Wednesday, December 31, 2014

December brought floods . . . but no tidal waves, and the cocoa nurseries survived

The rains in Aceh Timur are exceptionally heavy this year, but Boxing Day did not bring a tsunami, so it was business as usual for JMD’s tough-as-nails women cocoa farmers.  The water calmed down enough for the association’s Pante Kera side of the river to get across to the Simpang Jernih village side to help with a very soggy, but still viable, seedling nursery.  Some of the more knowledgeable women gave other farmers pointers on how to make sure mold and rot does not set in.   

I love this photo because you can see how close these communities are to the rainforest—it is right in their back yard.  Look at the wonderful clouds hanging in the mountains.  Understanding the climate patterns and habitat specific to the rainforest is part of what is making farmers better able create a symbiotic relationship between their cocoa crop and the forest’s interior cycles. 

It’s interesting, because prior to JMD’s project, Pante Kera had received no outside assistance from any NGO—ever.  They gobbled up all the information they could get, and followed all the trainings and Robert’s assistance to the letter—with amazing results.  Several are quite eager to become peer trainers—and we hope to get some funding in 2015 to expand the association to Batu Sumbang, an area adjacent to both communities and a bit to the north, where several farmers have already expressed interest in joining the group and re-learning these traditional and organic farming methods that were almost all wiped out by the 30-year conflict.

Speaking of the conflict—fabulous news.  The women are now seeing such an improvement in their income from cocoa that many male family members have (wait for it) stopped doing any illegal logging in the forest, and instead spend their time assisting the women in the cocoa fields!  Money talks, my friends, money talks.   

Score: cocoa farmers 1, palm oil bandits 0.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Our favorite reporter on the 10th anniversary of the 2004 tsunami

Michael Bachelard’s article came out in The Age on the 20th. He had warned me that he didn’t have enough space to include palm oil destruction, the many EDFF blunders or the AAA/Keumang disappearing $6.7 million. “In the midst of the tsunami reconstruction stuff,” he wrote, “it was too hard to explain why a highland cocoa plantation was relevant.”
Well, okay.  I guess.

He did express sadness that he couldn’t include it but reminded me that the story was “full of other things: empty housing and personal stories of the wave, misgovernance, sharia law, environmental doom and electoral misbehavior.”   So that’s good.  He also said that our “ideas and help were invaluable in shaping the piece as something other than just a tsunami reconstruction.”
So I’ll forgive him.
And share his article with you.  

I do have to say, however, that he put most of the blame at the feet at one or another Indonesian or Acehnese entity (government, GAM, BRR, etc) and pretty much gave a hall pass to the international NGOs who lined their pockets with a significant portion of the reconstruction in the name of consultants, salaries and “administrative fees.”

But we still love him, and he will still keep an eye on Aceh. 

[I’ve inserted a few comments, in blue.]

Aceh: after the wave

December 20, 2014

--Michael Bachelard


Alongside the loss of lives, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami wiped out a long-time separatist conflict in Aceh. Ten years on, Michael Bachelard finds renewed tensions in the Indonesian province.

A diorama recreates the horror of 2004 at Aceh's Tsunami museum. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti

First, the earthquake struck. Roads buckled and houses cracked. Two explosions rent the air and thousands of voices cried out in fear. Then the waves swelled up from the sea and scoured Aceh's west coast with water, bringing debris and death.
But it's not the memory of noise that keeps fisherman Andi Yusuf awake at night when he thinks of the tsunami 10 years ago - it's the silence that followed.

Yusuf was asleep when the earth started shaking at 7.59am on Sunday, December 26, 2004. Informed by half-remembered family lore about earthquakes and killer waves, this fisherman from Aceh's coastal village of Calang fled to higher ground with his wife, baby and young child. Clinging with grim determination to a hillside durian tree, his wife fainting from shock, Yusuf watched as some of his neighbours ran away from the beach while others ran towards it, looking for open ground. The tsunami's towering, 30-metre second wave consumed them all, coming or going.

A hilltop settlement of recently built houses in Lhok Kruet is mostly abandoned, as they have no running water. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti
"Before the water came, I heard people panicking, shouting, screaming. They looked like chickens," Yusuf recalls, his fisherman's eyes, which are habituated to the horizon, turning inwards and to the past. "I saw the roof of the school flying into the air, big timber floating. But after the second wave, the big one, I heard nothing. Not a single voice. Silence."

Into this silence, an estimated 167,000 voices fell in Aceh alone. Hearing Yusuf speak, it's amazing not that so many died, but that any survived. He saved his wife and children, but lost perhaps 50 members of his extended family.
In Sri Lanka, 35,000 were killed; in India, 18,000. Thailand lost more than 8000 including 24 of the 26 Australians who died. Globally, 230,000 people lost their lives and perhaps 1.7 million were displaced.

Tsunami survivor Andi Yusuf. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti

This was a freak geological event: a "mega thrust" earthquake measuring up to 9.3 on the Richter scale that pushed a 1600-kilometre stretch of the Indian Ocean 15 metres higher. The resultant wave - the biggest tsunami in history - reshaped 800 kilometres of the Indonesian province's western coastline, penetrating three to six kilometres inland. More than 120,000 houses were flattened, 500,000 left homeless, the road system obliterated. Administrative data - birth and death records, property ownership details - were destroyed and public servants killed or incapacitated by grief. The rebuilding of western Aceh started from scratch.
But the tsunami was not just a physical event, it was also a profound political event - the single most important spur to ending a 30-year civil war between the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (known as GAM for its Indonesian initials).
It's easy, in the tsunami's awesome wake, to diminish the conflict that predated it. But ordinary people do not forget the separatist era's disappearances, the random killings, the relatives dead in the street. Calang villager Rosmalia remembers constant fear. "You heard shootings in the nearby town. You heard stories that people were killed by the security apparatus - shot from head to toe by bullets so that their body just split in half," she says.

This mosque, 20 kilometres from Aceh’s capital Banda Aceh, was the only building left in the area 
after the tsunami. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti

"In 2004, after 30 years of conflict, there was no development in Aceh: schools were being burned down, the social fabric was in pieces," says Heru Prasetyo, the former deputy head of the Indonesian tsunami reconstruction authority. "The only thing that was safe was the forest, because the rebels lived there and nobody was brave enough to go in and cut down trees."
In his view, nature did Aceh a favour. "Aceh was like a person who was almost dead from a heart attack. The tsunami was a jolt that brought it back to life."
Asked about Prasetyo's analogy, Rosmalia barely pauses before agreeing: "The trauma of the conflict was worse than the tsunami."

Lhok Nga school students practice a tsunami drill. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti

The size of the disaster was incomprehensible, the global response unprecedented. A 2008 Brookings Institution paper estimated the total damage to Aceh at $US4.45 billion. In response, the international community pledged $US7.7 billion. Two-thirds of that was spent in just three years by 463 organisations across 2200 projects. Remote Meulaboh had, at one point, 20 surgeons in field hospitals.
The aid was "like a second tsunami", says Prasetyo. "Catholic relief worked with Muslim aid and non-government organisations (NGOs) from Israel were working in the land of sharia, and working effectively. It was like the John Lennon song Imagine: no religion, no country. It was so powerful."
Huge international organisations, including the World Bank, USAID, the United Nations Development Programme and Australia's AusAID, co-operated with a quickly formed Indonesian agency, the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency, under a straight-talking former minister, Kuntoro Mangkusubroto.

Australia contributed $600 million - more than half of it donated by the public. Our money trained people and built capacity in education and health, livelihoods, infrastructure and the public service.
Mangkusubroto's reconstruction authority stands as a "remarkable success", according to Australian National University academic Ed Aspinall. "It's a landmark in Indonesia's modern political economy about how to run a large development or construction endeavour in a way that significantly avoids or minimises corruption."
But it was never going to be perfect. The first priority was housing: 140,000 houses were eventually required, and agencies were under pressure to spend their funds quickly to satisfy donors and watchful journalists.
In the northern suburbs of Aceh's capital, Banda Aceh, lies a beachside community called Lhok Nga. Here, the mountains funneled the wave into a torrent which wiped away everything but the mosque. Not long after, though, it had regrown like a simulacrum of a 1950s suburb: identical, box-like, 36-square-metre rendered concrete houses standing in symmetrical rows. Many now stand empty.

"They are empty because for most of them only the children are left: the parents are dead. They were only small [when the wave hit], so they live with extended family," says Umran Amril, smoking a quiet afternoon cigarette in a Lhok Nga cafe. Some are rented out, but the Acehnese attachment to land means few want to sell: "We wanted it rebuilt because the land belongs to our great-grandparents," Amril says. "We won't sell for same reason."
It's a similar story all down the tsunami-devastated western coast. In Lhok Kruet, about 30 minutes from hard-hit Calang, Canadian money built a settlement of 250 houses atop a hill, at the request of local fishermen. They are certainly high enough to survive any future tsunami, but only 28 are now occupied. The fishermen changed their minds when they realised there was no running water and, until recently, no electricity.
In Calang, itself, Yusuf takes shelter from the heat of the day in a rubbish-strewn village harbour. He's unwinding old nylon ropes, preserving the individual strings to re-weave into nets. Nearby is a concrete pier, an office building, a small market area and a petrol station, all built (and decorated with maritime themes) by international donors. All now are abandoned.
The pier, Yusuf says, splashes back waves which swamp their boats, so locals built a replacement from wood. The market has none of the equipment they need and there's no toilet or other facilities in the office building, so people won't work there. Salt, wind and rain are now picking these buildings apart as surely as Yusuf dismembers old ropes. Two large boats are keeled over in the shallows and also decaying. They were donated but never used - too light, too dangerous, he says.
"There was a lot of assistance but they came rushing to help; they didn't ask what we need." He also has a more fundamental complaint, this one against the local government authorities. He's one of 25 local victims who missed out on the new houses, while some "who are not native to this area - civil servants from [East coast province] Bireuën - got them". This blatant misallocation "is very much about corruption", he says.
Corruption is baked into politics in Indonesia, and Aceh probably never stood a chance of avoiding it.
After the wave, peace came surprisingly quickly. An informal, though shaky ceasefire in the last days of 2004 was followed by talks endorsed by then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had only been in office for two months when the tsunami hit. He had little choice: donors, aid agencies and journalists were prising open a previously airtight state in their rush to oversee the recovery. Continuing a war, or even the prevailing state of martial law, was untenable, though hard-liners on both sides tried. In August, 2005, in Helsinki, Finland, the two sides ended 30 years of brutality by signing a Memorandum of Understanding. Suddenly, about 30,000 armed and largely uneducated former separatist rebels were demobbed. Hardened by combat and accustomed to collecting money using extortion justified locally as "war taxes", many found it hard to mend their ways. [especially when they were promised livelihoods and compensation in exchange for agreeing to the cease-fire and to this day have never been compensated.]
The rampant inflation that came with an influx of foreign funds to Aceh was accelerated by these former GAM rebels - now rebadged as the Aceh Transitional Committee, or KPA - "taxing" the reconstruction.
Even USAID's landmark project, a silk-smooth western highway, was subject to "epic blackmail", one former consultant recalls, to the extent that the project director publicly threatened to cancel it.
"The extortion attempts on NGO projects in Aceh followed a familiar pattern," wrote aid worker Bobby Anderson in 2013. "Persons claiming KPA affiliation would make demands to field staff for protection fees or material, often vehicles . . .  The threats often implied the arson of vehicles and the killing of staff. Numerous projects were shut down due to this." [I have to say that in all that time, during those first months and years after the tsunami, JMD never had a problem, and we worked in the most remote and conflict-affected areas of the province.  I’m not saying that these events did not happen, but I think there was, at times, a specific hostility towards large and fairly presumptuous NGOS who as the article mentions did not understand the context in which they were operating, nor did they care.]
Come election time, though, the former rebels, with their history of resistance and bullish sub-national pride, won overwhelming support. Former combatant Irwandi Yusuf became Aceh's governor in 2006. More educated than most of his compadres, he surprised observers and won wide international support as a pro-environment leader wanting to build an outward-looking economy by taking advantage of global carbon funding to preserve the province's forests. Aceh is the last place on earth where tigers, orangutans, elephants and rhinos still live together.
After a bitter internal GAM power struggle, though, Irwandi lost the governorship at the 2012 election to an old-generation combatant, Partei Aceh's Zaini Abdullah. Thirteen people were murdered during the campaign.  [And with the palm oil extraction interests winning over even large donors like USAID, the rhinos, elephants and tigers are not far behind.]
To this day, government loyalists in Aceh are accused of standover tactics, extortion and corruption, particularly involving construction projects. Aid worker and activist Muslahuddin Daud sees the ex-combatants as trying to preserve the "war psychology" that got them into power: "If you build a house, they'll say, 'The sand should be from me, or we'll blow up your car,' " he says. [I don’t know if it’s so much a “war psychology” as an “I need to eat” psychology.  These combatants saw a fraction of their numbers receive government positions and large pensions—and those same leaders then turned their backs on them.  In some ways they believe themselves to be the only legitimate defenders of the province left standing, and they are repaid with poverty and isolation.]
Since Abdullah's election, almost all international NGOs have left. Some, no doubt, believe Aceh no longer needs their help. The Indonesian government's own reconstruction authority was disbanded in 2009, and under a "special autonomy" arrangement, Aceh qualifies for generous central government funding, but former governor Irwandi told Good Weekend that they'd also been put off by Abdullah's decision to "win the 2012 election by force". [for some reason both governors have sent back the funding each month.  It boggles the mind.] And the forests - preserved for so many years as redoubts of the rebels - are now under threat from a proposed spatial plan that would allow massive industrial development.  [They became threatened as soon as the peace accord was signed in 2005 and the government welcomed international palm oil and mining cartels in to destroy the protected forest and use no discretion in obliterating the rest of it. Protection laws are not good if no one reinforces them.  The spatial plan is just closing the barn door after the horse has left.]
The worst outcome, Muslahuddin says, has been the government's administrative failures. Nine years after the peace deal was signed, negotiators for the Aceh and central governments have still not agreed on implementing laws for power sharing, oil and gas revenue and land ownership. This leads, for foreign investors in the oil-rich province, to persistent uncertainty and, for some Acehnese nationalists, to the belief that Jakarta is denying them fulfillment of their rights. "If [the full Helsinki agreement] is not granted, of course we will take up arms again," a senior Partei Aceh election committee member told Good Weekend. "We could declare war any time. We could declare war tomorrow."
[And just what have I been saying for a year?  Hah?  But does anyone listen to me??]
Aceh's use of Islamic sharia law in the criminal code likewise deters foreigners. It was introduced by Jakarta in 2001 to try to buy the support of Aceh's devout religious leaders, but it only came to international prominence after the tsunami. According to the director of the Jakarta-based Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict, Sidney Jones, among the foreign organisations that flooded into the province were Islamic hardline lobby groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Until their arrival, Aceh - long known as the "verandah of Mecca" - was devout but also "very tolerant". Hardline Islamists succeeded recently in adding to long-standing bans on gambling, drinking and unmarried young people consorting. Now adultery and homosexuality are also criminal offences, subjecting to 100 lashes men who have anal sex with each other, and women who "rub together body parts for stimulation". [It is interesting, then, that World Vision operates so freely in the province, being an evangelical Christian organization—or do they not know that in Aceh?]
A censorious approach to opposition also prevails. "Any organisation which criticises the government is said to be anti Islamic sharia," says Roslina Rasyid, the leader of a network of local NGOs in the north-eastern Aceh city of Lhokseumawe. People are deterred from raising examples of abuses, she says.
"It's a real problem for Aceh now, and long-term, they have to deal with it if they want foreign investment and tourism," says Sidney Jones.
Aceh desperately needs economic growth. About 18 per cent of the population is still in poverty and new political schisms, fuelled by poverty and thwarted hopes, are emerging among former combatants. "You wouldn't want to predict a regression to any full-scale separatist conflict, but on the other hand, you would have hoped that 10 years after the peace deal you'd have seen a stronger fading of that sense of resilient, resistant Aceh identity," the ANU's Aspinall says. "It bubbles away, but it's much closer to the surface than you'd expect."
At Lhok Nga primary school in Banda Aceh's suburbs, where the wave killed all but 90 of its 400 students, the recovery is obvious in the numbers: 435 children are enrolled this year.
Shifa Teskia's father died in the wave. Now 12, she says she wants to be a doctor. For today, she and her classmates are performing one of their regular tsunami drills - initiated by World Vision - and Shifa wears a sash proclaiming her a dokter kecil (small doctor). She's earnestly dabbing a pretend wound of pretend patient Mohammad Azri, 10, who in real life was orphaned as a baby by the wave.
Their teacher, Laili Hafna, saved her own four children a decade ago by rushing to the local mosque. Her sister, husband and baby all perished. As she looked out at the devastation that day, Hafna says she truly believed she was watching the world end: "I never thought I would be here today, that there would be life after all."
Like many, though, Hafna now wonders if the tsunami, a bit like Noah's flood in the Bible, was Allah's way of saving them from what went before. "During the combat, we always lived in fear," she recalls. "Life was very difficult ... we thank Allah that we can have this life now, and that it's a different life."
Surely, though, it was a brutal price to pay?
"That is His mystery," she replies with a smile.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Aceh gets ready for Tsunami Commemorations . . . and swallows a big handful of amnesia pills.

On December 28, 2004, 2 days after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 160,000 people in Aceh alone, Paul Reynolds of the BBC News wrote an article entitled The World Helps—But Will it Forget?

Of all the hundreds of articles, documentaries and media reports written since, of all the tens of thousands of pages documenting the emergency response and subsequent “reconstruction,” this little article still stands out as being eerily prescient.

Reynolds points to an earthquake that struck the city of Bam in Iran a year previously in which 30,000 people died; at the time of the tsunami, those survivors were still living in temporary shelters.  He notes that in order for the disaster caused by the tsunami to not be a repeat of the Bam earthquake, three things needed to happen:

First, the immediate relief has to be of the right type and sent to the right places.  Former President Bill Clinton, who has always been keenly interested in Aceh, said  "I think one of the problems is when everybody takes responsibility it's almost like no-one's responsibility." He suggested that because so many countries are affected, [Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives, Bangladesh, Somalia, and Tanzania among others] donors should each take responsibility for helping one or two. In that way duplication, always an issue in disaster relief, could be better avoided.  "It is really important that somebody take the lead in this," he said.
Although Reynolds conceded “that might be a bit complicated in the immediate aftermath,” it should certainly be considered for the second stage of relief.

As we know, that never happened.  Countries, governments and private donors developed their own ideas of what assistance was needed based on the Aceh they wanted to see emerge fro the rubble.  The Multi-Donor Fund, while shepherding much of the global outpouring into one location, did not stem the tide of individual donors and NGOs developing and implementing project after project whose unreal duplication and lack of monitoring did more to confuse both survivors and government officials than it did to set the economy and civil society back on track.

“The second stage,” wrote Reynolds, “ is for medium and long term help. . . The UN's emergency co-coordinator Jan Egeland has said this might be the worst natural disaster ever. That implies the need for unusually large contributions.”

And unusually large they were indeed. The problem was that the majority of these funds went right back to the international NGOs who swooped down to implement projects that they should have been training the Acehnese to implement, and collect funds for.


“The third stage is to see what can be done to avoid disasters or the effects of them. “
Well, ten years later Indonesia is still hoping that the international community and its Southeast Asia partners will bail it out of the necessity of building an adequate warning system.  Some officials, however, are quite proud of the strides Indonesia has made, as noted at the International Conference on Tsunamis in Jakarta this past November.
Indonesia’s Research, Technology and Higher Education Minister M. Nasir stated that “the current tsunami early warning system called InaTEWs, which is being developed by Indonesia, is quite good as it can provide potential tsunami information within five minutes.”

Director of Science from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for Asia Region Hubert J Gijzen said Indonesia’s current tsunami warning system, “has turned out to be the best in the world."

Tell that to the Mentawi islands, off the west coast of Sumatra (sound familiar?), that was decimated in 2010 and left 450 dead. Villagers were not given any advanced warning because two seismic detection buoys out at sea had allegedly been vandalised.

"There was not any siren to warn people," said Ferdinand Salamanang, whose village was hit by the tsunami. "Yes there was a quake and tsunami detection system in our port, but they are broken down. We did not hear any warning this time."

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the Natural Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB has pointed out that Indonesia’s early warning infrastructure is insufficient considering its vast coastline. Indonesia has 4,500 kilometers of long coastal lines that are vulnerable to tsunamis, but only 38 sirens are available when, ideally, there should be one thousand sirens.

According to him, of the total 2,500 evacuation shelters needed, the country has only 50 shelters.

Meanwhile, notes the Antara News, “the Aceh provincial government has expressed hope that President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo would attend a commemoration of the 10th year of the 2004 tsunami.”

And will he, like Bill Clinton, stroll through Banda Aceh and be given a whitewashed tour of the rehabilitated businesses, the gleaming ports, the happy citizens (at least those who aren’t being caned by the Sharia police that day), the evidence of goodwill between the global community and the government of Aceh?

Will he heave a sigh of relief and mutter to his aides, “Well, at least that’s taken care of,” and the ignore requests for assistance from the province for the next 10 years?  Will he be shown the immaculate palm oil plantations and be satisfied that a few hundred thousand or so more acres of those cute trees couldn’t hurt the rainforest, and would certainly show the world (and his wealthy supporters) that Indonesia is “back in business?”

Your guess is as good as mine, because as I said before, I’ve been invited and I’m not going.  I’d be caned for not wearing a headscarf and tossed in jail for opening my mouth.

All I ask is that you listen and read with an open mind, and whenever someone mentions “how far Aceh has come,” ask yourself if that person knew anything about the province before all this “help” arrived.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Too Big to Fail

Last week I was invited to Aceh, along with several other colleagues with whom I worked in 2005 in the early days of reconstruction, to a commemorative celebration honoring the 10 year anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. I am not the only one who is too disgusted to go.
I know what I will hear.  I know I will be expected to smile, and thank the current Governor for inviting me, and look down demurely when he praises the work the NGOs did to bring the province back from the brink of disaster and make it the vibrant, positive, humane and safe place it is today. . . I am not going because if I have to hear that drivel I fear I will vomit.  My colleagues agree; most are declining the invitation.  It is, so sadly, all a farce.

Shortly after this invitation I received an email from our Australian colleague Michael Bachelard, who met and traveled with JMD this past April when covering the legislative elections.  I’d first gotten in touch with him because of all the international journalists reporting on the ravages and dire global consequences of palm oil’s destruction of the Aceh rainforest, he was by far the most eloquent, thorough, and passionate.  His beat isn’t just palm oil, however, and the Sydney Morning Herald has pulled him in many directions this past year.

I knew he was returning to Aceh this month to do a story on the 10-year anniversary of the tsunami, which happened on Boxing Day (December 26) 2004.  If you’ve been reading this blog you know that I’ve been urging any and all media outlets to take an honest look at Aceh and examine whether, 10 years later, the province is truly “better” than it was before the tsunami, in terms of quality of life, equal access, and economic prosperity for more than just the wealthy and the multi-national corporations.

Michael’s email included an apology for not being able to spend any time in his articles discussing palm oil, or how cocoa was “relevant,” although he was astute enough to cover topics such as “empty housing and personal stories of the wave, misgovernance, sharia law, environmental doom and electoral misbehavior.”

I think that Michael’s email was the final missile in a depressing barrage I’d been receiving all week that has me convinced, sadly, that the entitles responsible for the most horrific things on the planet these days, are, in the final analysis, to big to fail.

Take four seemingly separate events:

There is new focus on the continuing horror story of jade mining in Myanmar and how corporate interests trump the rights of marginalized groups.  I read this (and blogged about it a few days ago) and was struck by the sheer enormity of the problem—not the HIV/AIDS epidemic that will soon spread all over the country, but the seemingly insurmountable issue that is the profitability of the Jade market in China.

Freeport, the world’s largest copper mine in Paupua, Indonesia, is “sponsoring” an exhibit of sculpture and jewelry by the Kamoro, a tribe the company basically wiped out in what is seen as one of the world' worst examples of environmental destruction and genocide.  But a significant number of southeast Asia’s wealthy elites are attending the show, to ooh and ahh over the “exquisitely made” handcrafted pieces available. Those little brown people.  So clever.  Much is made over the “champion” of the Komoro, Mr Kal Muller, a transplant who’s acted not necessarily as humanitarian advocate but as PR marketing firm for those Komoro who are still living.  He’s an employee of Freeport (A US firm), after all.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and imagine him as painfully torn between the irreversible damage his company has done to this group’s culture and homeland, and his need to keep his job so that he can at least squeeze a couple of bucks (and permission) from this lumbering behemoth of a company in order to preserve what little space they have left in this now-wasteland.

Searching the database of donors, including USAID, who are  funding large projects in and around Aceh, I notice that international subcontractors are being awarded mega-sums to establish either “sustainable palm oil practices” or assist with “palm oil biofuel projects.” Nowhere is it ever mentioned that any significant funding is to be spent to reduce or control palm oil plantation expansion, or to seriously look at ways to limit the environmental catastrophes that are being caused due to plantations’ current methods of operation.  This would make sense, considering President Jokowi’s interpretation of his own energy policy to mean “capitalize on every natural resource we have and increase production.” (Interestingly, he hasn’t yet noticed the disparity between his “let’s stop deforestation, save the peat bogs, and control palm oil in Aceh” rhetoric and his “economic expansion at any cost” battle cry.  Or else he doesn’t care.)

A recent Bloomberg report on “palm oil futures” criticizing the new Indonesian regulations for mixing palm biodiesel with other fuels wept that this would severely hurt the price of palm oil.
Indonesia plans to increase biodiesel blending to 20 percent in 2016, requiring more than 8 million tons of palm oil, according to the Energy Ministry. . . .  The government is committed to expanding palm biodiesel, Hari Priyono, secretary general at Agriculture Ministry, told reporters yesterday. . . . "If Indonesia ignores its (biodiesel) mandate completely, the palm oil industry will face a crisis in the last half of 2015," Mistry said.
Most of the articles I read regarding palm oil are, in fact, from the commodities side.  Palm oil is so huge, so important in the international market with respect to making people money, that it is no longer pertinent to even allude to its horrific effects. That just isn’t important to anyone except the “activists.”  And what do they know anyway?  Buncha spoiled little punks.

But all these things: the invitation, the jade mining, the Komoro, Big Palm . . . they got me thinking . . . about what good people do when their backs are against a wall. How do concerned and committed individuals and groups respond to entities that are “too big to fail?”

What would the Komoro do if Kal Muller did not convince Freeport to be interested in their culture and sponsor at least a tiny way for what’s left of them to make money? If we are realists we will see that Freeport is not going away and the Komoro are not coming back.  So is it bad to try and provide some type of compensation to those remaining even if it is “blood money?”

If the world’s large donors are staffed by people who truly understand that carbon emissions and deforestation are vitally important, then they have to develop plans that can address this in pragmatic ways—and that means catering to the interests of the extraordinarily immoral entities that got us into this mess in the first place.  When fighting a war for your freedom, said Marx, use the tools of the oppressor. They will eventually wear him down.

I’m not so sure.

So once there is a mess (Freeport, palm oil, HIV jade) what is the best thing to do about it?  “Go away” is not working.  Can we make it smaller?  Maybe, but how much smaller is smaller enough?  Should we just be addressing the fallout?  Like in the Kachin state, what is needed is a methadone program and street outreach for IV drug users to learn how to clean their needles.  But in a way, that just reinforces the strength of the jade industry that sucked them into this vortex in the first place.

All over the world, what we are doing to the enormous creatures that have harmed us, altered our food, poisoned our water, screwed around with our oxygen, eliminated animal species, and displaced people with no voice, what we are doing is helping them survive.  Because they have created a different physical, social and economic reality from the one we knew before they came, and now much of our survival depends on theirs.  So we become complicit, and talk about “sustainable” palm oil and “area-sensitive expansion” and fair labor standards and artisanal marketing and eco-tourism.  And we sugar-coat the mismanagement of billions of dollars that could have been the salvation of a province but instead plunged it further into poverty and pseudo-religious extremism.

I know it’s a reality but I still want to vomit.  Good thing I won’t be going to Aceh.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Rohingya are not alone: no comfort for any of the poor or marginalized in Myanmar

 “Hpakant is where Satan slowly called me to hell.”

               --La Htoi, 34-year-old jade broker and recovering heroin addict


On Sunday the New York Times published this harrowing story and accompanying video.  

Searching for Burmese Jade, and Finding Misery

Video Feature: Jade’s Journey Marked by Drugs and Death

There are other incredibly good (and disturbing articles on the Myanmar/Chinese jade trade, and the Hpakant mines in the northern Kachin state; this is not a new issue.  I try to stay focused on Aceh and Indonesia, and look towards Myanmar only when I’m alerted to some new and hideous thing the government (or group of monks bent on ethnic cleansing) does to further imperil the Rohingya.  But this article convinced me that justice for the Rohingya is far, far in the distance.  Again, another minority is abused and abandoned.  Miners are encouraged to use heroin to work multiple shifts and steel themselves to the backbreaking labor, and of course become addicted, losing all their income.  Government officials turn a blind eye to the overt drug trade in and near the mines—the price of jade, after all, has skyrocketed in recent months due to increased demand by China’s middle class.  The article quotes a Myanmar health professional as reporting that there is no technology to manufacture heroin in Myanmar; it is coming directly from China, which has the most to gain from the mines’ jade production. 


The article reports that the majority of profits, which should be making the Myanmar government wealthy, “remain in control of elite members of the military, the rebel leaders fighting them for greater autonomy, and the Chinese financiers with whom both sides collude to smuggle billions of dollars’ worth of the gem into China . . . . Such rampant corruption has not only robbed the government of billions in tax revenue for rebuilding after decades of military rule, it has also helped finance a bloody ethnic conflict and unleashed an epidemic of heroin use and H.I.V. infection among the Kachin minority who work the mines.”

Myanmar has no viable substance abuse treatment or methadone programs and no street outreach for IV drug users.


“At a time when Myanmar is experimenting with democratic governance after nearly 50 years of military dictatorship, its handling of the jade industry has become a test of the new civilian leaders and their commitment to supporting human rights and rooting out corruption, as well as an early check on whether they will reject the former junta’s kleptocratic dealings with China.
So far, experts say, they have failed.”

So, how do we think the Rohingya will fare, with Myanmar’s treatment of the Kachin as an example?

“The government says it keeps [Mitkyia, the capital of Kachin] closed because of sporadic fighting with the Kachin rebel army, but activists see a darker purpose: to hide the illegal jade and drug trades flourishing there. The only foreigners allowed past the military checkpoints, they say, are the Chinese who run the mines or go there to buy gems.”

And not to get sidetracked, but doesn’t this sound eerily like Big Palm as well as the subject of a future blog, the Freeport copper mine in Papua?

As the article concedes, no one smells completely like a rose in the Kachin state. The Kachin rebels (K.I.A.) extract a 50% payoff from companies to run the mines, and as far as I know do little to ease the suffering of their fellow countrymen working there. They also  work with Chinese companies to smuggle jade through the jungle into China.  “Yet the fighters’ spoils pale in comparison to those enjoyed by the powerful Burmese military elite, whose companies receive the choicest tracts of mining land from the government, according to miners and international rights groups. Like the K.I.A., some military officers are also involved in smuggling, extracting bribes to allow the illicit practice, activists say.
“The top dogs are the Burmese military,” a representative of Global Witness, reports.

So now, in Myanmar, the government, eager to be seen as pro-democratic, pro-little guy (except of course for the Rohingya) as possible, is now denying that smuggling is a major problem, or that heroin use is widespread, even condoned, at mine sites, even though it is losing billions a year in revenue and “a sizable majority of Kachin youths are addicts. The World Health Organization has said about 30 percent of injecting drug users in Myitkyina have contracted H.I.V.”

Some anti-drug activists believe the government is distributing heroin to weaken the ethnic insurgency, with the military allowing pushers past their checkpoints. “Heroin is their weapon,” he said.

The article lays most of the blame at the doorstep of China, with its unquenchable thirst for jade and the greed of its businessmen invested in the mines.  Much as I would like to join the party, I cannot see why this tragedy does not need to be addressed by the Myanmar government itself.  It sure hasn’t shown that it cares about protecting its citizens.  It’s losing money on the mine so the continuous flow of wealth isn’t the issue.  I’m beginning to think that even with this new, hopeful government, no one really gives a crap.  I wonder if they will change their tune when Myanmar has a higher HIV rate than southern Africa. By then it will be too late.  HIV will not stop at ethnic borders.  The country is in peril.