assistance on those who can be identified as having experienced traumatic events more generally defined."
Even with my questions and concerns about both this study and the Aceh Village Survey, they both in the end reinforce what I think is one of the most important things to remember about life in Aceh Timur: for many, many people, the conflict has not really ended.  And local NGOs like JMD, international conservation agencies, provincial government ministries, and Big Palm Oil/Mining--we all need to remember this as we try and assist this incredibly complex ecosystem and its fragile inhabitants.