The Longtime Big WaySeptember 9, 2011
After weeks spent visiting farms throughout Papua New Guinea, Noah Jackson (a Rainforest Alliance trainer and auditor) prepares to head back to the United States, his home base. Here, he writes about his last moments in the Pacific country…
I’ve just come from visiting a group of smallholder farmers in Papua New Guinea. I smell like sun block and sweat, and just a hint of fermenting cocoa. My clothes and bags are covered in a layer of dust and I’ve just squeezed my dented, metal water bottle into my big wheeling gear bag. It’s so heavy — stuffed with random bits of equipment and notebooks — that the day before yesterday it actually toppled someone when they tried to move it for me. Like me, the bag has put on some hard miles and become worn from sun and travel.
Coming right from a cocoa farm, I only stopped briefly at a farm manager’s office to hand off a flash drive of files and pick up a plane ticket. En route to the airport, we talked about what needs to happen to get the management to the next level and discussed how certification is as much about changing mindsets as it is about building long-term relationships with farmers.
What does a farm need to get on track to certification? It depends on the farm, and it can be incredibly complex. One example: under the standards required for Rainforest Alliance certification, in addition to banning dangerous agrochemicals on the farm, a farm might also need to stop selling them in its supply store. Sustainable agriculture is about a vision, as much as it is about taking small steps. In the shared language of tok pison, a Creole-based language of around a thousand words, I might say it’s a longtime big way. In other words, certification and sustainable agriculture are a journey.
On this trip, I’ve been on my own journey of sorts. There have been some difficult moments. One chemical seller showed me a shipping container of DDT. On one plantation, there were children on the payroll. On a few farms, workers did not have protective equipment. Under the Sustainable Agriculture Network Standard (the standard to which all Rainforest Alliance Certified farms are audited), these practices are all prohibited.
One evening, stopping by a farm office to check my email, I was confronted by a group putting their heads together to figure out how to deal with the latest theft of half a shipping container of coffee. Challenges like these make this country an exceptionally tough place to implement commercial sustainable agriculture.
There were positive experiences, too. Papua New Guinea also stands out as an outpost of rich resources, hope and action. It is a place where one man and a very small team can manufacture enough biodiesel for an island. It’s a place where one farmer opened his home up to me and another pointed out his conservation area using the tip of a bow and arrow.
At least twice, I wiped out completely and found myself covered in mud after helping dislodge a pickup truck in the mountains with a crew of field officers. Days like those were filled with laughter over small fiascos. There were some cold nights camping in the mountains, too. I remember falling asleep to calls across a mountainside, a sweet coffee lullaby after eating as many varieties of yam as I could fit into my stomach. And I had a lot of garden time and a few stolen moments planting trees, digging yams, practicing my grafting skills and recording stories in my notebook, in images and in video.
Back at the airport, I’ve finished reminiscing with the farm manager. True to his word, he is sitting with me until the moment my plane leaves the island of New Britain, bound for Port Moresby. Like a lot of farmers and locals dedicated to our program and philosophy, he wants to share experiences. We are enjoying each other’s company.
Before I know it, it’s time to leave. The planes engines are winding up. I stand, brush off a layer of dust and make my way out to the tarmac where my gaze stretches into the distant horizon. I see an expanse of coconut trees, betel nuts and fruit trees beneath a canopy of cocoa. Suddenly, I feel like I don’t want to leave – maybe it’s because, deep down, I know that I’m more connected to these farms than I realize, perhaps it’s because I feel rooted and grounded here, or maybe it’s just because I know there is, quite literally, a long way to go with all the reports, flights, writing and journeys ahead. There will be more trips to take, of course. The journey of walking farms will not end here and this will not be my last trip to Papua New Guinea. I shed an unexpected tear, take one last glance at my surroundings and board the plane.