May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Reconstruction meets resistance

Published: Jul 22, 2007

Leonard Simanjuntak

In August 2005 an NGO tsunami reconstruction team finally left the village of Kuala Tadu in Aceh, their task only half finished. They were overwhelmed with anger, sadness, and anxiety. The village head had ordered them to leave. Four months of discussion, hard work and struggle to ensure that reconstruction was carried out with meaningful participation by those most affected had come to nothing. The team was forced to accept that in the oppressed and divided Acehnese society, operating by such principles is difficult, and sometimes impossible.

In March, KMS (see box), the group I was working with, had just started planning the reconstruction phase of its tsunami response. We had already been working for three months providing food, water and sanitation, health services and temporary shelter. We had started in Meulaboh, the capital of West Aceh, and later moved to nearby Nagan Raya, where few aid organisations were working. Nagan Raya had also been badly hit by the tsunami – 16 of its coastal villages were all but wiped out, more than 1,000 people were killed, and 10,000 had been displaced and were living in camps.

Plans for reconstruction

We were soon involved in informal discussions on reconstruction in the affected villages while distributing basic necessities to displaced people. Then news came from Jakarta that a blueprint for Aceh reconstruction was being prepared, and that BAPPENAS (the National Development Planning Agency) was to lead the planning process. There were reports that the government wanted to clear all areas two to five kilometres from the coastline to create a safe zone. This worried us. Our extensive discussions with the fishing communities in Nagan Raya had convinced us this plan would not work. Everyone told us they would just refuse to move inland.

We began to devise a counter strategy for planning and reconstruction, based on extensive consultations with the affected communities. We worked with other NGO coalitions to lobby BAPPENAS to change their plan, and sent community leaders and village heads from Aceh to Jakarta, so their voices could be heard. We met with the State Minister for National Development Planning and the head of BAPPENAS, Dr Sri Mulyani, and other high-ranking government officials responsible for Aceh reconstruction. The government relented, and announced that coastal safe-zones would only be created with the people’s consent.

In Nagan Raya, we approached the local government and facilitated a workshop on ‘participatory spatial planning’. We brought BAPPENAS representatives and some architects and settlement planning experts from the UN and USAID (the American government aid agency) to the workshop. The local government welcomed us and we had fruitful discussions. Government officials still obviously resented our participatory ideas, but they promised to consider our plans as an option. Next, we organised training in three villages to provide basic knowledge of spatial planning and to enable the community to make their own village maps. We thought the new skills would give them better leverage in negotiations with the government about planning reconstruction. After the training they managed to develop basic maps of three villages. We then organised a gathering of 400 people, the first large public meeting in Nagan Raya for several years. We wanted to discuss the possibility of extending the participatory approach to all 16 affected villages, and invited the bupati (district head) and community leaders from other parts of the district to listen to the communities’ ideas about reconstruction.

We were also planning to build new houses for displaced people, and asked several experienced architects to develop new house designs. They talked to the communities and found that most tsunami survivors had been able to escape the swirling waters by climbing onto high structures – the roofs of mosques, coconut trees or houses on stilts. Wooden houses survived the earthquake better than those made of cement. Eventually, the architects designed a beautiful wooden house on stilts, with concrete pillars equipped with special foundations and joints that would better withstand an earthquake. When we first held discussions in one of the affected villages, people welcomed our design and dozens of families asked us to construct new houses. Optimism was high.

Feudal village structures

In early April, the local government told KMS to reconstruct Kuala Tadu, the largest fishing village in Nagan Raya. Its economy was vibrant before the tsunami, and it seemed the perfect place for our new housing plans. However, there were problems we did not at first fully appreciate. The Nagan Raya government is still controlled by old-style authoritarian thinking – they dislike anything that even resembles people’s participation or community dialogue. And, unlike other local governments which were almost totally paralysed by the tsunami, Nagan Raya officials still maintained their control. They did not want to be told by outsiders like us how to treat their people, although they seemed to accommodate us at first. But in reality they just wanted the resources they thought we would provide.

In fact Kuala Tadu is a very oppressed society. It was the location of a small kingdom in the glorious days of the former sultanate of Aceh, and the village has inherited a feudal structure. The keuchik (village head) is also the grandson of the last king and owns more than half the village land. Kuala Tadu is also at least indirectly affected by the armed conflict between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian military (TNI). TNI forces from an adjacent village indulge in extortion, and there is frequent infiltration by GAM guerillas who tax the villagers. The ordinary citizens of Kuala Tadu have been living with this kind of oppression for a long time. They are not used to expressing their views and aspirations, even in the internal meetings in the village, because the keuchik is such a dominating figure. The conflict also causes division and suspicion among the people. Villagers live their lives as individuals – they are not used to joint decision-making.

This reality gradually became apparent as we developed our reconstruction plans. We were introducing a different way of decision-making to one of the most difficult communities in Nagan Raya, and faced continual harassment from the local government. The Nagan Raya government already had its own plans and did not agree with our house design. We doubted their design was earthquake resistant, and refused to use it. The government used any means to block our plans, and influenced displaced people to reject our house design.

Conflict with the keuchik

The keuchik of Kuala Tadu was well-connected, and did not want any KMS reconstruction in his village. He influenced his people to reject our tsunami-resistant house design. He disliked our methods of involving as many people as possible in the decision-making process even more, and feared that our approach would threaten his domination of the village. In village meetings, discussions and workshops, KMS activists tried to counteract the domination of the discussion by the keuchik and his relatives. The ordinary villagers rarely talked in meetings until they were assisted by KMS to establish a housing committee to support our work. But the keuchik never liked this housing committee, and wanted to retain all decisions about reconstruction in his own hands.

Despite this conflict, the decisions made in public meetings were often supportive of KMS, even if they were rarely fully implemented in the field. The keuchik and his lieutenants continually intimidated the housing committee, the builders and the families who wanted to get houses from us. With support from the bupati he gradually isolated KMS. Twenty-eight families dared to stand up against this pressure and intimidation and continued to seek our assistance, but to no avail.

In early August the final blow came. The keuchik ordered KMS to immediately remove all its construction facilities – a workshop, warehouse, several vehicles and building materials – from Kuala Tadu. The keuchik and the bupati had always opposed the KMS program, and finally their views prevailed. After negotiations KMS was allowed to complete reconstruction of 16 houses, but then the program was terminated.

We learned the hard way the extreme difficulty of mounting a participatory program in an oppressed and divided society such as Kuala Tadu. If we had studied the structures, the behaviour and the politics of the community in Nagan Raya more carefully beforehand, perhaps the agony of the KMS field team could have been avoided. However, the tyranny of an emergency – where most decisions must be made quickly and there is enormous pressure from donors to spend their money – creates huge difficulties in managing a disaster response. After the tsunami, time was a luxury we never had.

Leonard Simanjuntak ( is the deputy executive director of Transparency International Indonesia and the national operations coordinator of KMS. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of KMS.

Inside Indonesia 84: Oct-Dec 2005

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