Indonesia: The rice fields of Pulo Aceh

Originally published
By Sean Sprague

The Rice Field Which Didn't Want to be Dug Up is a strange name for a village, but that is what Blang Situngkoh means in the Acehnese language. It is an ironic name because the rice fields certainly were dug up and destroyed, violently, by the tsunami that struck Aceh Island with devastating force on December 26, 2004.

The ancient paddy fields, which lay in graded terraces running down to the shoreline, were terminated within minutes as the massive wave pounded in, carrying logs and rocks in its wake. The fields remained churned up and full of debris for years afterwards. Only now are the first post-tsunami rice crops about to be harvested.

The whole of the northwest coast of Sumatra, particularly the province of Aceh, felt the full force of the tsunami, which killed over 150,000 people in the region. Pulo Aceh, or Aceh Island, just 15 miles off the coast from the capital city of Banda Aceh, was severely hit. Not only fields but also roads, houses and schools were demolished and scores of people lost their lives.

Catholic Relief Services has been active on the island, as elsewhere in Aceh, with reconstruction projects: building new homes and water systems, replacing washed-out roads, and - most importantly - bringing lost rice fields back to life so people can continue with their traditional livelihoods. Heavy machinery as well as cash-for-work incentives got the job done.

'Great to be Growing Rice Again'

Nurjanah, a young farmer explains, "This is the first rice planting since the tsunami struck three years ago. The tsunami ruined our paddy fields, filling them up with debris, tree trunks and rocks and making the soil saline so that rice would no longer grow.

CRS has helped us a lot over the last two years by removing much of the debris and leveling out the fields so that rice could be planted. The natural rainfall over the last two years also helped by washing away some of the salt. The soil is now almost as good as it was before, although it is more sandy. It feels great to be growing rice again!"

Hasbi, a senior agricultural officer for CRS, explained that a 'nitrogen-fixing crop' of maize and soy was planted first to improve the soil quality. The next planting was with rice, which seems to be doing well. CRS has formed farmers' groups where members meet to share projects and to learn new skills. CRS provided local hybrid seeds which grow faster than traditional varieties, and also provided fertilizers.

The farmers and entire community, which had been evacuated from the island for a year and a half and placed in camps in Banda Aceh, have now returned and life is getting back to normal. CRS, along with the British Red Cross, have replaced most of the homes that were lost with modern, concrete earthquake-resilient structures. People seem to be firmly back on their feet, and the rice field that was so unceremoniously dug up is now back in business.

Photojournalist Sean Sprague has reported on CRS projects around the world, most recently in the tsunami-affected regions of Indonesia.