The Great Tsunami: a natural disaster with lessons about nature

The Great Tsunami: a natural disaster with lessons about nature

FPP extends heart-felt condolences to the victims of the tsunami and our moral support to the millions of people facing tremendous challenges in rebuilding their lives.

As the tsunami was triggered by a natural phenomenon, the devastation it caused was unavoidable, but it need not have been as horrific. It is becoming clear that man-made decisions and actions contributed to the massive death toll in two ways. The first was the widely discussed decision not to put in place a warning system at the national and regional level years ago. The second is the systematic destruction of the natural defences that protect the coastal areas from sea-borne disasters. This could be considered more important, as it has been having a direct impact on the lives of millions of people on a daily basis and not only in extreme situations.

Over the last fifty years, and in the last three decades in particular, mangroves, peat swamps and beach forests, lagoons and mudflats have been steadily converted to shrimp farms, hotels, golf courses, roads and other infrastructure. Coral reefs and seagrass meadows have been badly degraded by commercial trawling and destructive fishing practices. Because of this removal of vital natural barriers in favour of market and profit-oriented, commercial and industrial activities, the gigantic waves met few obstacles when they struck the coast. While a natural disaster could not have been prevented, the massive loss of life would have been reduced had the natural ecosystems that protect the coastal areas not been so badly degraded. Unfortunately, as in so many of these cases, it takes the loss of lives (far too many on this occasion) for people, especially politicians and policy-makers, to realise that ignoring the environmental and social impacts of their decisions will, eventually, result in tragedy.

This systematic destruction of the coastal ecosystems accompanied the marginalisation of small-scale artisanal fishers and indigenous peoples who were excluded from using these natural resources and from making decisions about them. In many cases, these communities have been squeezed out and dispossessed by modern development, in the process losing their rights to land and resources, and to a voice in decision-making, resulting in poverty and deprivation. Just over a month after the tragedy, news is beginning to filter through that this trend may continue, as the local poor express their concerns about losing their rights over coastal land (which many had acquired over generations of work) to large-scale tourism ventures. It is critically important that the political economy of coastal resource management (who benefits and who loses, who controls resources and who has rights over them) be addressed and that local communities be allowed the voice and place they rightfully deserve in post-tsunami coastal resource management. Let us learn from this devastating experience and try to correct the wrongs of past decades.

On the positive side, news has emerged that those areas still protected by mangroves and coral reefs were far less severely impacted by the tsunami than those exposed to the ferocity of this natural event. These include areas where local communities and environmental organisations have successfully fought to protect these ecosystems from conversion into yet more shrimp farms and hotels, and where mangrove restoration has been carried out over the last decade. In the words of a local NGO organiser, “mangroves save people who save mangroves”. News has also surfaced that it was the traditional wisdom and knowledge of some of the region’s indigenous peoples which saved their communities. This demonstrates that early warning systems need not be limited to the costly high-tech solutions under consideration by governments (although we agree that an early warning system for the Indian Ocean is needed). Animals too read the signs of nature and fled to higher ground before the great waves arrived. Some of the indigenous peoples in Thailand and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, who have lived in close contact with nature all their lives, also recognised that danger was looming and fled to safe hilly areas. The tsunami offers a lesson to “modern” society to learn to respect nature as well as the knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities.

While the international community has shown tremendous solidarity and generated unprecedented levels of relief funding, the restoration of coastal ecosystems, indigenous knowledge and local people’s rights, livelihoods and participation are critical to long-term reconstruction policy-making. The efforts and initiatives of international relief organisations play a vital and important role too. At the same time, however, local NGOs with a long-standing history of working with artisanal fishers’ communities, have set up coalitions at the local level to provide both immediate relief and long-term support to affected communities. Below are some of these organisations, in urgent need of funds in order to be able to continue reaching out to affected communities. Your contribution would be greatly appreciated.

Forest Peoples Programme 

Local NGOs operating in Tsunami-affected areas


KOALISI SOLIDARITAS KEMANUSIAAN BENCANA ALAM (Solidarity Coalition for Humane Disaster Relief) ACEH-SUMATERA UTARA (KSKBA), Jalan Ekarasmi VI No. 9, Medan, Sumatera Utara,20143 IndonesiaTel: +62 61 7875027, Fax: +62 61 7875028 Email:

For bank transfer: Bank: Standard Chartered BankSwift bank code: SCB LIDJ XAXXXBank address: JL. Imam Bonjol No. 17 Medan, North Sumatra, IndonesiaAccount number: 047–1–005467–2Account name: SINTESA (YAYASAN SINAR TANI INDONESIA)Contact person: Drs. Muhammad Harris Putra


South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (SIFFS)Karamana, Trivandrum 695 002, Kerala, INDIA. Web site: http://www.tsunami2004-india.orgCheques (checks) or demand drafts to be made out in the name of "SIFFS"

For bank transfer: Bank: ICICI BankAccount No: 626201072062Code for Dollar transfer: CHASUS33XXXCode for Euro transfer: CHADEFFXXXAccount name: SIFFS


The Coalition Network for Andaman Coastal Community Support 8/3 Khokkhan Road, Tambon Tubthiang, Amphur Muang, Trang Province, Thailand 92000; Tel/Fax 07-521-2414Contact person: Phakphoom Withantirawat, Email:

For bank transfer: Bank: Krung Thai Bank Bank address: Talad Muang Trang Branch, ThailandAccount Number: 372-0-01396-0Account Name: Fund For Andaman Coastal Community SupportLink to articles relating to the Great Tsunami

If you are interested in taking part in on-line fora and discussions on the subject or would like to know more about initiatives being taken by organisations addressing coastal ecosystem rehabilitation and local communities’ issues, see the following links:

·         Global Environment Centre:

·         Intermediate Technology Development Group (South Asia):

·         International Collective in Support of Fishworkers:

·         Mangrove Action Project:

·         Tsunami India: and

·         Wetlands International: intranet discussion fora on behalf of the Ramsar Convention, at