5 Aiding the recovery of agriculture and farmer livelihoods

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Social recovery

Rural communities faced significant challenges after the tsunami. Many villagers were killed, which fractured leadership and social structures, and resulted in loss of coordination and motivation among remaining villagers. People were severely traumatised by the loss of family members, villages and their way of life. There were fewer people to work on the land; initially, agricultural workers preferred to work in higher paid reconstruction work rather than agriculture. Many farmers were housed in emergency shelters and temporary housing, often far from their farms, so it was difficult for them to get to their land. As well, loss of agricultural staff made it difficult for farming to resume. As many as 30% of the staff of Dinas Pertanian (the agricultural district administration) in Aceh’s west coast centres are reported to have died during the tsunami.

The emergency aid provided after the tsunami created aid dependency, so that survivors expected payment to return to farming. NGOs reported that the biggest hurdle was the lack of motivation of some farmers to return to farming, exacerbated by their personal trauma and the availability of food packages. A solution to this problem would be for the aid organisations to work with the pre-existing agricultural research and extension system, and with farmers who have already taken the initiative to restart cropping.

As a result of the social disruption, many crops were not sown at optimum times. This led to additional problems with pests, availability of irrigation water and waterlogging. In some areas, farmers were ready to go back to farming but were prevented by a thick layer of tsunami sediment on their fields. Overall, farm production suffered as a result of lack of capital, which was spent on farm equipment while no reliable seed supply was in place to allow planting.

The participation of farmers, including women, in the recovery process is very important. Capacity building and social recovery were particularly important in Aceh because of the impact of a 30-year civil conflict in the province, which led to large loss of life, in addition to the lives lost during the earthquake and tsunami.

Working with established farmer and community groups

In Aceh, rice farmers work in groups. Re-establishing these groups after the tsunami provided personal support, built relationships and networks, and shared the considerable workload involved in preparing land for cropping. Women’s farming groups are also important—they offer opportunities for networking, interaction, learning new skills, growing food and making money. Before the tsunami, there were many such groups; afterwards, there were very few because of the collapse of village structures. A dynamic extension officer at Meulaboh trained women’s groups in organic farming, including compost making and organic pest control. The women’s groups grew fresh crops and made products such as sauces and preserves, which they sold locally to earn an income. One-third of the profit was kept in the group’s account, one-third purchased inputs for the next crop, and the remaining third was shared equally between members. Other women asked for similar groups to be formed, as their only activity outside the house was helping their husbands in the fields.

A United Nations Development Fund for Women report on changes to gender attitudes in Aceh (UNIFEM 2009) provided some strategic recommendations from the post-tsunami experience in Aceh for gender-responsive disaster recovery, some of which are particularly relevant to agricultural recovery:

  • Develop and strengthen local women’s networks and organisations as partners in reconstruction.
  • Ensure that disaster-affected women have safe, accessible and culturally positive spaces to meet, and to organise and conduct activities.
  • Identify the promotion and realisation of women’s rights—including women’s land rights—as a key platform for long-term recovery.
  • Collect and use age-sensitive, sex- and gender-specific data in program evaluation and monitoring.

The need for productive activity

Farmer workshops 2 years after the tsunami indicated that activities such as restoring drainage and irrigation channels, removing debris and replanting crops were important for farmers to regain a sense of control and purpose. Other activities could be sediment and salinity surveys by farmer groups, to assess where to begin planting crops, and the establishment of home garden programs to commence food production at a local level.

Farmers in Aceh stated that being active and focused on their work helped to distract them from trauma, and that it was important to stay optimistic and work together. They also asked for agricultural knowledge and expertise—not just one-off inputs or donations—to help them to continue farming.

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