It’s always an accomplishment when a group of farmers achieves Rainforest Alliance certification—after all, it’s a process that requires a lot of time, investment, and hard work. But the Karya Bersama Cooperative in Poso, Indonesia, overcame more than most to achieve this milestone. Starting in 1998, violent clashes between ethnic and religious groups ravaged the region: Mosques, churches, and homes were torched; bombs set off; grisly beheadings and massacres reported. During the most turbulent periods, agricultural activities came to a halt, since just being out in the field left farmers vulnerable to attack. Episodic violence lasted until 2007.
But today, smallholder cocoa farmers from these formerly clashing religious and ethnic groups work side-by-side at the Karya Bersama Cooperative. For almost four years, more than 500 farmers collaborated to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification—making Karya Bersama not just a model of responsible cocoa farming, but a model of healing and reconciliation for the world.
It was my honor to visit Karya Bersama, which sits in the sub-district of Pamona Selatan, Poso district, last summer and meet its members in their home community. (Not long ago, Westerners like me were not allowed to enter the area for security reasons.) After a full day of travel from Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi, I arrived at the cooperative, which is located between Lake Poso and a large protected area—a truly breath-taking landscape. The purpose of my trip as innovation manager was to follow up on the cooperative’s use of a digital tool we provided to assist with farm-data management; the other goal was to help launch learning gardens—plots where sustainable practices are implemented on one side, and conventional agriculture practices are used on the other.
My first stop once I reached Pamona Selatan was the agriculture office of the local government. As an honored guest, I was asked to don a traditional costume; having no convenient place to change, I threw it on over my regular field clothes. I was touched by the gesture, but also very hot: It was more than 80 degrees Fahrenheit that day.
That first afternoon we checked in with the 12 lead farmers who have been using the digital tools we provided as part of our First Mile program. Yeheskiel Tasiabe (pictured here) and his fellow lead farmers take tablets into the field to record farm information, and to coach members in sustainable practices. Recording farm data helps identify areas where improvements can be made, and how the group can address potential risks on their farms. Many of these lead farmers had never touched a smartphone or tablet before taking on this role for their cooperative, but now they use the technology with ease, monitoring and assessing, so that members can continue to improve their sustainability. We worked with the farmers last year to co-create the tool with them, since they’re the ones who know best what would be most helpful; today we also checked in about what was working and what was not.
After the workshop, a few of us jumped on motorbikes and rode off to the farm of one of the cooperative’s members, Pak Arnold. The cooperative had earlier nominated him to convert his plot into a learning garden, and now he uses best practices in one area, and conventional methods (e.g. pesticides) in another, so that visitors can see the difference for themselves. Walking around the farm, today’s visitors asked Pak Arnold about how he manages diseases, what his yields are, and what kind of grafting techniques he uses. While motivation to implement sustainable methods isn’t lacking—after all, cooperative members have increased their yields by 20 to 30 percent in the last year—it’s enormously helpful for farmers to visit and learn in person. We recently got some great news, too: The local government has agreed to fund more of these incredibly effective learning gardens.
As we walked around Pak Arnold’s beautiful land, Rainforest Alliance Cocoa Manager for Indonesia Hasrun Hafid suggested we pick a cocoa pod, crack it open, and snack on the pulp that surrounds the cocoa bean. Pak Arnold was dubious—he’s been growing cocoa for years, and he had never heard of anyone doing this! (It’s the bean inside that is harvested for chocolate-making). Hasrun assured us that in other parts of Sulawesi, the pulp is used to make a sweet beverage. After some hesitation Pak Arnold and I gave it a try—and what do you know? It’s delicious.
This is Ridwan, the director of Karya Bersama Cooperative. It’s safe to say that the cooperative may not have achieved certification without his leadership skills. The farmers worked for almost four years to hit this milestone, facing a lot of setbacks along the way (mostly having to do with not having funds to cover costs). But Ridwan kept morale high, focusing members on the importance of working together for their collective good. He was also instrumental in introducing technology to farmers who had no familiarity with it. The work in Poso, which is funded by IFAD, included providing tablets to cooperative members and a computer, printer, and internet subscription—all so that the cooperative can continue its journey to sustainability for the long-term. The local government has also been instrumental, funding the final external audit that allowed Karya Bersama Cooperative to achieve certification after four years of hard work.
After a long day of workshops we decided to take a quick trip to see a nearby waterfall—but the rugged roads and an inadvertent detour (translation: we got lost) made the drive longer than expected. But it was worth the trouble: The natural beauty of Poso is astonishing—and its ecological value can’t be overstated. The members of Karya Bersama Cooperative are an important part in keeping this landscape pristine, since their farms sit near the border of the protected area, making them truly the gatekeepers of the forest.