Feature

Aceh on the mend

Trained: Baby elephant Rosa wrestles with a mahout at the local Community Response Unit (CRU) of Sampoiniet district in Aceh Jaya. (JP/Iman Mahditama)
Trained: Baby elephant Rosa wrestles with a mahout at the local Community Response Unit (CRU) of Sampoiniet district in Aceh Jaya. (JP/Iman Mahditama)

Witnessing all the commotion on the streets of Banda Aceh one November night in 2012 is surely a life-affirming experience when you take into account that, just eight years ago, a deadly tsunami ravaged the city and claimed more than 100,000 lives.

It is true that the aftereffects of the devastating natural disaster can still be felt in the city even today, with a mass graveyard for the tsunami victims, a Tsunami Museum and the 26-kiloton PLTD Apung ship that was tossed 6 kilometers inland still amid the residential area where it landed.

However, one cannot deny that, eight years after the tsunami, the city is truly back on its feet and even livelier than before, particularly in the evening.

“It used to be that people were afraid to come out at night before the tsunami because of the conflict. After dusk there was little activity outdoors,” Banda Aceh resident Nur Raihan Lubis told The Jakarta Post recently.

She was referring to the decades-long conflict in Aceh between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

“But after the tsunami and the subsequent signing of the peace accord [between Indonesia and GAM] things started becoming more peaceful. It was only in recent years that the nights in Banda Aceh have been this busy,” said Raihan — as she prefers to be called — a former journalist who now serves in the Aceh office of the Multi Donor Fund (MDF) for Aceh and Nias.

Indeed, when the Post visited Banda Aceh for two days to take part in World Bank site visits to several post-tsunami development projects in Aceh province, it did not feel like a visit to a city that has been torn apart by a disaster of such crushing magnitude.

Quite the contrary, Banda Aceh feels just like any other burgeoning city in Indonesia — not yet a crowded metropolis like Jakarta or Bandung, and yet still vibrant and full of life.

The city’s geographic location — nestled between long stretches of beautiful beaches on one side and steep green hills on the other — gives the city stunning vistas almost all the way around.

Cars and motorbikes go to and fro and people of all ages were flocking their favorite haunts, which are, most likely, the thousands of coffee shops that you can find on seemingly every street corner and are almost always crowded day in, day out.

Expect to find local delicacies from Aceh there until late into the night like mie Aceh (Acehnese noodles with slices of beef or seafood thrown in), roti jala (net-shaped pancake served with chicken curry) and the world-famous Aceh coffee.

Some of them even sell popular cuisine from other parts of Indonesia like pempek (fish cakes served with vinegar) from South Sumatra and es pisang ijo (bananas wrapped in green batter served with ice) from South Sulawesi.

In other parts of the province, evidence of continuing post-tsunami rebuilding and development efforts can also be observed.

In Aceh Besar regency’s Blang Bintang district, near Sultan Iskandar Muda International Airport, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is currently establishing a new sanitary landfill to serve Banda Aceh and Aceh Besar starting next year.

The US$39.4 million project was started in December 2005, taking up 200 hectares of land prepared by the local office of state forestry company PT Perhutani. Currently, a 5-hectare plot of land is being prepared to serve as the first phase of the landfill, with further 5-hectare plots available for expansions in the future.

An old landfill in Banda Aceh has been used to deposit non-contaminating materials such as rubble, bricks and tsunami sediment and is used as a temporary dump site for general municipal waste.

The old dump site will still be used for solid waste management in the future. A new waste transfer station was built there to sort and recycle general waste, and the waste for disposal will then be transported to the new regional landfill in Blang Bintang.

In the Blang Bintang landfill, the liquid part of the disposed waste will be processed through a buffer pond and a leachate treatment plant before being safely returned to nature as ground water. The solid part of the disposed waste may then be safely buried under the soil for natural decomposition.

With all its sophisticated waste management, the Blang Bintang landfill has been touted as the best waste management site in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, deep in Aceh’s green hinterlands on the boundaries of the Sarah Deu forest in Sampoiniet district in western Aceh another post-tsunami development effort has unlikely assistants: a troupe of domesticated elephants.

The troupe, comprising adult elephants and a 2-month-old baby girl, belongs to the local Community Response Unit (CRU), which is part of the larger Aceh Forest and Environment Project (AFEP) that helps protect the massive Leuser and Ulu Masen forest ecosystems from illegal logging.

The protection of this 3.3-million-hectare area is aimed to safeguard not only the water supply of approximately 60 percent of Aceh’s population but also Southeast Asia’s richest remaining source of biodiversity.

The elephants’ job is to help minimize conflict over land usage between wild elephants in the forest and humans who live in settlements on the forest’s edges, a conflict that is said to have emerged, ironically, after the conflict between GAM and the Indonesian government ended.

Soon after the peace accord was signed in Helsinki in August 2005, local farmers began to work their market gardens again after abandoning them during the decades-long war.

Their farms cross the elephants’ tracks and encroach into the elephants’ habitat. When the elephants return to their homes, now farmed by local residents, the struggle for land use heats up.

Some of the conflicts over the years have turned fatal, with lives lost on both sides. The CRUs were then established as intermediaries in the conflict.

In the Sampoiniet district CRU there are sixteen community rangers and six mahouts (elephant trainers) who conduct routine forest monitoring by patrolling with the elephants.

The community ranger program also serves as environmentally friendly alternative employment for former combatants, illegal loggers and poachers.

In September this year, the troupe of elephants welcomed its newest member, a baby girl named Ije Ayu Rosalina. Her mother, Suci, now 31, is part of the CRU troupe while her father is a wild elephant from the forest.

Now two months old, Rosa — so she is affectionately called by the local rangers and mahouts after the veterinarian that helped her delivery — weighs a little bit more than 80 kilograms. At first, she seemed to be a little camera-shy and preferred to hide behind her mother when strangers tried to take her picture.

After a few minutes, however, she finally came out to play, running around inside her spacious wooden cage and engaging in trunk-versus-arm wrestling with one of the mahouts.

“This girl has always been rambunctious,” the mahout later said. “Perhaps it’s because her father is a wild elephant!”

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