Friday 2 March 2012

Can chocolate save the Sumatran tiger?


I have just returned from the most amazing trip – all cocoa exploration should be like this! I was put in touch with WWF Indonesia who are working with subistence farmers in the area around the Bukit Barisan Seletan National Park, in south east Sumatra. Sumatra is the largest island in Indonesia and the furthest west. An area of the Bukit Barisan Mountains was declared by UNESCO in 2004 as a World Heritage Site, ‘Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra’. This area is home amongst other things to rare Sumatran tigers, rhinos and elephants.

In 2006 WWF started work with farmers who were encroaching into National Park land; they were clearing forest to plant coffee. Working with farmers in the buffer zone around the Park, WWF are supporting them to develop better farming practices so that they can get better value out of their land and so reduce their dependeny on land and resources within the Park.

One of the crops that farmers are keen to grow is cocoa. Indonesia is the third largest producer of cocoa in the world, and most of this cocoa is grown by smallholders – in Sumatra, Sabah, Sulawesi, Java, Bali, Flores, and Papua.

My trip was facilitated by WWF, and hosted by Koperasi Mitra Tani (KOMIT), a coperative developed by the farmers in the 12 pilot villages that WWF is working with. They have been working with farmers to improve both management of coffee and cocoa on their farms, but also better processing techniques to improve the value of their crops. KOMIT have also gone through a certification process with Rainforest Alliance.

The KOMIT team
With WWF project officer Sutarna, KOMIT head Mamhudi, and training co-orinator Sujarwo, we set off to meet some of the cocoa farmers. The drive from Bandar Lampung went through rich agricultural land – farmed mainly as paddy. There were extraordinary buildings across the landscape though – vast concrete towers, that looked like prisons from afar – but clearly there were far too many of them to be that. They were very fortress like in appearance – no windows and behind high walls. They are infact birds nest farms (for soup!) – great skycrapers for swallows to nest in; the swallows are attracted by the high insect life over the paddy fields and farms, and are a beautiful site in the afternoon, swooping around in clouds. At first I thought they would just be in farmland – but they were also built in villages and town, and often the front facade done up to look like a proper house, with false windows!

As we got closer to the National Park it got hillier and more wooded, until we were climbing up a steep road and suddenly the landscape and vegetation changed and we were in the quiet rich shade of high forest. Fantastic. We stopped at one point to talk to a ranger, and as I emerged from the air conditioned car, a wall of noice hit me – insects and birds – the most fabulous forest symphony. And somewhere, lurking in those trees watchful and wary of us human intruders, are bears, tigers, rhinos and more.

Sumatrans farm in a very ecological way; they have paddy fields of rice and some other crops, but around their houses they have ‘forest gardens’; these are areas of permanent crops – such as coffee and cocoa, grown in a mixture with anything else thrown in – fodder trees and plants for their goats and cows, fruit for the household and market, cash crops such as pepper and rubber. It was often said to me on the trip that this might not be the ‘most efficient’ way of farming – which I think could be challenged. It certainly spreads risk for the farmers: many of these crops are commodities and they are very sensitive to international price fluctuations. Which crop to invest in – you could chose coffee and then that fails for a year or the price sinks. So stick with them all.

Through the cooperative farmers are learning to improve the cocoa crops by grafting; they learn how to manage them and thin out pods when there are too many and so encourage a good crop. They are even experimenting with ‘condoming’ pods – covering them with plastic bags to prevent black pod weevil and other diseases.

And they are encouraging farmers to ferment beans and increase the value of their crop. This though seems to be difficult: farmers have a number of reasons why they cannot be encourage to ferment:

Firstly – they often need the money and waiting a further 5 or 6 days to get a sellable product is too long. The second though and the most significant is that they do not see a great deal of benefit in the differential in price. If they ferment beans, they are selecting the best quality beans, and then they spend 5 or 6 days managing the fermentation process. If they don’t get any more for the kilogramme at the end of this process, why bother? The trading system here seems to work against the farners – very often traders will give only a very small increase for fermented over non fermented.

So, much of our discussion was about this and how KOMIT could negotiate a better deal for farmers who ferment. They are interested in working with me – initially to see if the beans are any good for chocolate. No beans available at the moment, but the first main harvest is in April/May and they will send samples then, and we will test how well they turn into chocolate. If this works out it will be a wonderful product – just think with every bar bought, this supports the farmers and WWF in saving tigers! Hurrah!

a ripe cocoa pod showing the white pulp around the bean

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