Ron Cörvers Ron Cörvers Foto: Sacha Ruland

Are Indonesian farmers getting enough value for our money?

Written by  Livia Smits Wednesday, 11 July 2012 08:54
What soothes the conscience more than a cup of Max Havelaar fair-trade coffee – fighting poverty, conserving the environment and working for social improvement – or a bar of ‘ethical’ chocolate? Many of us are happy to pay a bit more for that coloured stamp of sustainability on the product packaging. Such labels are abundant these days, and competition among them is on the rise. Their added value is undisputed – at last, sustainability is guaranteed. But what do small-scale farmers in Indonesia think of this? Are they really getting enough value for our money? Research is now underway at Maastricht University (UM).

The project is called ‘Social and economic effects of partnering for sustainable change in agricultural commodity chains – A Southern perspective’. It has received close to €600,000 in funding from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and the Directorate of Higher Education of the Ministry of National Education of the Republic of Indonesia (DIKTI). Over the coming four years, this money will fund five Indonesian PhD candidates and a postdoc from Maastricht’s International Centre for Integrated Assessment and Sustainable Development (ICIS), investigating the forms of collaboration underlying sustainability labels on agricultural products from Indonesia. Do these labels actually improve the living conditions of Indonesian farmers, economically, socially, environmentally or health-wise, as the labels claim?

The project, a partnership between UM and the University of Lampung (Indonesia), is part of SPIN, the Scientific Programme Indonesia–Netherlands 2012–16. This programme has served since 2002 to foster academic collaboration between the Netherlands and Indonesia with PhD programmes abroad for aspiring, ambitious Indonesian researchers. The idea is that they will then return home and put into practice their knowledge and experience of Western academic culture.

Governance in Indonesia

Ron Cörvers, associate professor of Governance and Sustainable Development at ICIS, is co-developer of the project. He is delighted: “Actually it was a coincidence. The SPIN programme was new to us, but my colleague, Professor Pieter Glasbergen, saw opportunities immediately. An Indonesian professor was keen to join us, and so the ball started rolling.” Cörvers developed a research proposal together with the project leader Pieter Glasbergen, honorary part-time professor of Governance at ICIS, his ICIS colleagues René Kemp and Anja van Bogaert, and the Indonesian partners Bustanul Arifin and Hanung Ismono. Of the 86 proposals submitted, 9 were awarded funding – including the ICIS project.

“The choice for a governance approach focused on Indonesia was probably crucial”, says Cörvers. “The effects of sustainability labels on producers have scarcely been studied, let alone in Indonesia. Research has generally focused on the consumption side of labels in the West or on producers in Latin America, Africa and sometimes Asia. We’ll be filling this gap by looking at how Indonesian producers experience the daily reality of sustainability labels, thus shining a light on the Southern perspective in an otherwise predominantly Western story.”

Mixed-methods development work?

The research approach is typically ICIS: a combination of different theories and methods in what is known as an integrated assessment. Governance and economic theories are combined with both quantitative and qualitative analysis methods. Cörvers explains: “Our Indonesian partners examine the production chains in the case studies and investigate who is really profiting from labels, whether there are incentives for change, and what the competition between labels means for farmers. Meanwhile, we at ICIS take a qualitative approach. We use insights from governance theory to analyse the forms of collaboration and power relations between stakeholders such as farmers, policymakers, multinationals and social organisations.” Methodologically, then, the PhD candidates will benefit from both worlds.

The research will evaluate the somewhat older (and thus well-documented) coffee and palm oil labels, and make policy recommendations for the newer, still developing labels for cocoa, spices and aquaculture products. Naturally, an office in Maastricht does not offer the best view of what’s happening on the ground in Indonesia. The researchers will therefore spend eight months per year doing fieldwork to inventory the partnerships between labels, and attend stakeholder meetings where the parties involved can reflect on the interim findings. For the remaining time they will do group work in Maastricht, and write articles and dissertations under the guidance of the supervisors.

So can this research also be considered development work? “In some sense, yes. We generate academic knowledge that Indonesian farmers and governments could use strategically. And by interacting with stakeholders during fieldwork you’re also inserting yourself into the reality on the ground and the debate on labels. You’re working not in a lab but with real people. Ultimately our research might be just a crumb on Indonesia’s development trail, but to make a difference you have to start small.”

Good dissertations

Before the project can kick off in January 2013, qualified PhD candidates need to be recruited. This is no easy task. For each position, various candidates in Indonesia will have to be interviewed and give presentations. This procedure alone can take up to two weeks. But careful selection is important, according to Cörvers, who will himself supervise three PhD candidates: “After all, you’re entering into a four-year relationship with someone, and you want them to produce a good dissertation that you as a supervisor and a university can be proud of.”

Ron Cörvers (1964) is associate professor Governance and Sustainable Development at the International Centre for Integrated Assessment and Sustainable development (ICIS). He is also educational director of the Master programme Sustainability Science and Policy, and chair of the educational committee of the MUST PhD programme. His current research interests are in the field of governance for sustainable development, policy oriented learning for sustainable (regional) development, and technology enhanced social learning.

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