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Aceh: Community Spirit Enables First Steps

In Focus, February 2005

by Ben Jolliffe

Buildings and fields remain undamaged in the five small villages of Lampanah Adat, a traditional community of fishermen, farmers and foresters located just two hours from Sumatra’s northern provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

The community didn’t escape unscathed from the recent earthquake and tsunami, however. They lost 53 people: Many of the villagers’ children were away at schools in the hard hit capital while some women visiting friends and relatives also never returned.

Yet the citizens of Lampanah Adat have set about rebuilding their lives and helping their neighbors with emergency supplies and in tackling the complex tasks of damage assessment and reconstruction.

Many of them went first to the local office of Yayasan Rumpun Bambu Indonesia (YRBI), a community-based forest management group funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), where volunteers helped to coordinate efforts.

Sanusi Syarief, the head of YRBI who has been working with Lampanah Adat for a number of years, was amazed at how quickly and how effectively they organized themselves.

"We have been assisting this community for some time, helping them regain their independence and encouraging them to take an active role in managing their resources but I wasn’t expecting anything like this – especially given the scale of the disaster. Most people are in shock or just trying to find their own families," Syarief said.

Network of Support

YRBI has been working with about 40 similar communities in the province of Aceh, where indigenous customs and beliefs built up over hundreds of years are interwoven with Muslim practices introduced in the 18th century.

A wider network of friendship and acquaintance has been created, fostered by the shared experience of meetings and negotiations held by YRBI and a sense of mutual concern was clear in the aftermath of the earthquake. However, these adat communities lack secure legal status, which weakens their position both with local government and timber concessions in the area.

Furthermore, there is a great deal of variation among communities even within Aceh Province. Complex relationships within each community are managed through a consensual style of politics that requires lengthy discussions, especially in matters regarding natural resource management.

An hour west of Banda Aceh, however, in the eight villages of Kreung Raya, YRBI has been working since 2001 to help the community counter these particular problems. The group has concentrated on helping the community strengthen its bargaining power with local government decisionmakers and private sector companies and thus to gain a greater say in how its marine resources are managed.

Emergency Relief, Education and Conservation

The experience gained has been invaluable in helping Aceh Humanitarian Post (AHP), a consortium of local and international nongovernmental organizations, to establish the only community-based emergency relief center outside the provincial capital.

Responsibilities have been delegated and work has started quickly not in only distributing medical help but also with education and conservation efforts as well.

Doctors from the Asia Medical Students Association joined finance and community organizers from YRBI and Yayasan Ekowista Aceh, while field volunteers from the local environmental group MAPAYAH worked with staff from EKONA. Volunteers from Conservation International’s (CI) nearby Bodogol Conservation Education Center have been helping school children in informal school sessions while both CI and CEPF have been able to provide funding and strategic assistance.

“AHP is the only group providing aid at the community level outside Banda Aceh that stays with the community there,” said Purbasari Surjadi, CEPF Sumatra grant manager (see photo, above right).

“What we want to do next is create a mobile medical service for the five other villages in the area and expand provision to include educational assistance and advice on reconstruction,” she said. “School plays a key role in helping children resume a normal life. It’s also very important that materials for rebuilding come from sustainable resources, otherwise these communities risk losing their future livelihoods.”

The loss of many community leaders makes the work of reconstruction that much harder but reports indicate that the Acehenese are choosing representatives to meet the needs of the moment, even if their traditional or administrative leaders have died or are missing.

These communities can still not own land outright by Indonesian law and neither is land tenure nor traditional adat land ownership recognized. Furthermore, whenever community leaders die, regulations on those rights that do exist need to be renegotiated. Thus, where communities have lost land and leaders, their problems can effectively be doubled.

But active involvement in reconstruction negotiations with local government and with other communities could be one way in which individuals begin healing their emotional and psychological wounds as well as gaining crucial leadership experience for the future.

New Responsibilities Help Survivors Start to Heal

Both the World Bank and the United Nations have repeatedly stressed the importance of involving local communities in the reconstruction effort for precisely these reasons. With a third or even a half of civil servants killed in some areas, the role of new community leaders is likely to become even more important.

This opinion is also shared by The National Development Planning Agency (BAPPENAS). The agency published a Preliminary Damage and Loss Assessment on January 19 noting that "in order to match aid efforts with their needs, local communities need to be informed of their options as they re-establish livelihoods. The reconstruction process should take direction from them."

Compounding the complexity of reconstruction, however, is the uncertainty surrounding imminent government decisions on relocation of refugees from communities destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami.

"Where adat communities are relocated to new areas, they may not have the same rights to land and resources," Surjadi said. "Even if there are no other communities in the relocated area, it is not easy to claim new rights. There are also concerns about lands left behind."

Logging Threat

Communities may also find it difficult to safeguard their resources when timber demand for reconstruction increases. The reconstruction effort in Aceh is likely to require between 4 and 8 million cubic meters of logs over the next five years, according to a report published January 27 by WWF-Indonesia and Greenomics Indonesia, a policy research institution.

In order to prevent the felling of thousands of hectares of Sumatra's dwindling forests, the report calls for foreign donors to include sustainably sourced timber amid the billions of dollars of aid that they have pledged for relief and reconstruction efforts.

Wood is required initially for building temporary accommodation for the estimated 500,000 people forced from their homes. Low-cost housing, office buildings, hospitals, schools and houses of worship will then take priority.

The two groups estimate that an alternative supply of 1 million cubic meters per year could help offset the huge demand.

In related efforts, CEPF is enabling its grant recipients in the area to spend remaining funds on items or services to get conservationists back on their feet and working again. As CEPF Asia Grant Director Judy Mills explained: "The challenge for us now is to work out how to help rebuild the devastated areas of Sumatra without destroying the ecological services and resources that remain intact."

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© CI, photo by Haroldo Castro
Volunteers came from throughout Indonesia. This energetic group meets at Yayasan Leuser Lestari (YLL), an NGO in Medan, before leaving for Banda Aceh and Meulaboh.

© CI
Conservation International CEO Peter Seligmann (left) and CEPF Sumatra Grant Manager Purbasari Surjadi take a break outside the Aceh Humanitarian Post in Aceh.

To date, CEPF has committed more than $8.9 million to support civil society groups in conserving Sumatra’s natural resources. Learn more about these grants.

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Related story: Civil Society Groups Lead Relief Efforts

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