© 2017 Alexandra Marvar

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Simeulue Island

January 2009

Simeulue Island is a small, quite, jungle-cloaked piece of land with a population of about 80,000 — the closest inhabited land to the epicenter of the earthquake that spurred the 2005 tsunami. It's part of the province of Aceh, Sumatra, and is one of the farthest northwest points that makes up the 3,000-mile-wide island chain of Indonesia. 

Five years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami swept over Simeulue and crashed into the coast of the major metropolitan center of Banda Aceh, I visited Aceh and Simeulue with a small team of geologists interested in, among other things, the application of indigenous knowledge as a means of disaster mitigation. In other words: Mitigating loss of life through storytelling.

Simeulue is a likely place to inquire about such a thing, because unlike Banda Aceh, which lost hundreds of thousands of lives, of the largely coastal population of 80,000 on Simeulue, the death toll in 2004 was two. 

In Banda Aceh, we heard stories of people so awestruck by the sudden pulling back of the sea that they ran to the freshly exposed seafloor to investigate, only to be soon swept away by the wall of water that pounded the coast. In Simeulue, when residents felt the ground shake, the literally headed for the hills.

In 1907, a tsunami struck Simeulue to great tragedy — many died, and there was a beautiful and poignant tale of the destruction, how the ground shook, and the sea sucked back and then suddenly arrived full force, sweeping away a bride on her wedding day, killing her, and the groom, and the entire community who had gathered to celebrate the marriage. In the aftermath, she was found dead in a tree, her gown tangled in the branches.

This grandmother remembers her grandfather telling her about the wave of 1907, and about the wedding. She and everyone else on the island who know the story knew what to do when the earth shook.

Latiung Baru

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Riis and his family, along with their neighbors, were relocated by the government from the coastal village, Latiung Lama, that had been their home. In this hut in their new inland village, Latiung Baru, they make minyak nilam — patchouli oil. 

When he lived on the coast in Latiung Lama, Riis earned income and fed his family catching and selling lobster. Now, if he wants to catch a lobster, he walks an hour to the coast.

Latiung Lama

Riis's old village is abandoned and overgrown five years after the two tsunamis that struck the coast back to back. The earthquake on Simeulue was severe, so even if structures may have survived the wave, they didn't stand a chance against the violence of the tectonic shake. 

Another smaller earthquake and tsunami struck the island about three months after the epic event of 2004. The scientific community considered it an aftershock — part of the same event that happens every several hundred years, according to storm surge evidence. But, both incidents back to back strengthened the government's case that coastal villages like this one needed to pick up and move inland.

Literature issued by the government is still strewn on the floor of this building, five years later, untouched.

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Inland Life

Of Simeulue's handful of exports — nilam, cloves — palm oil is one of the most significant, and much of the land on which the palm oil plantations sprawl is government owned. 

The more residents there are inland, the more hands there are to harvest the palm oil kernels. This family gathers kernels together and cashes in their harvest daily.

We circumnavigated the island and cut into the middle here and there, to views of vast jungle deforestation. We presumed that space was being made for expansions in palm oil cultivation.

Of Simeulue's handful of exports — nilam, cloves — palm oil is one of the most significant, and much of the land on which the palm oil plantations sprawl is government owned. 

The more residents there are inland, the more hands there are to harvest the palm oil kernels. This family gathers kernels together and cashes in their harvest daily.

We circumnavigated the island and cut into the middle here and there, to views of vast jungle deforestation, presumably being cleared for agriculture.