Thursday, November 7, 2013

Letter to the New York Times

Well, this is what I would have written to them, if I were allowed 500 words.  (I posted the referenced article a few days ago). As it was, I had to pare it down to 250, and maybe they'll print 125 if I'm lucky.  But as Julia Child would say, there's no one writing your blog but you, so here's what I wanted to say:

Dear Editor:
As President of a foundation that supports one of the only local sustainable livelihoods agencies in Aceh Province, Indonesia, I read  Sara Schonhardt’s October 11 article, “In Indonesia, Environmentalists See a Disaster in the Making” with great interest and relief. Then I began to remember sadly that every time, no matter how much press, social media campaigns, and international and Jakarta-based environmental group pressure is put on Indonesia to curb deforestation in Aceh, the result has been nothing more than sympathetic platitudes and lip service.  Since 2009 the Indonesian government (and, in increasing and terrifying increments, the Aceh provincial administration) has been assuring us through surveys, conferences, studies, and workpapers—but never by actions or actual initiatives-- that it is committed to a green and sustainable future, while simultaneously ripping open the province to outside extraction interests with which the government can “partner.” Currently palm, rubber and mining concerns in Aceh are touting their “sustainability certification,” when in fact the regulations outlining compliance are developed by the companies themselves and, the MPOC roundtable notwithstanding,  the actual and reliable monitoring of these plantations and mines by objective third parties has yet to occur.  And will not occur; palm oil companies “choose” not to share any of their data with appropriate ministries, and have blocked initiatives that assist smallholder farmers who do not want to be part of the deforestation machine in their community.  (This is what in Aceh is called a “state owned business.”) Jakarta’s complex and unhealthy relationship with Aceh, the grinding poverty of local communities living on the forest buffer, and the lack of concern for the thousands of separatist fighters living in those same areas who have never received any type of compensation—none of this is conducive to the government specifically addressing the obscene amount of destruction, employee abuse (including forced labor and rape), and disregard for the fragile ecosystem that has the incredibly bad fortune to lie in an area where the only rule  followed is: get as wealthy as you can and get out.

I just don’t know who to be more angry at—the schizophrenic provincial administration that broadcasts its conservation record and holds sustainability conferences while leaping into bed with big palm oil in the name of “economic strengthening”—or the international NGOs who since 2005 have done little to develop and educate strong local agencies and leaders who are committed to protecting the resource and their communities long after the last Chief of Mission paycheck has been cashed.

People living on the buffer of rainforests in Aceh do not want to be sharecroppers. And all the international hand-wringing and Save the Orangutan campaigns and Indonesian bureaus of global environmental groups is not dissuading the people making the money from making the money.  The wildlife is being eradicated and the soil is eroding and the indigenous communities are starving and on the other side of the world we are about ready to run out of oxygen and we all know that the Sumatran elephant in the living room is the unwillingness of the Indonesian government to yank itself into developed nation status and curb the tsunami of corruption at the ministry level.  But really, why should it?  If the international community wants to truly help, we will move heaven and earth to support and train local conservation and community development efforts.

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