Aceh on my mind

Aceh is a small forgotten country on the northernmost tip of the Island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Elizabeth I sent an ambassador to Aceh in the 16th century. It has a heroic history of resisting imperial designs on its territory including those of Indonesia.  The 2004 Tsunami brought Aceh back to the world’s attentions. The presence of thousands of international aid workers in Aceh shamed Indonesia as these people became witnesses to a brutal war of exploitation at gunpoint.  Aceh once again invites international attention for very different reasons.

After the Tsunami, peace negotiations were entered into, the result of which Aceh became an autonomous country with its own parliament.  The Aceh government’s first statement to the world was to declare itself “Aceh Green” and to develop Aceh into an environmentally prioritized country. A brave enterprise in the face of Indonesia, which is the world’s third largest emitter of CO2 on account of its deforestation policies.

Aceh has the largest remaining tracts of tropical forests left in S.E Asia. Their conservation is Aceh’s first priority. Replanting of damaged forests is part of this. Upriver Projects has been nurturing a grass roots Eco-village movement with the religious school network.  These villages/ religious schools (Dayas), which are the very backbone of rural Achinese cultural institutions, are setting up tree nurseries for replanting forests in an attempt to preempt palm oil plantations. A nationwide movement is now underway and growing. The intention is to make every Pesantren (Religious boarding school) into a virtual eco-village. During the war with Indonesia, the Indonesian army were responsible for cutting huge swathes of forested land and became rich with handing out logging concessions. There is much replanting to do.  Upriver projects, in collaboration with IFEES, are preparing a plan to link up English schools, especially those with a majority of Muslim pupils, pairing them up with Achenese pesantren for forest replanting.

Aceh has an agricultural economy. 80% of the population still remains on the land producing food by traditional “sustenance farming” methods which are by default “organic”.  Farmers cannot afford chemical fertilizers but use water buffaloes and cows as fertilizers, crop rotations and other traditional methods of farming at which they have always excelled. In former centuries where agricultural wealth was a significant index of a nation’s success, Aceh was a world power. Aceh’s substantial agricultural products includes rice, coffee, caocao, coconuts, fruit and vegetables and lots of fish, both freshwater farmed and sea fish.  The second priority of “Aceh Green” is to preserve this state of affairs while enhancing its food products to be acceptable to regional markets.  Rich markets are at Aceh’s doorstep, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Australia. With global rises in food prices this policy promises success and a degree of prosperity.

Most importantly, Aceh still has a window of choice open to it. Having been at war, international capital has not yet taken over Aceh’s development. Industries requiring the Achenese to become city-based factory workers are practically non-existent and the land is still farmed by the people who live there and have not yet been reduced to being estate workers for capital intensive agro-business enterprises. The 21st Century struggle for Aceh will no doubt consist of how successfully it can resist the imperialism of our day: International Big Bucks and Agro-business.

Yet the main threat to Aceh’s environmental balance is motor cars! Not Achinese motorcars but the motorcars of the rest of the world and the rush towards biofuels. George Soros’ has proved in the past to be a harbinger of financial misfortunes for entire countries. Remember, he was blamed for the S.E.Asia Economic crash in the 90’s with his speculative currency dealings. This same predator has shown an interest in investing in huge parts of Aceh’s depleted forests for palm oil. He is the first international potential investor to want to seek direct invest in Aceh. Of course, the promise of big bucks is a tempting prospect for Aceh, impoverished by war, Tsunami and Indonesian economic exploitation.

At grass roots, farmers resist the spread of palm oil plantations. They know that although the price for palm oil exceeds the price for agricultural food products in the short term, oil palms impoverish the land and water resources, corporatise land ownership and remove village communities to make room for the plantations. In addition, palm oil plantations are invariably owned by Jakarta based or Jakarta channelled international capital. Aceh benefits nothing from profits from the plantations.  The high price of the crops benefits only the corporations and stock exchange boards.  Imported Javanese workers usually comprise the labour force. This exasperates the greatest fear of the Achenese: that of being swamped by the Javanese through the transmigrasi policies of the Jakarta government.

The big ‘IF’ is whether the Aceh government can 1. Resist the palm oil invasion successfully, which is and will remain mainly a grass roots movement and 2. be able to tweak the presentation of its domestic agricultural production to be able to access regional markets at more international prices. This will also involve the development of ports for exporting its products.  This issue can be compared to FoE campaigns to improve public transport in order to cut carbon emissions, as less people use their motor cars.

It is perhaps difficult to make “what can you do?” suggestions, short of recommending that you go to Aceh yourself and be inspired by efforts made there to retain Aceh’s environmental integrity by maintaining and enhancing the agro status quo or witnessing the ongoing struggle against palm oil.  It is a struggle which the Aceh government has embarked on and, knowing the Achenese as a heroic people, they will strive to succeed. Keep an eye on Aceh.