[ETAN-key] Andre Vltchek: The Ruin of Aceh
John M Miller
fbp at igc.org
Mon Mar 21 12:01:15 EDT 2011
March 18, 2011
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 didnt end,
writes Andre Vltchek, returning after seven years.
The people demonstrate against the roads that
take their countrys wealth away, they
demonstrate against logging, mining and land
grabs and they even demonstrate against corruption.
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 Indonesias island of Sumatra victims
not just of natures 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 Acehs 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 Womens 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 regions 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 didnt have
land when the tsunami happened, I didnt 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
Acehs 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 Peoples 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 Jakartas desire to keep the areas
vast natural resources under its control. Western
companies that had signed lucrative business
deals with Indonesias former dictator Suharto
were always firmly opposed to independence for
Aceh, as well as Indonesias 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. Jakartas 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 dont 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 dont 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 cant go there. I really
dont see any benefit from the company being here.
There are no environmental studies on the
factorys 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 countrys 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 firms 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
dont get any benefits from the operation of PT
LSM here, he told us. Only a risk of future
disasters. At the mining site, they dont 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
companys 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 dont 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.
More information about the ETAN-Key