Thursday, January 30, 2014

JMD's Field Officer heads back to Aceh Timur

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 reasons. 

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.

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