What do you do with a landscape when it has been overwhelmed by a tsunami? When the coastline is altered beyond recognition, the paddy fields filled with salt, the trees flattened, the villages washed away and the population decimated?
In the Indonesian province of Aceh, they are finding out. And on the tenth anniversary of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 that killed an estimated 167,000 people in Aceh alone, the answers are surprisingly positive.
I toured the coastline of Aceh last month with the NGO Wetlands International, surveying the outcome of its Green Coast project, which replanted mangroves and other trees along a shore battered by a tsunami wave as much as 20 metres high.
The first surprise was that, in villages where often more than half the population was lost that day, they had found the time to plant trees, and then to nurture them.
The deal was this: with funds from Oxfam Novib, Wetlands International offered micro-credit for village enterprises such as opening cafes or setting up goat farms to groups who were willing, in return, to plant trees. Then it extended the offer. If at least three-quarters of the trees were thriving after two years, the credit would be written off. There would be nothing to pay back.
The two-year test
It worked. Villagers formed groups that planted millions of trees on thousands of hectares of coastline around 70 villages. Wetlands International claims 83 per cent of saplings passed the two-year test.
Villagers told me they felt that the trees were theirs and that their sponsors cared what happened to them. It was a stark contrast with abandoned and dead saplings that I saw close by that had been planted, often by the same people, under government cash-for-work schemes.
“When the floods come again, the mangroves can save us,” said Hajamuddun, a fisherman in Gle Jong, which lost all but seven of the people at home on the day the tsunami hit. But villagers are also proclaiming the economic value of their new mangroves, which are nurturing fisheries and encouraging the growth of crabs, cockles and clams that all fetch a good price in local markets.
A novel form of micro-credit
Wetlands International’s Indonesian director Nyoman Suryadiputra told me that he developed the novel form of microcredit after the Indonesian financial crash in 1998, as a way of reviving village economies. Now called “bio-rights”, it has proved popular, and Wetlands International has used it widely in projects across the world.
In Aceh, villagers have used the micro-credit for a range of different projects. Some built cafes; others goat, cattle or duck-rearing farms; while many repaired boats or made fishing nets.
With their paddy fields lost, fishing is an increasingly important economic activity especially along Aceh’s long western coast, which bore the brunt of the tsunami. And villagers told me that the new road built by USAID after the tsunami provides a rapid route for getting fish – including, from Keude Unga, live lobsters – to markets in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and even abroad.
Communities own land uncovered by tsunami
With the local geography often turned upside down, land rights have become an issue in some places, as several villages told me. Tree planting projects had to be sensitive to that.
The sea and foreshore would normally be owned by the government. But what if the sea invades village lands? At Gampong Baro, they told me firmly that the new foreshore, where their village had once been, was still village land. “We own all this land. It is community land, not government land,” said village leader Asuardi. So the tree planting was on community land.
At Krueng Tunong, the sea came inland almost a kilometre after the tsunami. And what was once a river is now the beach. “Yes,” said local leader Wahab, “because this land was a river before, it does not belong to individuals but to the community.” But he pointed to the other side of a fence where they had planted trees as part of the project. “That is privately owned land.”
The Green Coast project has involved ecological innovation. Most of Aceh’s mangroves had been cleared in recent decades to make way for shrimp and fish ponds. The clearances left the coastline and its inhabitants badly exposed to the full force of the tsunami. Mangroves would not have halted the tsunami, but they would have dissipated some of its strength.
Combining ecological protection with cash-earning
After 2004, many aid agencies rehabilitated the ponds, even though environmentalists objected that it was setting up communities for future disasters. But the Green Coast project offered a compromise: planting mangroves among the ponds.
Many villages I visited had adopted this approach. Some had planted mangroves along the dykes between the ponds. Others had planted them in the ponds themselves. In both cases they were pleased with the outcome, which they said combined ecological protection with cash-earning.
“We get more fish now that there are mangroves,” said Wahab in Krueng Tunong. “They grow faster and in greater numbers than when the ponds were bare. I can see the juveniles hiding in the roots of the mangroves. The roots help them avoid predators. We get more crabs, too.” Nurbaidah, a female member of the planting committee in Grong-Grong Capa, said: “They protect our homes from the wind and waves, and reduce erosion of the dykes.”
Efforts to plant mangroves after the tsunami were not always successful. Mangroves require muddy shoreline to prosper. But parts of the coastline were sandy, and the tsunami wave covered many more stretches in thick sand.
In such places the Green Coast project has encouraged planting of native casuarina pine trees. The casuarinas grew fast. Some are already more than 20 metres high. They are a very visible sign of nature’s recovery from disaster. And they provide confidence for the reviving communities that they are now less vulnerable to the ocean. In places where the sound of waves on the shore can still evoke panic in some, that is important.
Amazingly – in part thanks to the re-greening of the coastline -- the tsunami-ravaged villages of Aceh are getting back on their feet. The landscape is reviving.