Spotlight: Cocoa Farming

Women cocoa farmers in Aceh need our help

On the border of a remote and enormous rainforest in Aceh Province, Indonesia, a tiny and fearless group of women farmers are fighting to preserve their communities' traditions and keep the surrounding rainforest strong and vibrant.

They are losing.

The area in which they live is called Aceh Timur (East Aceh), and it is one of the most fertile cocoa growing regions in the world. It also contains a significant portion of the over 4 million acres of rainforest in the province -- home to plants and animals not found anywhere else in the world. The Sumatran tiger. The orangutan. The Sumatran elephant. Thousands of birds and ancient trees. A spokesman for the once-protected forest notes, "Now, in Aceh, they are planning, sooner or later, to knock down a quarter of their forests. If this happens, we'll see the extinction of all the charismatic species in 10 to 20 years."

Aceh Timur was virtually closed off to this type of environmental holocaust for 30 years. It was literally the battlefield of the separatist resistance fighters and the Indonesian government. Smallholder farming, especially cocoa, was a sustainable and environmentally gentle livelihood before then. A generation passed, and when the peace accord was signed after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 160,000 Acehnese citizens, the national and provincial government began de-classifying the forest as protected and opening it up to mining and large-scale clear-cutting for unsustainable palm oil agribusiness that forever altered and diminished wildlife corridors and habitat.

But close by, in two remote villages, live some remarkable women -- survivors of the conflict that took scores of family members including husbands, parents, and relatives old enough to remember when cocoa farming kept their communities and their traditions vibrant and healthy. In 2009 Jembatan Masa Depan, one of the last remaining local livelihoods agencies in the province, visited Aceh Timur to provide some much-needed agriculture training to farming families who had literally never been able to farm. After the week-long event that drew 300, nine women approached JMD's head trainer and told him "We want to start cocoa farming again. Most of us have land, and it used to have trees. We want you to show us how to make these fields valuable. We want to recue our community."

JMD wondered: did they realize who the competition was now? Foreign corporations destroying up to 3,000 acres per day of their home? Did they know that practically no international donor and no government body was going to give them any Assistance -- 2 villages with only 1,200 residents cultivating a difficult and cost-prohibitive crop? Did they understand that their region was still considered by the international assistance community to be "off limits" due to Indonesia's plan for economic dominance through a globally-used and destructive commodity?

Yes they did, and their response was to tell JMD "If you help us we will show Aceh that cocoa can save us and save our forest."

So little by little this determined group has been battling drought, flood, poor soil, pests, lack of infrastructure, and the sheer grinding poverty of living 30 years in a decimated war zone. With JMD's help they have received tools and training and are implementing a completely green and organic cocoa farming method that uses local materials to improve the soil and repel harmful insects. They're producing more cocoa than ever before, and preparing to sell it as a farming group -- a real collective. And they are becoming a model to their community -- of perseverance, of the positive impact of preserving traditions, and of good forest stewardship.

But there are only 24 of them, and though they have grown in numbers, and though each month JMD works to find new members and add a few more acres to the group's farming portfolio, their success is precarious. But JMD is no stranger to adversity. It was created by survivors of the tsunami who lost everything, including their families, and wanted to find ways to give back to the most marginalized members of their province. Over the years, with technical and administrative support from Building Bridges to the Future Foundation, the agency has expanded its service area and concentrates on long-term livelihoods solutions for the province's most vulnerable populations.

It is not easy or straightforward to develop good and lasting programs that pit 24 women farmers against billions of dollars in international extraction and deforestation interests. You wouldn't think that these women would be seen as a threat to these powerful concerns, to international aid agencies with larger geopolitical fish to fry, to local governments told not to assist cocoa farmers at the expense of palm oil concerns?

You wouldn't think that. But you'd be wrong.

JMD's field officers and subject matter experts love these women and their families, and they love the vast wilderness in which they live. It's hard not to. But these days, being tenacious and committed is not enough. JMD needs your help to expand this group so that they have a fighting chance to keep traditions -- and their rainforest -- alive. For all of us.

Your donation lets the women cocoa farmers' collective expand by providing cultivation and harvesting tools, the equipment and training necessary to make organic fertilizer and organic insecticide, expansion of the cocoa and shade tree nursery to keep the trees as productive and protected as possible, and training in record keeping, marketing and sales. When the group is large enough it can collectively store and process the cocoa on site, which can double their income and attract even more farmers. Cocoa is a farmer-owned and farmer-directed enterprise. THIS is what it means to be organic, to be sustainable, to be "certified."

Help save the rainforest. We mean it. One cocoa farmer at a time.

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