One Month Post-Tsunami, Farmers Face Fallow Fields
LADONG, Indonesia A small, grassy field that once held 200 broad-leafed banana trees now has only a dozen, and their owner is sure they'll die soon. Last month's tsunami swept away coastal crops and poisoned fields with salt, leaving tens of thousands of farmers homeless and snatching away the livings they scraped from the soil.
The ocean waters destroyed rice paddies, chili patches and coconut groves in Indonesia's devastated Aceh province, and agricultural experts say that while the damage will not lead to people starving, it could be two years or more before anything will grow in the damaged soil.
Razali, the 30-year-old owner of the wrecked banana grove, hauled long wooden posts on his shoulder, walking barefoot through the mud to fix the barbed-wire fences that kept goats away from his trees.
He hopes to plant again on the field his parents also tended. But for now, he's living in a tent camp with his wife and daughter, earning 30,000 rupiah (US$3.30, euro2.50) a day when he can get work picking coconuts, a job that used to supplement his main income but is now all he has left.
"Because of the salt, nothing can grow, even the grass can't grow," he said. Razali's coastal field is pocked with brown dirt and bare stumps where his trees used to be, and much of his sugar cane is gone too.
Rene Suter, emergency coordinator for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, said that while the tsunami damage wouldn't significantly affect Indonesia's overall agricultural output, it was devastating for the farmers affected.
While a small number might be able to begin replanting in the next growing season, which starts in April, the vast majority will have to wait two years or longer, Suter said.
Salty soil kills plants by preventing them from absorbing the water they need. The Dec. 26 tsunami also washed away valuable topsoil and nutrients that took years to accumulate, meaning that even after the salt is gone, the land will be less fertile than before.
Most fields are littered with debris and some have been washed away altogether.
"It requires a massive cleanup operation," Suter said.
Preliminary surveys estimated about 37,500 hectares (92,660 acres) of Aceh's agricultural fields were damaged by the tsunami, plus about 12,000 hectares (29,650 acres) of small-scale gardens, he said. Suter had no specific estimate of how many farmers' fields were destroyed but said the combined number of households whose livelihoods in farming and fishing were wiped out was about 100,000.
Along the stretch of coast where Razali's banana grove was destroyed, east of the provincial capital Banda Aceh, about 80 percent of people were farmers before the tsunami, said Jakob, an agriculture ministry official visiting the area. Like many Indonesians, he uses only one name.
Thirty-two farms in the district were destroyed and 160 spared, he said. Only those close to the shore were hit; in this area the tsunami swept in about 100 meters (330 feet) from the sea, although in other areas it traveled as far as five kilometers (three miles) inland.
Many of the farmers from Ladong and Lamno villages are now living in a dusty roadside tent camp.
Most just barely eked out a living before the tsunami and few know when they'll work again. They lost homes, cows, goats and tools in addition to their fields. Also destroyed were ponds and pools where many farmers raised fish.
"On the top of the soil, there's a lot of salt (and sand)," said Amin Jusuf, 45, who lost his chili and banana fields. "It's white like snow. There's no grass anymore ... so I can't feed my cattle."
Suter said the amount of time it will take to wash salt from fields depends on how long the seawater stayed. In some cases it washed away within hours. In others, where debris clogged drainage systems, it's still sitting nearly a month later.
Cleanup teams will have to flood fields with water to flush the salt away, he said. The process could take two years in many places and for some it will be even longer before irrigation systems and barriers separating one paddy from the next can be rebuilt.
Many farmers will need help in the interim, Suter said.
Jakob said the government intended to provide it and was considering giving coastal farmers parcels of land on higher ground.
Some are determined to go back to their land, no matter how long it takes.
"Maybe it will grow, maybe not," said Razali, the banana farmer. "But I want to try."
Source: Associated Press