Monday, November 27, 2006

Aceh's non-orphans

An interesting article about children with parents who still live (after nearly two years in temporary shelters, if thats what you call living) being sent to orphanages is up today on BBC News, Reality behind Aceh's orphans

More than 85% of children sent to orphanages in the Indonesian province of Aceh after the tsunami have at least one parent alive, according to a report by the charity Save the Children and the Indonesian government.

Every morning, before leaving for school, the staff at Rumah Asuh do a head-count. Fifty children, all victims of the tsunami, stand in rows to shout out their number.

Among them is eight-year-old Apriliya Adisaputra - one of the youngest here.

Apriliya's parents are both still alive. They live in temporary housing 30 minutes drive away. This is the story of how he came to be here, and why he cannot go home.

After breakfast, he sits down and tells me his story.

"After the tsunami, my mum told me I should come here because I could meet a lot of friends," he says. "I was sad when they told me I had to come here because it meant I couldn't see my mother. If I stayed at home, I could see her all the time."

There are around 2,000 children like Apriliya in Aceh; children sent away from home, not because the tsunami took away their parents, but because it took away the means to care for them.

In his office at the top of Rumah Asuh, the director, Mr Iskander explains why Apriliya is better off in care.

"We have quite a lot of funding at the moment; around $5,300 each month. It's quite a lot, yes, but we have lots to pay for - school books, clothes, food, transport. We provide everything these children need."

There is plenty to pay for, but there are no accounts. Mr Iskander has no clear record of where exactly the money is going each month. [Lucy Williamson, BBC]

Before the tsunami, perhaps because of tradition, perhaps as a result of the war, a large number of Aceh's children were in pesantren, religious boarding schools. Some of them had lost a parent to the war, in one case I met a girl who had survived the tsunami who had been in a pesantren in Panga, whose mother and sister lived near Bireun. She told me her father had been killed by an elephant. She seemed to be doing fine in Panga, with the rest of the community of survivors... I am sure that UNICEF or Save the Children eventually helped sort her situation out, but before they made it to Panga, the Acehnese did a great job of caring for each other.

Indonesians have an ethic called gottong royang, mutual self help, which is usually expressed in village level cooperation for common infrastructure that can be built and maintained with local materials. I think it is also expressed in the way that people worked together to survive the tsunami, and to care for those less fortunate. And there is something in Islam that speaks to the rights and welfare of orphans and widows, too.

Culturally, the Indonesians, and especially the Acehnese, were prepared for disaster better than I can imagine Americans ever will be. In Indonesia, however, there is always some disaster, earthquakes, tsunamis, mudflows, volcanos and floods.

There is some amount of thought and a history of publications about the effect of mangroves and the tsunami. I think that a lot of that thinking comes from people who haven't spent much time around Sumatran mangroves, most of which are on the opposite coast, in the milder shallows and river deltas (notably the delta of the river Jambi) that stretch out in to the calm waters of the Java Sea or the South China Sea. The Indian Ocean around Sumatra and Java is pretty fierce, and many years before the tsunami I travelled a good stretch of the coast in West Sumatra and Bengkulu, looking for mangroves.

I have also spent time looking at the historical publications of mangroves in Sumatra, by Dutch colonial botanists and foresters, and by Indonesian scientists.

In the area where the tsunami was most devastating, there never really were mangrove forests, because of the ferocity of the sea, periodic tsunamis, and an absense of propagules drifting in in sufficient numbers to create such a thing. That being said, there is a type of beach flora that is abundant and appropriate for that area, and much of coastal Aceh, in the south, has a type of peat swamp forest that survives periodic/catastrophic, but not tidal, seawater inundation. Near Meulaboh, weedy, "feral" rubber trees became part of that mix. Planting that sort of forest, and also regular rubber and coconut for economic purposes, is the smart thing to do with Aceh's "Green Zone". I think intercropping with native trees for timber, for rattan, for the conservation of plant biodiversity and to create habitat for wildlife makes sense.

Aceh is beautiful, Shariah and all. And I think that there is a potential to turn it into a destination for eco-tourists and serious biologists who can be respectful of the culture.

I still haven't made it out to the Mentawi Islands to do any surveys of mangroves or agroforestry, but I suspect, based on everything I've read and heard and seen, that the best place to put a mangrove nursery to work would be around the most protected harbors, or the Northeast coast of Aceh, where there is supposed to be a lot of marine aquaculture with penaeid shrimp, milkfish, etc. Otherwise, on the west coast, I'd work on lowland and coastal trees. I would follow the loggers to collect seeds and try to save epiphytes on the trees they have to fell. I would work with the rubber and cocunut farmers, and help them intercrop with food and patchouli. I would continue doing what I started to do, and if I could, I would facilitate training of Acehnese parataxonomists in Leiden, and get a real rigorous floristic survey going.

This is long term livelihoods stuff, like applying the lessons of Jared Diamonds "Collapse" to a traditional society to the modern global economy's rapacious demands for pulpwood, rubber and biodiesel from palm oil, to some scientific measure of sustainability and conservation. For humanity, as long as we might survive, not just the next 2 years in Aceh, not just the next five, not just the duration of some well meaning grant.

And maybe it will take a few freams that don't yet exist in Aceh, more young kids saying "I want to grow up and be a botanist, a microbiologist, etc." and not just what they know they can be, a fighter, a police officer, an imam, a nurse or schoolteacher. All of those things have been necessary, but there is a necessity for the incorporation of the best parts of the modern world in Acehnese culture.

From my perspective, the best part, the most applicable part, of the modern world are the basic physical sciences, and math, that can contribute to he understanding of biology and ecology and natural complexity that is best witnessed in that place where they happen to live already.

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