One major rebuilding effort was the $250 million highway running 150 kilometers down Aceh’s western coast. The highway starts from Banda Aceh to Calang. The project is managed by USAID and the the locals know it as the “highway from the American people.” The intent was to reconnect communities and provide for easier travel. While many welcome the highway, some are unhappy with the payment they received for their land (some claim they have not received the payments). Approximately 3,280 parcels were bought but the value of the properties were disputed because it was ruined by the tsunami.
More than eight billion dollars was committed to Aceh after the tsunami tore through the Muslim province. About US$1.5 billion was spent on housing, including the construction of 130,000 homes. However, many homes lacked piped water and electricity so they remain empty. In addition, many villagers were worried whether their homes were earthquake resistant. Others were upset that later homes built were nicer than the ones they received. The colorful, brand new homes lined the road, with markings of groups that had built them, Red Cross, Save the Children, etc.
We drove on the paved highway for about an hour and then hit the unpaved portion. The highway is only partially complete. Rocks, pebbles, and potholes met us. At one point, we had to detour to a local road because of rock slides. We also noticed that mountains of red dirt were cut and we wondered if landslides would occur in the future.
As we made our way inland and up the mountains, we stopped at a look-out area. High above the mountains, I saw the ocean below us. Megan pointed to the bay and she said that it was new. Underneath the water is a village. The trees were on top of a mountain and the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami turned the mountain into an island with eight waves. The villagers described it as a black monster swallowing people in its path.
Cattle and goats were provided to the people – even to furniture makers that have never raised cattle before. The cattle are not penned and they roam the land freely. We stopped for a few minutes when this group of cattle was mingling in the middle of the road. Megan from Caritas CR tells us that the local villagers called them “NGO cows” or “walking rats”. They are a pest – roaming freely, eating plants and defecating everywhere. I asked Megan where the NGOs were able to get hundreds and thousands of cows for the villagers. She said they were shipped in from Australia and elsewhere. The villagers only had two uses for them: sacrifice during the religious holiday and after rice harvesting, the cows were encouraged to go in and clear the land and defecate. The cow dung was good fertilizer. The taste of the beef is also different from the local variety, so the villagers do not like it.
There are many successes from the tsunami recovery and rebuilding. However, there were also many mistakes and lessons learned.