Aceh works to recover jobs washed away

The rain is falling furiously on the tin roof of Alamsyah's scrap-wood house. He is quiet, staring out a window, his mind racing in a hundred directions.

What does he do if the nearby river overflows its banks? Will he lose everything he has, again? Why is the reconstruction happening so slowly? How will he feed his family?

Sometimes, unavoidably, conversation in his small home turns to his three older children, who were lost in the tsunami of Dec. 26.

It is at these times that Alamsyah picks up his hammer and his saw, and throws himself into work - building neighbors' houses out of scrap, and hammering together a handcart for selling coffee. And sometimes, even though he knows he won't earn money, he just gets into his becak - a motorcycle rickshaw - and rides.

After an hour and a half, he has had just two passengers, earning 3,000 rupiah, or 32 cents. He smiles. "I should move to America. The economy here is very bad."

While many people here are still struggling to secure adequate shelter, the main concern has shifted to finding work. For ordinary Acehnese like Alamsyah, the needs are much greater than just getting paid daily wages for clearing rubble or building new shelters. Long-term livelihoods require the recreation of an entire society - housing, roads, markets, jobs, schools, hospitals, everything - almost from scratch.

"If you don't build livelihoods into the community, that community will not survive," says Paul Dillon, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, an aid group working in Banda Aceh.

But this type of work is proving more difficult than handing out aid. "The people of Aceh saw how quickly things moved in the emergency response phase, and now things are moving much more slowly," says Mr. Dillon. "We have to be very careful in managing those expectations."

Throughout Aceh, there are unmistakable signs of economic activity, if not an actual recovery. In every neighborhood, large homes are being rebuilt by rich survivors; in every market, shops are being reopened, some of them informal stalls set up on sidewalks under tents, selling everything from fruits and vegetables to the latest fashions from Jakarta and Hong Kong.

But the main driver of the economy has shifted. Before, Aceh was built around fishing. Now that industry has been devastated, not just by the death of entire fishing villages, but also by tens, even hundreds of thousands of customers. And for the next few years or so, the main driver of the economy will be foreign aid, for good or ill.

To provide a window into the struggles of those starting over after the tsunami, the Monitor is following two families in Banda Aceh - both of which have lost their homes, and which are taking different paths toward their recovery - to see whether their lives improve. This is the second part of this series.

Both of our families, headed by Alamsyah and Muammar Ma'aruf, respectively, have moved into new homes. Alamsyah struck out on his own and rebuilt; Muammar Ma'aruf went through an aid agency which put a roof over his head. The two men's different approaches are playing out again in their hunt for jobs.


At his small wooden home, hammered together on his dead brother's land in the fishing village of Lampulo, Alamsyah is not waiting for the aid community to bring jobs. After spending months pouring his efforts into rebuilding his broken-down becak, or rickshaw, he has realized that there isn't any money in becak-driving anymore. Instead, he has become a local handyman of sorts, helping friends to build their own homes from pieces of debris found in former wealthy neighborhoods.

Occasionally, people pay him, as did a family friend who decided to build a new mechanic's shop just down the road. For three days, Alamsyah earned 100,000 rupiah (roughly $11) to add the finishing touches - staircases, window frames - with nothing but chisel, hammer, and saw.

Shops like this one are the most obvious signs of economic activity in Banda Aceh, depending more on the pluck of an entrepreneur or a deep-pocketed businessman than on relief dollars from abroad. Longer-term projects - from highways and electrical grids to tens of thousands of homes - are just getting started.

Banda Aceh is home to plenty of entrepreneurial men like Alamsyah, cleaning out sludge and debris from shops and reopening businesses; tearing down palatial homes in flood zones and building them up again. It is also an environment where a fraction, perhaps only 10 percent of tsunami survivors, are finally moving from donated tents into brand-new homes.

But overall, the recovery in Aceh is sluggish at best. And the economy is surprisingly sluggish as well.

On a recent Saturday at the Lampulo fish market - once the chief port for an industry that drove 80 percent of the economy - the main structure that housed dozens of fishmongers is heavily damaged, so most of the sellers and buyers have moved their stalls outdoors. There is no phone here, so merchants and fishermen have no way to contact buyers further inland to find the best prices.

Alamsyah was one of a hundred or more rickshaw drivers who used to make a living taking customers from the city down to the Lampulo fish market, a part of the larger ripple economy here that depends on the fishing industry. But now Alamsyah and others have largely given up on the fish market, as there are fewer customers to carry and less profit to be made.

About 200 yards from the market, the main road is gradually collapsing into the river, making the daily drive to the market more precarious each day. Fishermen and sellers here say that there are fewer customers today than before the tsunami, in part because the market itself is a standing reminder of the tsunami's danger.

"I hope they rebuild the market here, people will come here again and not be afraid," says a fish seller named Mansour, slicing into a shark fin destined for a rich man's soup. Business has gone down dramatically since the tsunami, both because so many customers have died and because many survivors have no money to spend. "Before the tsunami, I used to buy 5 million rupiah ($540) of fish to sell. Now I'm lucky if I can sell 300,000 rupiah ($32) worth."

"What we need are jobs," he adds. "If people have jobs, then they'll have money, and then they'll buy fish again."

Americares, Oxfam, and Mercy Corps are all planning major reconstruction projects to rebuild markets, ice plants, and associated factories that would create thousands of crucial jobs in the short term and have major ripple effects through the economy.

For the time being, Alamsyah is happy helping other businesses get started. But his dream now is to open up a small portable coffee kiosk in the bustling market area called Peunayong. Acehnese are among the biggest coffee drinkers in the world, and on nearly every city block you can find a small open-air coffee shop, usually full of men sipping glasses of strong and sweet black coffee. There will be competition, Alamsyah knows, but he says the profit potential is good, and certainly better than selling rides on his rickshaw taxi.

"It all depends on God if you get money or not," he says philosophically, putting the final touches on the kiosk. "What you get depends on what God gives to you, and it depends on whether you work hard or not. If you have a lot of rivals, but you work hard, then it's no problem."


Across town at his brand-new home in the village of Tingkeum, Muammar Ma'aruf is preparing to ride his motorscooter to a local government office. A few months ago, other villagers realized that Muammar was the best educated man in Tingkeum, and therefore an excellent man to go and gather information from the hundreds of aid agencies about programs available for tsunami survivors. This makes Muammar a reluctant community advocate of sorts, and both he and his wife, Zuhrasafita, have become the local experts on navigating paperwork.

Muammar's family fortunes improved last April, when they were among the first nine families in Tingkeum to receive temporary housing - large, airy, concrete structures with tin roofs and private bathrooms.

But on the job front, Muammar - a freelance artist - is one of thousands of the unemployed who can do little but wait. The tsunami has has destroyed entire livelihoods; farmland has become salty and infertile; fishermen have no boats.

Some agencies, like Mercy Corps, have given out boats to hundreds of fishermen, and started loan programs to help farmers replant. Others, like Oxfam and IOM are helping women start home businesses such as raising ducks or farming mushrooms.

Each project will have its own small effect in bringing incomes to Acehnese families. But the tough reality is that any project likely to have a visible, lasting economic effect will take months to plan, and possibly years to execute.

"Look, we understand that cash-for-work programs are not sustainable in the long term, it's just a stopgap measure," says Kim Tan, spokesman for the British aid agency, Oxfam. So Oxfam has decided to put much of its money into microfinance, allowing local community organizations such as the fishermen's organization to give out loans to local Acehnese who have the best chance of succeeding.

But the process is inevitably slow, Mr. Tan says. "In terms of rebuilding, that is going to take so much work, and we can't hope to kick-start the economy in areas that have been wiped clean. Any of us would be impatient if we were living in tents for six months, so we are working as fast as we can to rebuild livelihoods so that people can live with dignity."

Muammar's first stop at a local government agency, the Department of Social Affairs, is a waste of time. In a back office, Muammar finds a woman, her face painted with lightening cream, who tells him he's come to the right place. Unfortunately, she says, he will have to come back again. To get information on what the government will provide, Muammar first needs to bring a letter from his village chief telling what the village needs, and then the government will say what they can do for the village.

It's a bureaucratic obstacle that would probably be the end of the road for many Acehnese, many of whom have had little or no schooling. Muammar chuckles ruefully, "It's bureaucracy, again and again."

Later, he goes to a local Acehnese aid organization called Yayasan Komunitas Partisipatif, and immediately learns about vocational training, healthcare for women, and microfinance programs.

"If you go to the NGO, they say clearly what they do," Muammar says, a packet of information in hand. "But if you go to the government, they don't even know themselves what they do. They just tell you to come back later."

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the head of the government's new agency charged with reconstruction and rehabilitation, has pledged to light a fire under the famously sluggish Indonesian bureaucracy.

"I just force them, because if I try to convince them it will take my energy out and it takes some time," says Mr. Kuntoro, referring to government bureaucrats. "Like this morning, I opened a vocational training center for masonry, for carpentry, welding. I told them let's take a no-nonsense approach for technical vocational training. Just train them enough to go out to get jobs, not too much, and let's be practical."

Muammar also takes a practical approach by working his connections. He drops in daily at his old workplace, a TV station, in the hopes of getting rehired as a handyman and set designer. While there, he fills up jugs with drinking water, since the well water in Tingkeum tastes like seawater.

His visits pay off when the station rehires him. Soon he begins working five days a week, rebuilding an acoustic studio. It's a welcome source of income that helps the family return to the middle class life they had just six months ago, before the wave came.

Devastation in Aceh

• More than one third of all settlements in Aceh Province and 66,000 homes were swept away by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

• 460 hospitals and health clinics, 665 school buildings, and 1,110 religious buildings were destroyed, along with 1,000 government offices.

• Approximately 948 miles of roads - roughly equal to the drive between New York City and Chicago - were either completely or partially destroyed. More than 1,880 bridges were destroyed.


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