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Down to Earth No. 68, February 2006

A year after the disaster

The following report is based on a DTE staff visit to Aceh in December 2005

Looking over the vast expanse of mudflats that stretched to the horizon, I asked where the village had been. The man pointed towards the sea. Apart from the few ragged remaining coconut palms, it was indistinguishable from the land which had been paddy fields and shrimp ponds.

One year on from the December 26th quake-tsunami disaster and the scale of the reconstruction work needed is all too apparent. The tsunami devastated communities, their land and livelihoods along more than 800 kilometres of coastline in Aceh. It left over 168,000 people dead or missing, according to official figures. Over half a million were made homeless. Some 67,000 people are still living in tents and 30,000 in temporary barracks which were only intended for use for a year or so and were never suitable for many users. The rest are staying with relatives.

The Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR), headed by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, has come under heavy criticism for being slow to act and bureaucratic. International aid agencies have also been criticised for each wanting to go its own way and for disproportionate spending on accommodation and transport - thus fuelling inflation in the local economy. Some 480 NGOs are operating in the province, ranging from small local groups to big international agencies. Even so, a slow pace of rebuilding communities that allows for consultation and consent can have advantages over a rushed, top-down reconstruction process.

Only 16,500 houses of the 120,000 planned for Aceh's 570,000 homeless had been completed by late Dec. Another 15,000 were due for completion soon, but tens of thousands of people faced their second rainy season in tents. The UN and Red Cross-Red Crescent said in December that they hoped to build as many as 20,000 temporary homes to provide more adequate shelter. Another 78,000 houses are scheduled for construction this year and the BRR aims to have everyone moved into permanent housing by mid-2007.

Signs of hope
While the reconstruction of Aceh - particularly new homes - is sluggish, the recovery of Aceh in other ways is phenomenal. People are remarrying and there will soon be a baby boom in Aceh. Behind these apparently happy events lie many tragedies. Women, small children and the elderly died in disproportionate numbers in the disaster. Some widowers have remarried so there is someone to take care of the home and surviving children while they go out to work. Some wives are young women who have no financial support since the death of their parents and cannot complete their studies at high school or college. Some pregnant women are desperate to have babies to help fill the space left by their lost children.

A new direction for Aceh
The Memorandum of Understanding between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement has created real opportunities for the people of Aceh to start to recover from the three decades of conflict which preceded the tsunami. Under the MoU, a new law on Aceh's governance must be enacted before 31st March 2006. Some civil society groups are stepping aside from the relief work they have been doing since January 2005 in order to make the most of this political space. They can, for the first time, take part in decision-making on new policies and are keen to play a part in making significant changes for the better in Aceh's society and economy. They want to promote good governance and grass-roots democracy. People talk of creating a new Aceh as a 'green province' - a concept which is supported by some of the governor's staff. Some of this may be mere pipe dreams, but a tangible spirit of optimism is in the air.

A case in point is the indigenous peoples' network in Aceh, JKMA. Like other sectors of the community, indigenous people who lived along the west and north coast lost their lives, property and livelihoods. Thirty communities that belonged to JKMA's network suffered seriously; approximately 4,000 of them died. But the social and cultural impacts were particularly hard. The loss of community elders - the guardians of customary law, the keepers of family and community history and key decision-makers - and the dispersal of survivors into various camps dislocated traditional governance systems. Adat (customary) land, often held communally with no written documents, may have disappeared under the sea or become unusable for cultivation. Moreover, pre-tsunami, the rights of indigenous communities to land and natural resources, and their traditional institutions and laws had not been acknowledged. Technically, it was the role of local government to help the community, but it was paralysed by the loss of offices, staff, records and equipment. This made it even more difficult for villages to start rebuilding their lives.

JKMA's challenge was to help indigenous communities to recover, consolidate and plan for the future. It started by finding out the extent of the problem - which areas had been damaged the worst and who had been lost. Then it set up regional centres and trained staff to run these. In this way, JKMA rebuilt its organisation and consolidated its membership. It also organises various kinds of meeting. Last September there was a workshop in Banda Aceh on strengthening the role of traditional district leaders (mukim*) in adat communities. Five regional 'consolidations', involving key civil and military bodies and the BRR, have allowed open dialogue between communities and the authorities. Government representatives, including bupati (district heads), are keen to come because they see these gatherings as strategic. Unusually for Indonesia, they do not just make an opening speech and then leave, but take part in discussions and listen to community concerns.

As JKMA has many community and religious leaders among its members, this gives the organisation real credibility in negotiating policy decisions with the authorities. It is using its weight to try to change local regulations (commonly called the 'canon' in Aceh) so that indigenous rights are acknowledged, for example, allowing mukim to be responsible for natural resource management, settlements and conflict resolution. This is an important step towards regenerating traditional governance systems obliterated by the standard village administration scheme imposed in the late 1970s. In addition, JKMA has persuaded UN agencies to pay attention to adat land rights in reconstruction programmes, even though this principle was absent from the 'Blueprint' for rebuilding devastated areas launched early in 2005. It has encouraged aid organisations, such as OXFAM, to provide more training for its field staff so that they take account of adat and traditional decision-making systems in its development projects. Most importantly, JKMA and environmental groups have pressed for the inclusion of a clause in the draft Aceh Governance law that "all resource exploitation in Aceh must be with the knowledge and consent of the people". It remains to be seen whether Jakarta will approve this in the final version of the new legislation.

JKMA was one of the organisations lobbying for peace before the agreement was signed, sending representatives, including women and religious leaders, to Jakarta to talk to the media and parliament in July. Before that, Pak Yurian (see box) and Pak Geucik Amir, went to the UN's Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples in May to draw international attention to the need for peace as part of Aceh's post-tsunami reconstruction. One outcome has been a partnership between JKMA and Canada's indigenous Assembly of First Nations. Together with AMAN, they have conducted a rapid needs assessment for the short, medium and long terms. Future collaboration will focus on indigenous participation in government planning; rebuilding homes, schools and livelihoods; and ensuring that the principle of free, prior and informed consent is the basis for decision-making by communities.

(Serambi 2/Dec/05; Jakarta Post 7/Dec/05, 9/Dec/05; interviews with Budi Arianto, Pak Yurian, Pak Keucik Amir and JKMA secretariat staff.)

A fly in the ointment Two districts of Aceh - Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) and Aceh Barat Selatan (Abas) - have declared their intention to become separate provinces. The creation of these two new provinces presents a constitutional problem since the August MoU deals with Aceh within its current boundaries. Moreover, the revised autonomy law (No32/2004) specifies that new provinces can only be created with the permission of the governor and the provincial assembly. Supporters of ALA and Abas have shortcut this process by going straight to Jakarta to make a formal declaration in early December. They claim to represent "the wishes of the people" and have some popular support locally and from members of the national parliament. On the other hand, opponents see the hand of members of the military who want to undermine the peace process and/or powerful interests in Jakarta who want more control over Aceh's resources. Wherever new administrative units are created in Indonesia, a parallel military command system is established, thereby increasing the numbers of troops and the opportunity for military business ventures. One legacy of thirty years of conflict in Aceh is that ordinary people, especially in rural areas, have got used to doing as they were told since voicing their true aspirations could have fatal results. (Rakyat Aceh 3/Dec/05 and other sources)

* A mukim oversees around 10 villages (gampong), each with a village head (geucik). He is usually the reference point for all matters concerning customary law and community matters.

Rebuilding Blangme

DTE revisited Pak Yurian, a leading member of Aceh's indigenous organisation JKMA whose harrowing personal account of the disaster featured in DTE 64 - 'Eye Witness' box. In August 2005, a meeting of all communities (gampong) in JKMA's network selected him as the head of the organisation, replacing Pak Keuchik Jailani Hasan who was lost in the tsunami. Around half the population of Pak Yurian's former home, Blangme, in Aceh Besar, died on the 26th Dec 2004 (see table below).

"Blangme was wiped out. The ricefields, homes, people were all washed away. Only one gampong survived intact as it was on higher ground. Now more than 500 houses are being built by the NGOs Genesis and World Vision. Members of 381 households survived, but the increased number of houses is due to families dividing because of marriages and because others have returned to Blangme from other places following the peace agreement".

The survivors of Blangme continue to live in tents or in temporary barracks. They have received little help from the government, but considerable support from various aid agencies.

The people of Blangme were active participants in the rebuilding of their communities. JKMA helped them to map their land and to do spatial planning for the new settlements. The villagers selected the plan for their houses which are 6 x 7m and made of brick and cement. Some are ready; the rest should be finished by August 2006. New wells have been bored and there is a village hall provided by USAID. Pak Yurian hoped to be in his new home by January.

The main concern now is their future livelihoods. People are not sure what will happen to the support they have been receiving once they move into their new homes. CARE has been providing food for the community for the last year and rice fields are slowly being restored under a cash-for work programme."We don't want to be beggars. We don't want money we just want to rebuild our lives and to support ourselves", Pak Yurian explained. "This is vitally important as it is people's main source of income. The fields are still full of debris including lots of broken glass from destroyed buildings which will cut farmers' feet when they cultivate the land. Sand from the seabed which was deposited on the farmland needs to be cleared out. The shrimp ponds were also destroyed. Before the disaster, we had guava, rambutan, mango and banana trees - but these were all washed away."

"We must face what fate brings us in our lives. A tsunami is not an everyday event. The main problem facing our community now is how to strengthen the local economy and make a living again. Yes, we are sad, but we must keep going. We remember all the people we lost every Friday in our prayers - the women and the children. December 26th will be a very sad day for us, but we will be patient and face the future. It is all in God's hands."

Communities Pre-Tsunami Deaths Missing Survivors
Baroh Blangme 315 216 2 97 (20 families)
Teungoh Blangme 339 263 17 86 (50 families)
Lamkuta Blangme 578 339 76 163 (31 families)
Umong Sribee 731 82 0 649 (154 families)
Baroh Geunteut 213 12 0 201 (55 families)
Teungoh Geunteut 277 15 0 262 (71 families)
Total 2453 900 94 1438 (381 families)

Nias Neglected

Reconstruction on Nias has progressed even more slowly than in Aceh, BRR head Kuntoro admitted. The island of Nias, off the west coat of Sumatra, suffered from a major earthquake in March 2005, as well as the December quake and tsunami with devastating effects. Around 4,000 families were still living in tents or temporary shelters by December 2005 and only 200 houses had been completed of the 13,000 new homes needed. Another 50,000 houses also need to be repaired. A total of 770 schools, churches and mosques were severely damaged. A spokesman for the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency said the main problem was a shortage of funds. Some Rp1.1 trillion (US$110 million) was still required. 96% of foreign aid has been used in Aceh, leaving Nias relatively untouched. (Jakarta Post 7/Dec/ 05)

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