Food aid and local production: Who will feed Aceh?

Once you see Banda Aceh, you hardly dare to speak. Once you enter the destroyed town, filled with stinking mud, once you have seen the rows of corpse-filled trucks where those collecting the dead stand, terrifying in their science fiction masks, once you breathe the stench of decomposing bodies, you hardly dare to write that this country is magnificent. The road taking you from Medan to Banda Aceh winds through mist-covered hills; where the monkeys and iguanas cross in front of you before disappearing deep into the forest. To the east, beaches stretch as far as the eye can see; to the west, rice terraces and running streams. Women are re-planting the rice. Black domed-mosques are reflected in the flooded fields.

In Aceh, three weeks after the earthquake and the tsunami, 75,000 people are already buried in mass graves, and every day brings another load of rotting corpses as thousands of newly-found dead are buried. The authorities estimate the number of dead in Indonesia at more than 165,000, most of them in the province of Aceh. Nevertheless, the landscape is largely undamaged.

In the province of Aceh, the majority of the population lives on agriculture or fishing. 42,000 families depend on small-scale fisheries and the farmers are growing rice, chili, onions, vegetables, corn, coffee and coconut on small plots of land, most no bigger than one hectare. In the northeast of Aceh, some families do both: they go fishing in the morning and they work the land in the afternoon. In the other regions, these activities are usually separated.

It is too soon to make a precise assessment of the destruction that the earthquake and the tsunami of 26 December 2004 brought upon fisheries and agriculture. The FAO estimates that two thirds of the fishers in the provincial capital Banda Aceh have been killed and that 70% of the small scale fishing fleet has been destroyed.(1) Those who survived have lost everything: houses, boats, nets, baskets. Everything. Today, fishing has not resumed. The fish that can be found in the markets of Aceh come from neighbouring provinces. While some fishers have already started rebuilding their boats and repairing their fishing nets, others are profoundly traumatised by the catastrophe. They refuse to go back to the sea. Some sought refuge in the mountains and are asking the government if they can settle there, without really knowing how they can make a living.

Several local organisations are worried about the production models that will be implemented in the reconstruction of the sector. For many years, traditional fishers have suffered from competition from industrial fishery boats operating from Thailand. Their vessels are trawling the seas with huge, fine nets, emptying the sea of its resources. According to Chaspul Hassibuan of KSKBA (Coalition of Humanitarian Solidarity for the Natural Disaster in Aceh and North Sumatra), these Thai vessels are illegally operating in Indonesian coastal waters, after paying off the Indonesian army.

More over, fishers in Aceh have been complaining for years about the destruction of the mangroves by some Indonesian companies building industrial fishing ponds along the coast. The destruction of mangrove vegetation destroys the marine ecosystem and removes some natural protection of the coast against huge waves.

In the short term, fishers need emergency assistance for immediate survival, and in the medium term, they need support to rebuild their houses and boats. But in the long term, the recovery of the sector will depend on the policies that will be put in place to protect small producers against the competition of the industrial fisheries and the measures taken to protect the marine ecosystem.

The agriculture sector seems to have been far less affected by the disaster. On the east coast, one can see very few rice fields destroyed, except in the surroundings of Sigli and Banda Aceh. The Indonesian Farmers Federation (FSPI) reports that the damage is much bigger on the west coast, but that a large part of the rice fields in the province was spared by the tidal wave. Nevertheless, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) assesses that 40,000 hectares of irrigated rice fields have been affected and many of the irrigation canals have been destroyed by the earthquake. The wave also spread waste over the land and increased soil salinity, although the long-term effects are unknown. The abundant rains pouring down over Aceh for the moment might help to wash the fields but, according to FSPI general secretary Henry Saragih, affected soils will need at least another two years to recover.

Prior to the tsunami, the province of Aceh produced enough rice to feed a population of four million people. In 2003, Acehnese farmers produced 871,493 tonnes of rice, while only 564,219 tonnes were consumed locally. (2) Surpluses were sold to other provinces. M. Amru, vice-president of Permata, the Farmers Association of Aceh, says that small producers were already facing very difficult living conditions before the tsunami, in particular due to the low prices they were receiving for their agricultural products. Moreover, he estimates that 30% of the Acehnese farmers do not have access to land while some huge plantations of palm oil are operating in the area. (3) Permata is actively involved in the struggle for land reform in Indonesia. The organisation also promotes organic agriculture among its members.

This year, in spite of the tsunami, many farmers will harvest in February and March. Aceh has preserved a certain capacity to produce food. Three weeks after the disaster, small fruit and vegetable markets are reappearing all over the province.

Today, in the aftermath of the disaster, the question of the economic survival of the agricultural sector of the province is being raised. Tonnes of food aid is being distributed to the survivors, and the needs are massive. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that about one million people need to be fed. Hundreds of refugee camps are set up, some of them grouping several thousands of people, others at village level house hundreds of refugees.

FSPI has found out from their members that many rural families are hosting relatives who lost their houses. Those refugees do not always benefit from the food aid which is mostly taken to the camps. Instead, their hosts are providing a large part of the immediate assistance to victims.

Several local organisations fear that the massive arrival of free food in Aceh will trigger a price collapse, making it even more difficult for the local economy to recover completely and possibly threatening the agricultural capacity that has survived the disaster.

Their concerns are justified. In Somalia in December 1992, for example, food aid poured into the country, despite the worst of the crisis being over and a good local harvest. The imported food drove down the prices received by local Somali farmers by 75 percent, forcing many of them to abandon their land and join the queues for imported food handouts. Some farmers complained that relief agencies wouldn’t buy their food because the US government only provided them with funds to buy food from US companies. (4)

According to Henry Saragih, “Everybody recognises the need for emergency food aid. The situation is a catastrophe and the displaced population does not have any other means to feed itself. What we are demanding is that the food aid programmes only buy food on the local markets, in Aceh as much as possible, or in neighbouring provinces if required.”

According to official statistics, Indonesia produced a surplus of 6.8 million tonnes of rice in 2003, and by the end of 2004, the country had a large stock of 6.3 million tonnes. In 2004, the government imposed a ban on rice imports, as the country was able to fulfill its own needs. (5)

The United Nations agencies in charge of the relief operation in Aceh, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the World Food Programme (WFP) reaffirmed their priority to buy food locally. According to Betina Luescher, WFP spokesperson in Banda Aceh, food aid consists mostly of rice, fortified biscuits and noodles, canned fish and cooking oil. Most of the rice is bought from the Indonesian State Company Bulog; noodles and oil mainly come from Jakarta-based companies, while the biscuits are imported. Canned fish comes partly from Indonesia, but WFP was waiting for another 500 tonnes of canned fish from Bangkok.

On 13 January, the stocks of WFP reached 47,357 tonnes for distribution to the Indonesia victims and they announced the purchase of an additional 30,000 tonnes from the Bulog, which still has stocks throughout the country. Anton Wuryanto, chairman of the Bulog crisis center said that the two storerooms in Meulaboh, on the ravaged west coast, have not been destroyed and still contain 817 tonnes of rice. Rice is also being sent to the effected areas from the Bulog centres in Aceh province (such as Blangpdie), North Sumatra and West Java. (6)

However, some imported rice has already made its way into the country. According to the IOM, Thailand and Saudi Arabia have already sent some rice for the relief operations. (7) Bambang Prasetyo, the operation director of Bulog in Jakarta also told the press that the WFP diverted a boat going from Japan to Bangladesh with a load of 12,500 tonnes of rice for the relief operation in Indonesia. (8) The spokesperson of the WFP in Aceh mentioned that this rice was coming from the US. (9) According to the WFP, the US has already donated some 20,450 tonnes of rice to tsunami regions, most of it coming from pre-positioned stocks in Dubai. (10)

In a first phase, the IOM provided the main logistics for food aid distributions in Aceh for the UN, with the support of the USAID and the US army, AusAID and other international agencies and NGOs. The IOM played this unusual role because they were already in Banda Aceh prior to the tsunami, working with communities displaced by the conflict between the Indonesian military and the Aceh independence movement (GAM). Now, the responsibility for food aid distribution is being transferred to the WFP.

Some Indonesian media said that the WFP intended to replace some of the rice stocks bought at Bulog by imported rice. (11) A source in the Ministry of Agriculture told Henry Saragih that there is currently no government authorisation for such “replacement” of rice stocks. Even in this time of crisis, all imports of rice into Indonesia remain illegal because the country has enough rice to face the crisis. However, the same source affirmed that in early January 2005, the US embassy in Indonesia asked the Ministry of Agriculture for a license to import rice for food aid. Indonesia has just regained rice self-sufficiency after several years of unprecedented import bills and in the WTO it is furiously defending domestic agricultural production. The last thing Indonesia needs is for the world’s biggest agro-exporter to enter the market through the back door of food aid.

In the long term, the survival of the people of the devastated areas, but also of the other provinces in Indonesia, will depend on the aid policies that are currently being implemented. The organisations active in the coalition KSKBA insist that the people in Aceh are urgently in need of both food and material aid. But this aid should be brought to the people without bringing about the destruction of small fishers and farmers livelihoods.

Jakarta, February 1, 2005
Indra Lubis and Isabelle Delforge*

* Indra Lubis is with Via Campesina/FSPI in Jakarta and Isabelle Delforge is a freelance researcher and journalist. They traveled to Aceh shortly after the tsunami.

1. FAO, “Tsunami destroyed tens of thousands of fishing boats”, 13 January 2005
2. Information provided by the NGO Sintesa on the basis of statistics from the Trade and Industry Department, 2003 and the National Social and Economic Survey, 2003.
3. Some of the companies active in this sector are Belgian, namely Socfindo and Sipef.
4. “World Hunger: 12 Myths”, 2nd Edition, by Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, with Luis Esparza (fully revised and updated, Grove/Atlantic and Food First Books, October 1998) Chapter 10
5. Ministerial decree n°9/MPP/Kep/1/2004 (in Jan 2004) extended in May 2004 by n°357/MPP/KEP/5/2004. The decree bans rice imports one month before harvest time and two months after. In 2004, the WFP tried to import 40,394 tonnes of rice to Indonesia but this load was blocked in Jakarta and Surabaya ports because of this ministerial decree (Kompas, 5 August 2004). It is not known whether that rice has now been used for the relief operations in Aceh.
6., 3 Jan 2005
7. Interview with Marites de la Cruz, IOM, in Banda Aceh, 14 January 2005.
8. Medan Business, 13 Jan 2005
9. Interview with Betina Luescher in Banda Aceh, 14 January 2005.
10. World Food Program, “WFP welcomes speedy and generous US support for tsunami survivors”, Press Release, 2 February 2005.
11., 3 January 2005