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An afterlife for Aceh?

Harvesting shrimp from one of the few remaining shrimp ponds (© FAO)
Harvesting shrimp from one of the few remaining shrimp ponds

Once renowned as an important centre of trade, the Indonesian province of Aceh is still recognised for its rich natural resources and the fierce independence of its people. But the coastal region of this wild and rugged province is a ghost of its former glory. Closest to the epicentre of earthquake that resulted in the tsunami of late 2004, the northern tip of Sumatra took the brunt of the waves. A wall of water - estimated to be as high as 15 metres - surged inland more than a kilometre. Lush landscapes were stripped bare, seaside villages and towns were flattened, beaches were swept away, agricultural land was buried under silt, and previously thriving fishing and aquaculture industries were severely damaged. Of the 235,000 listed dead or missing in Indonesia, the vast majority lived in Aceh, where most houses were reduced to rubble, fishing boats and equipment were smashed, and fish and shrimp ponds destroyed. Little remains of the coastal livelihoods on which the Acehnese depend.

But amongst the ruins, signs of life are re-emerging. Although over 10,000 hectares have been lost to the sea or remain unsuitable for farming, heavy rainfall and irrigation have cleansed much of the land inundated with seawater, which was initially thought to be too saline to grow crops. Farmers need seeds and fertilisers, but it is hoped that planting for the next cropping season will soon begin. For fishermen who still have boats and fishing gear intact, there is tuna, mackerel and grouper to be caught. But total damage to capture fisheries is estimated at more than US$50 million, with over two-thirds of Aceh's fishing fleet destroyed. More than 8,000 fishermen lost their lives.

Restore aquaculture - or adapt it?

The extensive clearance of mangrove forests along Aceh's coastline for aquaculture production left it vulnerable to the full force of the tsunami. As Indonesian officials devise strategies to rehabilitate the region, there are plans to restore the mangrove areas to protect the coastline and help fish sanctuaries to recover. Whilst concrete fish tanks remain intact, over half of Aceh's fish and shrimp ponds (tambaks) were filled with silt. More than ten per cent of the region's pre-tsunami population depended on fish farming as their main livelihood, but small producers, who once earned a steady income from a fishpond of one hectare or less, now have nothing but the hope that their property can be restored.

The Brackish-water Aquaculture Centre, located on the northeast coast of Aceh province, was previously responsible for supporting aquaculture in the region and creating model breeding facilities for the production of giant prawns, softshell crabs and prized finfish species such as grouper and milk fish. That was before the tsunami killed seven of the centre's staff and destroyed most of its buildings. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the government of Italy have pledged to fund the planned rebuilding of the centre. Its head, Mr Sugeng Raharjo, aims to raise aquaculture production to 70 per cent of the pre-tsunami level. However, FAO has emphasised its hope that aquaculture will be less environmentally damaging and more sustainable than it was in the past, and that the centre will play an important role in introducing responsible farming practices.

Many of the Acehnese that survived the tsunami are still living in tents whilst others are housed in makeshift plywood barracks built by the government. Officials estimate that over 100,000 houses will be needed over the next few years, raising concern among environmentalists about the accelerated logging of Aceh's extensive rainforest. Although logging was banned in 2001, the unlicensed cutting of timber has persisted.

Tremors continue

Rice growing near a refugee camp (© FAO/J Toye)
Rice growing near a refugee camp
© FAO/J Toye

Indonesia's plans for rebuilding the province have been further affected by the more recent earthquake off the western coast of Sumatra, registering 8.7 on the Richter scale, which caused severe damage to the islands of Nias and Simeulue. The draft Master Plan for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction for tsunami-affected regions, released by the Indonesian government only days before the latest earthquake, will have to be reconsidered in the light of assistance that will now also be required for island communities, many of them poor coconut gatherers and fishermen.

At the time of writing, powerful tremors continue to jolt island communities, many of whose members are too frightened to sleep near any building for fear of its collapse. But the true scale of the aftershocks of these natural disasters - physical, ecological, economic and psychological - has yet to be fully realised. Close to 600,000 people in northern Sumatra have been displaced due to the tsunami, with almost 100,000 farms or small agricultural enterprises wholly or partly destroyed. With thousands more now made homeless by the latest earthquake in Nias and Simeulue, some time will pass before communities are able to access the resources they require to rebuild their lives. And, unless emergency systems are put in place, their efforts to regain normality will be overshadowed by the fear that disaster can, unfortunately, strike more than once.

Date published: May 2005


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