Indonesia Tsunami Recovery: From fishing to farming and from islands to mountains

June 2005 -- An elderly woman surveys her corn crop in April, a few months after the deadly tsunami in December. She is one of thousands who fled inland following the disaster, after she lost her children and her home in Pulo Aceh (the Aceh Islands).

She traveled far inland to the mountains of Aceh Besar and the village of Jantho Baru with her husband and granddaughter. Jantho Baru had once been the home of a community of Javanese migrants, but many returned to Java several years ago following the outbreak of hostilities between separatists and the Indonesian military. When displaced disaster victims came to Jantho Baru, the local authorities gave them permission to shelter in vacant houses. The houses are very simple, with packed earth floors and no electricity, but it is the adjoining land and field that make them valuable.

With the help of an Indonesian environmental NGO, the new migrants were able to cultivate fields that had been lying fallow. They planted corn, rice, chilies and other vegetables. As islanders, most of the inhabitants of Pulo Aceh earned their livelihoods by fishing, so they knew very little about farming. The local youth group, Garuda Nusantara, showed them how plant and tend the crops and also provided seedlings and farming tools.

Six months after the tsunami, these new residents of Jantho Baru have already harvested their first corn crop, and are selling it by the side of the road to nearby Bukit Masarah. When they first arrived in the village, aid agencies made weekly drops of food and basic necessities. Now they can manage on monthly injections of assistance thanks their small income from sales of their produce.

Throughout Aceh, the lack of work and depressive effect of enforced idleness is a common complaint from displaced families living in tents and barracks. But in Jantho Baru the rigors of farming have given shape and purpose to shattered lives.

There are 187 displaced families making a living in Jantho Baru. In many ways they seem settled, but in fact their future remains uncertain. Some still hope to return to their land, on Pulo Aceh and elsewhere. Others would prefer to stay in Jantho. The local community has welcomed the refugees and the newcomers have even joined in with local religious activities and village meetings. However, the newcomers are still regarded as outsiders and their residence in the village temporary. It is not clear whether they would be accepted in the long term, or what kinds of social tensions this would create.

At the same time, local authorities are putting pressure on the displaced families to move into nearby state-built barracks, a move they are resisting as it would mean abandoning their fields and their precious independence. "Why would we want to move?" asks the woman. "There's nothing for us there. At least here I can work on this land."