Before the tsunami, Ben Khari’s home village of Alue Riyeung, on the north Acehnese island of Pulo Nasi, looked out over rice fields, separated from the beach by a swamp filled with coconut palms and mangroves. But the huge waves that smashed into the island’s coastal villages flooded the area with seawater and ripped out the trees.
The semi-circle of land is now abandoned, dotted with large pools of stagnant water and tree stumps. “It’s no good for paddy anymore because without trees, the wind will blow in and damage the rice,” explains Ben.
He and a group of five other resourceful villagers put their heads together and came up with a fresh way to make use of the ruined fields. With the aid of a group grant of Rp. 26.5 million (around £1,400) from the British Red Cross, they have constructed a large fishpond at one edge.
Building a pond
First they fenced off a section of stagnant water around 30 metres square using debris from coconut trees decimated by the tsunami (this, Ben boasts, took them just a week). Then they stocked the pond with around 3,000 bandeng (milk) fish, which they bought in the provincial capital Banda Aceh.
Ben is keen to stress the ecological benefits of their approach, as well as pointing out that it is cheaper. For example, because they used a flooded patch of land and recycled timber, they did not have to hire a digger or purchase fencing materials.
Now the pond is up and running, the group members have plenty of time to get on with their other work. Ben is a farmer and also helps run the coffee shop his wife set up with a livelihood cash grant from the British Red Cross.
Healing the land
As the group members do not rely on the fish project for their main source of income, they are treating it as an experiment for rehabilitating the wide expanse of land damaged by the tsunami.
“We are aware that this activity takes a long time to produce benefits but we see it as a good way of exploiting the potential of the natural resources here. It’s an investment,” explains Ben.
“We also come here and relax with the family, so we’re all doing this project merrily,” he adds.
As he talks, Ben’s enthusiasm for the environment and his pride at the group’s eco-friendly approach shine through. But for now, they’re the exception.
The fishpond occupies just one small corner of the abandoned swamp. Ben is hoping that if it’s successful, others will follow the group’s example.
“People need to do something with this land, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money,” he argues. “If there’s anyone out there with good ideas about what else we could do, we’d like to hear about it.”
More stories about our tsunami livelihoods grants
More about our tsunami recovery programme