Azhar, leader of Lham Ujong, is a proud man. Proud of the pictures in his album of him shaking hands with dignitaries bringing aid money to the village. Proud of his Olympic torch, which he helped take round Jakarta in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics of 2008 – a privilege he was nominated for by Wetlands International. And proud especially of the trees planted in huge numbers round his village in the aftermath of the tsunami.
His community has planted 300,000 mangroves, some along the banks of the river through the village, and the rest on dykes and in the waters of the village’s 50 hectares of fish ponds. More than 80 per cent had survived, said Azhar. They improved the water quality, prevented erosion of the dykes, attracted crabs and improved fish yields.
In the late afternoon sun, touring the verdant ponds is a beautiful scene. Water birds are everywhere; we spot monitor lizards scurrying along the dykes. The new post-tsunami landscape has attracted visitors from Sri Lanka, Thailand, France and elsewhere, all keen to see how this novel combination of fish ponds and mangroves, known as sylvo-fisheries, is being done.
It is not a return to the days half a century ago, when the entire coastline around Lham Ujong was covered in mangrove forests that were rich with wild boar, monkeys and even the occasional tiger. Long before the tsunami hit, those mangroves had been removed to make way for the fish ponds. But it is a good compromise, with the natural flood protection and ecological nurturing afforded by the mangroves, combined with the cash-raising power of the ponds.
Azhar, who headed the group that did the planting and now manages some of the ponds for the group, has some tricks of his own. He says the mangroves planted in the middle of his pond block the view and prevented him from seeing if others are trying to net his harvest. So he has systematically removed the leaves from the lower branches, so he can see across his pond.
The village appears prosperous by local standards. The Red Cross-built houses are neat and tidy. Trash is notably absent from the lanes. In the fields above the ponds, Green Coast micro-credit has helped fund cultivation of water melons, spinach, green beans and other valuable crops.
Recently the village got money from WWF to plant more mangroves.
But not everything is idyllic. Foreign aid for recovery triggered some social problems. Someone has been stealing parts of the roof of the fish market on the hill overlooking the village. And there are some new social antagonisms.
As we drove past, our local guides pointed out a new set of houses built by Chinese aid and occupied, they said, almost exclusively by people from Peunayong, the small Chinatown in Banda Aceh. Disparagingly, they call the place “Jackie Chan”, after the famous Chinese martial arts hero and actor. There were never enough new houses for the locals who survived the tsunami, let alone outsiders, they complain.
And there are difficulties with the ponds. Despite the planting of the mangroves, there is a continuing problem with the ponds and input channels from the ocean silting up. “We have to remove the silt twice a year,” Azhar says as we walk the dykes. He hopes for aid money to dredge the channels properly.