In an effort to ramp up our readers’ connection with our on-the-ground work, we’re pleased to introduce a new contributor to the Frog Blog, Noah Jackson. An auditor and trainer for the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainable agriculture and forestry programs (and a very talented photographer), Jackson will be sharing photos and writing about his experiences with farm and forest workers around the globe. (The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Rainforest Alliance, any of our partners, or the farmers with whom we work.)
In my work with the Rainforest Alliance on projects ranging from farmer training to auditing, I have many opportunities to listen. This blog is an opportunity for me to share the voices of farmers and all those involved in sustainable agriculture.
I promise that the stories will be honest and true. To maintain confidentiality, some names will be changed. I will do my best to connect these stories together, but I will occasionally need your help and I will be looking to you for questions, comments and feedback.
The method of storytelling is simple. While my assignments are diverse and I’m often taken to far flung locations, I’ll report to you in real time, directly from the field, as much as possible. Some of these stories, of course, will be told a bit later, as my notebooks travel with me and sometimes (literally) need time to dry out. Let’s get started…
A few days ago, I was flying over Papua, Indonesia. Below us, the clouds parted to reveal the first glimpse of coffee forests. The Arabica coffee trees below us — seen at 15,000 feet– are clustered specs, but still clearly visible. Our small plane, a Twin Otter, is banking over a large river with a chain of mountains on one side and a cliff dipping into the bowls of the Baliem Valley on the other. I motion to the pilot and he sweeps lower, smiling. Even though we are high, the landscape leers up at us.
Even from this distance, it‘s clear that the landscape is well-managed. Corridors of trees — what we call “buffer zones” in sustainability-speak — line the rivers. The coffee forests are mixed with other trees. Darker impressions mark low-lying flooded areas for rice lands. Trails and rivers cut down the mountainsides and reveal rich volcanic soils.
For a moment, the landscape hangs in the air and I try to refocus my camera and adjust the shutter speed. I don’t get to take the picture. Our plane shakes violently. I feel a hand on my shoulder — comfort, followed by an explanation. The farm cooperative leader, traveling with me, says, “Here, Noah, we don’t use any agrochemicals. Our government prohibits it.”
The plane continues to rattle and shake. I look back at the handful of passengers with me. A chicken, stored somewhere in the overhead compartment, rustles. The group of farmers with me looks sullen. A Blackberry rings. Mine. I wonder who is calling.
This isn’t the first time I’ve ridden in a plane of questionable service. It continues to shake and my phone — tucked in a bag of field notebooks somewhere – is inaccessible. In moments like these, I realize that I wouldn’t have time to call anyone if the plane were to go down. I’ve made my way across Southeast Asia and East and West Africa many times over the past few years and I’ve been spared disaster a number of times. I have an airplane crash list. It’s nice and long. I’m lucky.
But I’m here for a reason. The quiet farmers in the back of the plane have issues. On the land below, there is poverty and malnutrition. Many of the areas where we work are food deficit countries. In some of these same places there isn’t enough labor for the crops, so migrant labor must come in. Resources are moved from one place to another. These are the lands of no Blackberries, where farmers often do not have a voice.
The engines of the Twin Otter whine. We are descending and getting ready to land. I still don’t have the photograph that captures the landscape. I know what I have to do. I speak up and motion to the pilot. I ask him to turn the plane around. He complies, banking hard. The landscape comes into view and the clouds part against the morning sun one last time before we drop into the clouds. I take one photograph and my fellow passengers point out the window, noting the names of hills, mountains and individual farms. These are lands of stories and possibilities. In this moment, I can hear the breath of those around me; it sounds like a mixture of awe and wonder. We are all strapped into this airplane together.
Raised in the mountains of New England, Noah Jackson began working with smallholder farmers in the Philippines as a US Peace Corps volunteer in 1999. For the past three years, he has represented the Rainforest Alliance working with coffee, tea, cocoa, banana and organic vegetable farmers in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and East and West Africa. He serves as an advisor on several community conservation projects involving both livelihood and food security, and works as a sustainability consultant and documentary photographer.