“The wave was higher than the trees. The sea came right over the village. Every building was destroyed, including all 300 houses. About 180 people were killed, more than half the population. The only people who survived were those who ran for the hills.” That’s how they tell it in the cafe at the entrance to Keude Unga on Aceh’s west coast, which took the full brunt of the tsunami.
“People climbed onto their roofs, but the wave was higher even than the trees, and the roofs and the people were washed away.” Several hundred metres of coastline, including paddy fields and the entire village, became permanently flooded. The old coastal road was washed away, along with a major bridge over a river that enters the sea here. The new coastline is unrecognizable.
The survivors have been pragmatic. Close to the hills where survivors took refuge, a few fields were filled with sand by the wave. So, the villagers have largely given up rice growing. They encouraged the Red Cross to build them a new village on the old paddy fields, while planting trees on available land down by the new waterline. And they took to fishing. “It’s our main livelihood now.”
Tree planting is serious here. We take a boat to a part of the village that is now virtually an island. Here they have planted casuarina pine trees, but also mangroves and some medicinal plants. “The trees will protect against cyclones, improve water quality and biodioversity, prevent erosion and even extend the land,” says Kuswantoro, Wetlands International’s local facilitator, who supervised the project and organised training.
In nearby Krueng Tunong – where more than a thousand bodies were found after the tsunami – villager Wahab headed a mangrove-planting programme around 20 hectares of village ponds. “We get more fish now that there are mangroves,” he tells me. “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.”
A decade on from the disaster, both villages are now booming. The cafe in Keude Unga, built with micro-credit from the Green Coast project, is heaving. Thanks to a surge in births, the village has a larger population than before the tsunami, says Dardai, the village secretary, who is also the head of the fishermen and controller of fish trade from the village.
They catch octopuses, shellfish and sea cucumbers, but the big market is for local lobsters. “We go out to the reefs just offshore at night, diving with head torches, and catch them by hand,” he says. “We can catch a hundred kilograms a night.”
Many of the lobsters are put in tanks full of sea water to grow for up to a month before their dispatch, still alive, wrapped in old newspapers and ice, along the new USAID-built road to Banda Aceh. It is only a 90-minute journey now. From there, they are air-freighted across southeast Asia. “Our lobsters go to Singapore, the Philippines and Hong Kong,” says Dardai.
Outside the cafe, his fellow fishers unfurl a huge banner for the upcoming National Fish Day. But he is against illegal fishing, and sensitive to the risk of over-exploiting such a valuable reserve. “We keep other people away, because we want to protect the reef and the fish,” he insists.
He tells me the fishers are drawing up plans for a community-managed reef protection scheme. Fishing with nets will be banned at all times, along with all dropping of anchors, and there will be an off-season when all fishing is banned. “We want to protect the reef because lobsters need a good healthy habitat,” he says. “We want our children and grandchildren to benefit from them, too.”
Dardai has a hero, he tells me. The new Indonesian fisheries minister in Jakarta, Susi Pudjiastuti. She is a self-made millionaire from the fisheries trade, and celebrity famous for her lack of formal education, her foreign ex-husbands and a reputed tattoo of a snake on her right leg. She has her own 50-place airline, Susi Air, flying fish around the region.
Susi, it turns out, was also the first person to get a plane loaded with journalists and government officials onto the tarmac at Banda Aceh after the tsunami a decade ago. If she can make it big by selling fish, Dardai reasons, so can he.
Header image by Tatiana Vdb, used under a CC BY 2.0 license