The ruin of Aceh

Ravaged by a giant tsunami in 2004, war-torn Aceh went on to sign a truce with Jakarta. But the natural destruction of the province didn’t end, writes Andre Vltchek, returning after seven years.

Additional reporting by Rossie Indira

Anyone who visited Aceh after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of December 2004 will never forget the scenes: tens of thousands of flattened dwellings, desperate faces of men and women searching for their loved ones, human bodies rotting in open pits or drying under the merciless tropical sun, boats thrown by the giant wave onto the roofs of collapsed buildings. Around 230,000 people died here, on the northern tip of Indonesia’s island of Sumatra – victims not just of “nature’s wrath”, but even more, the ill-prepared Indonesian state, its crumbling infrastructure and poorly constructed housing.

Six years ago, in January 2005, I landed in Aceh to begin mapping the disaster for US-based think-tank The Oakland Institute, interviewing dozens of victims and international relief workers, as well as leaders of Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), or the Free Aceh Movement, a separatist group that fought for independence from Indonesia in a bitter insurgency that lasted almost 30 years and left 15,000 people dead.

My report was titled “Aceh Abandoned – The Second Tsunami”. The first “tsunami” came in 2003, when the Indonesian military launched a major offensive against GAM, declaring a state of emergency, and committing human rights abuses against Aceh’s civilians.

After the tragedy of 2004, Aceh remained in the global spotlight for several months – long enough for foreign governments and NGOs to get involved and negotiate a peace agreement between the rebels and Jakarta, which was signed in Helsinki, Finland, on August 15, 2005. But the agreement was such that, after 29 years of civil war, Aceh did not receive full independence, instead settling for something called “special autonomy”.

Jakarta made sure that this time there was no misunderstanding. The options for Aceh were twofold: strive for independence and meet with force and continued suffering; or take peace and settle for “semi-autonomy”. They opted for the latter compromise. Aceh was exhausted and wounded by almost three decades of conflict and the near complete destruction of its capital by the forces of nature. Most citizens remained deeply sceptical about the new order, but others believed that the end of the conflict could trigger positive change.

Six years later, I returned to Aceh, this time to carry out research for a book on Indonesia.

It was raining. From the window of the plane I could see the coastline, outlying islands and green rice fields. New settlements were clearly visible on the hills. They looked neat and orderly.

At the new Sultan Iskandarmuda International Airport, we disembarked straight into the building, in stark contrast to practice in most Indonesian airports, where passengers are forced to make their way across pothole-marked tarmac. The terminal was clean. My luggage arrived promptly. Then the real surprise: driving on a well-paved road to the capital Banda Aceh, crossing modern bridges with pedestrian walkways and passing neat villages along the way. After more than 20 kilometres, we entered the city, now arguably the most attractive in Indonesia, with its well preserved historical and colonial buildings, riverfront and modern services.

From the window of the car, Aceh looked like a success story.

But, as always in Indonesia, the euphoria did not last long. With the first words from locals, I began to sober up.

“The masterplan of Banda Aceh is actually not good,” said Salma Waty, a lecturer at Syiah Kuala University, as her husband kindly drove us around the city and province. “Drainage is a total disaster. Now all the big contractors are coming from Jakarta, not from here. The city is a hostage of so called ‘projects’ – there is never an integrated solution, roads are repeatedly opened up and digging is done again and again to satisfy business interests.”

“There is continuity in plundering Aceh from outside and from within Indonesia,” said Hendra Fadly, Aceh coordinator of the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (Kontras) and his deputy Ferry. “In the 1970s, the gas company PT Arun and its counterpart Exxon Mobil sent all their profits abroad and to Jakarta; only 1% remained in Aceh. After the Helsinki Peace Agreement, 30% was supposed to go to Jakarta and 70% remain here. But that is only on paper. Acehnese politicians keep asking about this agreement, but Jakarta uses all sorts of tricks not to fulfil its obligations.

“So many clauses of the Helsinki agreement are not addressed at all. If people could vote freely tomorrow, most of them would opt for independence.”

Shadia Marhaban, one of the Helsinki,negotiators, is now president of Aceh Women’s League (LINA). “The plundering of the natural resources of Aceh is a serious problem. We should stop logging and mining,” she said. “Aceh is being exploited once again, but often in different ways than before. In the past, exploitation was mainly because of TNI [the Indonesian military] but now even former GAM are involved…GAM lacks experience in governing.”

Just outside Banda Aceh, we started to see the extent of the region’s natural disaster. Entire mountains, or at least big parts of them, appeared to be missing. Heavy trucks were driving away piles of rocks and sand.

“We are facing a dilemma,” said Salma Waty. “We have to accommodate people who lost their homes [in the tsunami], and therefore we need construction materials. But we also have to think what is happening to nature.”

Modest but neat rows of social housing stood near the excavation site. Among their inhabitants were people who were given their dwellings and people who were renting. The owners were those who were already in possession of the land before the 2004 tsunami – they had received “compensation”. Poorer residents – those who were only renting in 2004 – had received nothing. Now, as then, they were at the mercy of the market.

I met two people living on the same row but with very different stories. A housewife with one child, surnamed Fatmawati, lived in her own dwelling. Three years ago, she received compensation “from the government”. In fact, the house was built by CARE, an international organisation, but packaged as “government help”. Next door, a man named Mundzilin rented a house from someone who received compensation and had made a business out of it: “Since I didn’t have land when the tsunami happened, I didn’t get a house from the government,” he said. Both were too poor to think about the environment. They were glad to have roofs over their heads. Heavy trucks driving past, mountains being destroyed in their neighbourhood – these things are of no concern to them at this time.

The road to Lafarge

The coastal road outside Banda Aceh was built by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Many here believe its sole purpose was to facilitate further plunder of Aceh’s natural resources. Much of the surface is now smooth, almost perfect. But to build this thoroughfare, mountains were blown up. The scars will never go away.

What exactly is this road connecting? It links Banda Aceh with the huge French-owned cement factory Lafarge Cement Indonesia and the mining business PT Lhoong Setia Mining, plus other mining and logging sites further away.

Mr Maarif from regional political party Partai Rakyat Aceh (PRA, or The Aceh People’s Party) explained: “After the tsunami, the people of Aceh accepted foreign aid because they were in great need. But there were, naturally, very serious consequences. With the aid, they also had to accept the presence of organisations that were building roads, bridges and other infrastructure simply designed to further plunder Aceh.”

It is no secret that the war in Aceh was largely driven by Jakarta’s desire to keep the area’s vast natural resources under its control. Western companies that had signed lucrative business deals with Indonesia’s former dictator Suharto were always firmly opposed to independence for Aceh, as well as Indonesia’s largest province, Papua, and, for decades, East Timor.

The 2005 peace agreement offered some hope, but soon the people of Aceh realised that promises on profit sharing, and other clauses of accord, would never truly be implemented. Jakarta’s greed and corruption were simply too great. A small territory like Aceh was unable to resist the pressure from the capital. Soon after signing the peace agreement, even the former independence fighters became part of the problem. Instead of defending their own people, some members of GAM joined the corruption racket.

Rachmat Junaedy, another member of PRA, spoke sadly about events since 2005: “The plundering of Aceh is the same as before. There is hardly any benefit for the people. Almost all the big national and multinational companies are exporting natural resources from Aceh. And TNI – the Indonesian army – is actually protecting logging and mining sites. It is paid to do so.”

Recently GAM began playing the same game. Now every investor in Aceh has to have two “protectors” from TNI and GAM: former enemies, now accomplices. It is an unwritten rule that investors who don’t use men from GAM for “protection” have to pay extra tax.

The enormous Lafarge Cement factory sits on the coast, some 20 kilometres from Banda Aceh. At the nearby fishing port, people complained about unusual fatigue and a lack of medical facilities to help establish its cause. Many believed there was a connection to the factory. I met a group of women sitting on a bamboo bench by a food stall. “It has been a month since my child began coughing and I don’t know why,” said a woman surnamed Nurlaili. “I took her to the local medical centre in Lampisang but she is not yet feeling any better. The factory has its own medical centre, but we can’t go there. I really don’t see any benefit from the company being here.”

There are no environmental studies on the factory’s operations available online or in Indonesian libraries.

Another woman, surnamed Ida, described evenings when dust blowing from the factory became unbearable. But two members of her family worked for Lafarge Cement Indonesia, one of whom made 1.3 million rupiahs a month (US$140). By Indonesian standards, this is a decent income. In Aceh, it is considered a very high salary. Ida would never complain, let alone protest.

But others do. They demonstrate against the roads that take their country’s wealth away; they demonstrate against logging, mining and land grabs; and they even demonstrate against corruption.

Further down the USAID road, we entered a deep forest. For just a few dozen kilometres, we were again in unspoiled nature. Monkeys played freely at the sides of the road.

“It may not always be visible from the car, but illegal logging is everywhere,” said Salma Waty. “It can be near the roads like in South Aceh, or it can be in the interior. In Aceh, we still have tigers and elephants. But because of illegal logging, elephants become desperate and frustrated and they try to get back at people. In some cases, they have destroyed entire villages.”

The tropical forest ended abruptly and the horizon filled with vast rice fields and the green beauty of the Bukit Barisan mountain range – but only briefly. A few more minutes drive and devastated mountains came into full view as we entered a town called Lhoong. The main “attraction” is PT Lhoong Setia Mining (LSM), a controversial and well “protected” iron ore mining enterprise. According to Rachmat Junaedi of the PRA, the mining firm’s owner is Jerry Petras, a former high-ranking officer in the Indonesian army.

A man surnamed Mudzakir had a warung (a small shop) just a few kilometres from the company. “We don’t get any benefits from the operation of PT LSM here,” he told us. “Only a risk of future disasters. At the mining site, they don’t bother with erosion prevention, so there is the danger of landslides and floods that could ruin rice fields in the area. I have a rice field not far from the site and I am afraid that it will be flooded and my crops ruined.”

He paused for a while, before continuing: “The company’s land in the mountains used to belong to the village, Tanah Adat. Villagers got a very bad deal: only 5,000 to 10,000 rupiahs per square metre [US$0.55 to US$1.05]. The company is now in the middle of disputes with the villagers about both the compensation and unwillingness to pay village tax.”

According to Muhajir, a civil-society coordinator in Lhoong, after the peace agreement in 2005, the Department of Mining and Energy issued 105 mining licenses in Aceh. “Some are already in operation. A licence for Lhoong and its PT. LSM was issued in 2006. Analyses on the environmental impacts were done in 2007!”

Local people are frequently forced to sell their land to big companies. Those who refuse to sell face intimidation, even violence, says Muhajir.

“The trick against the villagers is called ‘stupid argument’,” he explained. “Much of the land here is communal and was inherited by the present owners. Most of the people here have no written proof of ownership. The company would come and say that the land belongs to the state and that it is all in accordance with chapter 33 of the constitution. They say that, if the villagers don’t go away, they could be arrested. At that stage, some 5% of the people accept – they simply leave because they are too afraid.

“The former soldiers do intimidation. They say some ‘very important people’ back them. Often there is physical violence against the villagers: some are taken away and beaten. The problem after the peace agreement is that there is always this triangle of intimidation: the company, TNI and the government.”

Back in Jakarta, Haris Azhar of Kontras spoke about the fear in Acehnese society. Naturally, fear comes mainly from the past, when people were randomly killed, disappeared and underwent savage torture, he explained. But now it appears that the peace agreement has brought new fears. Aceh is efficiently and quickly being stripped of what it possesses. If deforestation, mining and gas exploration continue at this speed, Aceh will be left with nothing more than its scarred land.

Andre Vltchek is an author , filmmaker and investigative journalist. His latest non-fiction book – Oceania – deals with western neo-colonialism in Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia.

Rossie Indira is an architect and writer. Her latest book is Surat Dari Bude Ocie, a compilation of her letters to her nephews from her travels to South America. 

Homepage image from Andre Vltchek