Fighting the Elephants

Number of villagers in Aceh Jaya were pushed and hemmed in the conflict between Indonesian military and the GAM guerillas. They had to survive as if living in between two giant elephants fighting.


IN THE NIGHT of August 23, 2008, Hasannuddin (40) and his wife, Marlina, were sleepless. Around 10 o’clock that evening, a male elephant entered their cocoa and banana farmland behind their house. The giant animal broke down the barbwire-fence around the farmland, and devoured some banana stalks. Banana crop is one of its favorite foods. Hasanuddin went to his neighbors seeking for help to chase the wild elephant away from his farmland.

“Go away, please… Go away…,” Hasanuddin and his colleagues implored. Villagers knew that the wild giant animal has sensitive behavior. To chase the elephant away, they did not use any harmful techniques. Otherwise, it will attack back savagely.

“Please, don’t harm our farm …” begged Hasanuddin while waving his hands to chase away the elephant. But it kept devouring the trees. Then Hasanuddin managed to assemble woods to set a bonfire. The fire caused the elephant move away from the farm. But it continued to eat the remains of the banana stalks after breaking another barbwire-fence. Around 2 o’clock pre dawn, after completely finished the stalks, the elephant left the farm.

Hasanuddin, however, decided to watch over the farm along with his wife and his neighbors. They gathered around the bonfire. They were worried the giant animal might come back at any time.

Make a living
Hasanuddin is a head of Cot Punti village at Sampoinet, Aceh Jaya district. To make both ends meet, he works in his two hectare-farmland..That is why he was panic when he saw an elephant trespass the barbwire-fence in his farm. Moreover, a few months ago he just planted hundreds of cocoa seed for about half a hectare. He also planted banana crops among the cocoa trees. He got the seeds from Caritas Czech Republic that distributed both kinds of seeds to improve livelihood program in the conflict-affected village.

“We rely on the cocoa crops to finance our children’s education,” Hasanuddin mentioned.

He has estimated, after three years the cocoa seeds would yield. If it could grow well and bore fruits, the cocoa will be more profitable than bananas. It will also become his investment after long period of turbulences that has put his family in poverty.

“After conflict we start from zero,” Marlina added.

Sampoinet, a sub-district in Aceh Jaya, consists of tens of villages. By the end of 1980s, some of the villages were allocated to be used as transmigration settlement zone under national government decree. Around 140 residents from Java had come in to Cot Punti village. The other residents inhabited next villages namely Krueng Ayon, Ranto Sabon, and Ie Jeurenge.

Since the 1990s, the villagers depended on farmland yields as the land have fertile soils. The Javanese brought and cultivated orange seeds. They changed numerous acres of the land into orange farmland. The local community was excited as its yield is profitable. They began to open similar farm. Hasanuddin was one of local farmers who also cultivate hundreds of orange crops in his farmland. In every harvest season, tons of oranges were delivered to Medan and Jakarta. The Sampoinet orange was popular at the time.

But, conflict between Indonesia military and Free Aceh Movement (GAM) guerillas has broken down in 2000. The conflict also triggered social division. It pushed hundreds of Javanese out of Aceh and back to Java Island. They left their orange farmlands and their houses.

“My neighbor entrusted his certificate of land to me. I’ve been keeping it in my wardrobe until today,” Hasanuddin said.

The conflict has also put Hasanuddin and other villagers to poverty. Thousands of villagers lost of their jobs and livelihoods. Living amidst conflict had pushed them to stay at home.

bekas-puskesmas-yang-berubah-jadi-pos-tentara1Since that time, hundreds acres of farmland were turned into bushes. Transportation infrastructure was damaged and the bushes covered the roads. Electricity network broke down and left the villagers in darkness when night comes. The public health center building turned into a military post. Dozens of villager’s houses were burned down.

Hasanuddin and other villagers in Sampoinet were pushed and hemmed in the conflict between Indonesian military and the GAM guerillas. They had to survive as if living in between two giant elephants fighting.

Wind of Peace
The wind of peace blows in Aceh right after the Indonesia government and GAM settled memorandum of understanding in Helsinki, Finland, 15 August 2005. Gradually, Aceh condition turns to normal. However, people in rural Aceh and conflict affected remains living in deprivation due to lack of economic access. Meanwhile, going back to the farm land is difficult and requires passion as well as hard effort.

“It also takes a lot of money. How can we buy the seeds? We don’t have any money,” said Awaluddin (30) who lives in Ligan village, Sampoinet.

He was an orange farmer. But, he went to Banda Aceh and stayed in the city during the conflict. He worked as a toy seller. A few months after the tsunami hit Aceh on December 2004, he went back to his village and worked as a truck driver. He brought timbers of illegal logging from Sampoinet to Banda Aceh. He could earn IDR 1-1.5 million (US$ 100-150) every month for such timber business.

In spite of the damage to the environment, such business gave him and some of villagers’ instant profits. Moreover, the construction materials and timber demand in Aceh has risen after the tsunami swept away thousands of house and building. The international organizations, meanwhile, have also caused social gap since they focus on pouring aid to the tsunami-affected areas.

“The trucks with full of material construction and aid are crossing the poor and conflict affected village’s streets every day. Meanwhile, the villagers are envious as they could only watch the aid is brought to the tsunami-affected area,” said Yayat, Caritas field officer who carried out survey in Sampoinet villages.

In early 2008, Caritas Czech Republic started to help the villagers in Sampoinet district. The Caritas staffs carried out survey and needs assessment among the villagers. They also held meeting with local figures prior to provide aid appropriately.

“If somebody asks me to choose money or seeds, I would prefer to the last one. Money will run out in few days because there’s always passion to buy anything,” Musdar (33) said. He lives in Ie Jeureunge village.

Throughout livelihood program, the Caritas agreed to promote agriculture and agro-forestry in Sampoinet. Both are prospective business as global food price and demand tends to increase.

The Caritas staffs distributed thousands of the seeds to more than 1,110 households, as the beneficiaries, across 21 villages in Sampoinet district. But, the staffs had beneficiaries to clean their farmland from bushes prior to receive and plant the seeds. In addition to the seeds, the Caritas also provided them with barbwire. It is used as fence to protect the farmland from wild hogs.

Hasanuddin and Musdar were among the beneficiaries. Each of them has received more than 300 cocoa seeds. They have dream to have a sustainable livelihood.

Recognizing the benefit, Awaluddin is also interested in the Caritas’ livelihood program. He prefers to quit from his job as a driver of timber truck. He has come to mind that such timber business could harm the forest near to his village.

“Why didn’t you choose to cultivate orange crops as you did before?” I asked Awaluddin.

“It is very expensive and I don’t have much money,” he replied.

Based upon his previous experience, his orange farm is dependent on expensive chemical such as fertilizer and pesticide. Lack of knowledge in sustainable farming, however, is a main cause of problems for farmer in rural areas. Instead of providing more benefit to farmers, chemical-based farming could poison the soil and water sources, hurt land productivity and harmed farmers’ health.

Organic farming, therefore, is the way forward to reduce farmer poverty. Caritas invited and worked together with IDEP Foundation to hold capacity building in organic farming for farmers through in-field training. IDEP is a national NGO that focus on training and education of sustainable development throughout permanent culture (permaculture) methods. The method was designed to seek harmonious integration of landscape and people to provide food, shelter, energy and other materials or non-materials need in a sustainable way.

The training was held in the learning center and nursery of Caritas at Reuntang village, Sampoinet sub district. Through in-field training, farmers would get sufficient knowledge and skill to raise organic cocoa crops.

Challenge remains
“Nowadays, the greatest enemy in our farm land is elephant,” Hasanuddin said.
Two days after the male giant elephant damaged his farm, he attended a community meeting with other leaders and local figures from four villages such Cot Punti, Ranto Saboon, Ie Jeureunge, and Krueng Ayon. The main topic was to chase the elephants away and to prevent it descend to the villages and cocoa crop farms.

“Handling wild hogs are easier than elephants. We can protect the farm with barbwire-fence so that the hogs can’t enter our farm and eat the crops,” Musdar explained.

The elephant which damaged the farmers land has become a daily conversation among villagers either in coffee stalls or in meunasah, a local prayer building. Since their cocoa farms are threatened by the elephants, Hasanuddin and Cot Punti villagers managed to do night patrols.

The conflict between the villagers and the wild elephants has been running since last year. Neither the farmer nor elephant is wrong. If there are no preventive measures, the giant animals’ anger could continue and beat cocoa seeds of the farmer’s.

“In the last conflict, if we wanted to go to farm we could get permit easily from Danton (platoon commander of Indonesian army). In today’s conflict, we’re facing the real elephants. It’s impossible (for us to beat them),” Hassanuddin said.

Two days after the local leaders’ meeting in meunasah, an elephant descent to Ie Jeurenge village, next to Cot Punti. The villagers worked together to chase it away using long, smooth, and cylindrical bamboo cannon. And it works.

*** END

*) This report had also published at


1 Comment

Filed under Environment, Topic

One response to “Fighting the Elephants

  1. Recently human – elephant conflict is rocketing in Aceh, especially norhthen and western region. Originally the land used to be elephant habitat, but now human claiming the land. The conflict indicates the eephant need more their natural food supply while local people do need source of income. A complicated issue.

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