After several days of administrative and office work with JMD's Banda Aceh staff, Field Officer Robert is back in Aceh Timur for three weeks of providing intensive training, materials delivery, storage barn-building, fording rivers and schlepping organic cocoa growth hormone (that we are trying to find the recipe for so we can make it ourselves).
He’ll be busy from dawn till midnight, but as the photos he sends us show, he loves his
work and is happy as a mollusk when he’s in the field.
Robert used to be a shy photographer but over the past year he has developed an amazing eye and documents all the progress in Aceh Timur
better than anyone else could—you can tell by the expression on the faces of the farmers and the kids—they
all like and trust him.
This training will be really important because JMD is trying to get this group of women
interested in being a semi-formal association, and develop rules and
recordkeeping and agreements regarding how cocoa will be graded, stored, and
sold. This is an enormous undertaking in Aceh, for a number of
Rural communities like those in Aceh Timur have extremely low literacy rates due to
the internal conflict having disrupted education for 30 years. Even
though JMD now assists the Dinas (department) of education help people get
their high school equivalency diplomas, graduation rates for women remain very
low. And recordkeeping, measuring, and business management skills are
crucial when you’re starting any business.
The other roadblock is the international donor community’s reliance on the co-operative
system in developing countries. The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA)
“has worked over the last 117 years to expand the presence and awareness of
cooperatives around the world. . . . The seven ICA Cooperative Principles
[including democracy, autonomy, equal access, voluntary and open membership,
group decision making and planning, community/local government involvement]
have provided one of the main methods for ensuring consistency in the movement,
and have had wide uptake throughout the world.”
Unfortunately, co-operatives in Aceh do not necessarily adhere to these seven
principles. In remote and extremely poor areas, members do not have the
time or resources needed to be involved in anything other than their farm
labor, and so the business of administering the co-op, making decisions, etc.
usually is given to a non-farmer third party.
Most donors, private business foundations or certifying bodies, however, will not work with
farmer groups unless they are part of a co-operative. One of the reasons
is economy of scale—a co-operative can be comprised of 1,000-2,000 members, and
this makes financial or technical assistance viable for a donor. The
problem is that very few farmers like or trust the co-operative model.
They will hold their noses and join if they have to (and many do), but few
co-operatives in Aceh are farmer-run and farmer-centric. They operate
like small, for-profit finance institutions that retain control over capital,
seeds, training, equipment, and the market. Cocoa farming, like coffee
farming, is a seasonal enterprise, and farmers often need capital to tide them
over until the next harvest, or else they need seeds or machinery that at
certain times of the year they need to take out loans to purchase. They also
need a guaranteed buyer. Co-operatives provide all these services but in a
manner that keeps the small or mid-size farmer beholden to the co-op.
Farmer interest and the future of the commodity are of interest to a co-op only
insofar as it makes the administration a profit. JMD has had experiences
with co-ops who threatened to withdraw support and “prohibit” their farmers
from being part of our project, since it teaches farmers how to get results
that previously could only be attained through a co-op. Knowledge is
power. Since co-ops are not farmer-centric, any skills or knowledge
gained by farmers would only serve to weaken the hold that the co-ops had on
their only resource: poor farmers needing money, training and equipment.
So, what’s a local NGO to do if it wants a group of women cocoa farmers to succeed? Go
very slowly, for starters. These women so far have developed their own
rules, collected their own dues, and make decisions as a group based on how
they see their production and their profits increasing in the future.
This is a very delicate business. JMD wants this group to be viable,
vibrant, and really big, and it is hoping that the women will hang in there
long enough to see that happen, which will be well after JMD has stopped providing
material and technical support.
There has got to be an alternative to the co-operative model that can exist in rural and remote
areas that is helpful to farmers, attractive to donors and certifying bodies
like Rainforest Alliance, and comfortable enough for companies like Mars and
Nestle to invest in. We just haven’t quite figured it out yet. But
until then, Aceh recognizes a sort of quasi-co-operative, called an
Association, and it’s our aim to strengthen the women cocoa farmers’
association in Aceh Timur as much as we can. Or else make al the co-ops
in Aceh honest and upstanding members of the sustainable agriculture community.
I kill myself sometimes.