Signs of new life spring from Aceh's earth and seas

Signs of new life spring from Aceh's earth and seas


A few random shoots of rice in a moonscape of disaster, a solitary basket of gleaming fish on a shattered dock, a tree snapped like a twig sprouting new leaves. These are the meagre signs of life returning to a land that a freak tsunami all but wiped off the map.

Amid the unending piles of rubble and stinking pools of saltwater along the once-idyllic coastline of Aceh, the Indonesian province worst hit by the December 26 tsunami, the local people are showing new determination to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. "Even if the disaster came again, even if war comes, we will still go back to the sea," a weather-beaten fisherman named Baharudin told a group of more than 500 sea captains and their wives in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

Wasteland of destruction

But these people will need help for years to come. Along with the agencies engaged in the recovery effort, they say they aim to rebuild lives as good as, if not better, than the ones they led before the tsunami struck.

The tsunami figures are stark and almost overwhelming. Over 235 000 people are listed as dead or missing in Indonesia. The great majority lost were in Aceh, and most were the families of farmers or fishers, all living within a few kilometres of the sea. Over 400 000 people lost their homes and now live in temporary camps and hastily built shelters.

Half the fishing boats and tonnes of fishing gear were smashed, in some areas two-thirds of agricultural land are reckoned to be unusable, and all that is left of most homes are the concrete foundations in a wasteland of destruction. Often the only building left standing is the local mosque.

A broad approach

Behind the scenes, a large number of agencies, including FAO, work with government offices at local, provincial and national level to devise strategies that will work for all of Aceh's people, in particular those who knew poverty and deprivation long before the tsunami struck.

Donors, which in the case of FAO include Japan, the European Union, Italy, Norway, Belgium, China, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Algeria, are also keen to see the emergency work they have supported turn into long-term development successes. They and Indonesian government officials know there are levels of trauma and uncertainty, and to some extent distrust, to overcome.

FAO's David Hitchcock, who has 24 years' experience of Asian agriculture, states that the job needs the broadest possible outlook. "Our aim is to embrace every aspect of the livelihoods of these people of the Aceh coast, not just focus on the technical aspects of agriculture," he says.

All sides stress the need for local participation, the catch-phrase is "bottom up". The most frequently cited agents on the fishing side are the Panglima Laut, the "sea captains" whose traditional leadership role stretches back 200 years. Farmers need essential items - seeds, fertilizers and equipment such as hand-tractors, as well as advice on sowing alternative crops and methods of treating soil damaged by the pervasive impact of saltwater.

For fishermen, the one real advantage over farmers is that the fish are still there to be caught, while crops need to be sown and grown. Unlike almost everything on land, the mackerel, grouper and tuna out at sea may have hardly felt the tsunami's swell as it swept past them.

Fears that the fish may be contaminated by the thousands of corpses swept away by the tsunami - concerns dismissed by experts as unfounded - may still make some fishermen reluctant to head out to sea. But the group of fishermen staring out at the ocean from their moored boats in Lhok Nga, south of here, had far more mundane things on their minds. "My engine needs repair, I don't have fuel and the only gear I have is this," says 21-year-old Ruslan as he holds up a reel of nylon line.

Enormous losses

Ulrich Schmidt, an FAO fishing expert who has led an experienced team along the wild exposed western coast of Aceh and is now working on the more gentle slopes of the northeastern shore, says damage to the fishing fleet runs into tens of millions of dollars.

Calculations in the agriculture sector quickly run into similar figures. Paddy fields that should be gleaming with bright green rice shoots lie beneath layers of mud and toxic silt, their banks torn down and the elaborate drainage systems blocked by every type of debris from massive slabs of concrete to mundane household goods. And this is a scene repeated endlessly along hundreds of kilometres of once-glorious tropical coastline.

FAO is using donor funds to supply goods to 'prime the pump,' to coin a farming phrase. But it also offers its expertise to other organizations, both national and international, to address problems that will take years to resolve.

Meanwhile, controversy in a province already hit by a simmering war with separatist rebels is never far away. Ideas on declaring various sectors of the coastline as zones for protection, conservation, housing and commerce look impressive on paper, but are harder to put into practice in a country where land titles are often unwritten and in dispute.

Plans to revive the aquaculture industry, involving many thousands of fishponds and hatcheries swept away by the tsunami, are floated as a means of breaking the Aceh people's reliance on the 'monocultures' of fishing or rice production. But this brings complications. There is a constant clash between large-scale commercial operations, often involving absentee owners who may move when a site becomes exhausted, and small-time producers with longer-term but less ambitious concerns.

"We want to give strength to the local community," says Jean-Jacques de Ferrière, who runs FAO's office in Banda Aceh. "How to balance economic power is a major concern for us."

He stresses the need to move quickly on delivering vital seeds and fertilizers in time for the current sowing season. His colleague Christophe Charbon is out buying goods in Medan, the nearest market untouched by the tsunami, while Jean Gallene, another colleague, is shipping engines and fishing gear for the island of Nias to the southwest of Aceh, which was also hit by the earthquake and tsunami. The pressure is mounting on everyone to get moving.

Long road ahead

In the Lhok Seumawe area in the northeast corner of the province a sea captain asks, "The banks have not helped us to get funds to buy new equipment. Where can we get funds to buy some fishing gear?" A colleague from the island of Simeuleu says his family is still in makeshift tents, while others face months and perhaps years living all in one room in the long rows of government-built plywood 'barracks'.

The only woman to address a Panglima Laut meeting in Banda Aceh, Nurjannah from Bireuen on the northeast coast, echoed repeated appeals for access to credit, "on friendly terms" while others looked to the longer term by requesting scholarships for their children so they can return to school.

Master boat-builder Ramli Usman is one of many who have offered individual help to friends and neighbours. In Ramli's boatyard, now much in demand, a 15-year-old orphan runs his hand along a plank of wood that will soon become part of a boat, and explains why his English is so surprisingly good. "I work hard at it." A motto for everyone in Aceh?