washingtonpost.com  > World > Asia/Pacific > Southeast Asia > Indonesia > Post
Page 2 of 2  < Back  

Earthquake Highlights Deep Economic Divide

Baeha, an appointed official, wearing a black felt cap with gold braid and rubber boots, estimates that the seaport will cost millions of dollars to fix. "And the roads -- how many kilometers of road are cut off? It will need a lot of money to repair," he said.

The quake opened jagged chasms in the only road to the town, making it off-limits for long stretches to even four-wheel-drive vehicles. It took 4 1/2 hours for a reporter making the trip by motorbike Friday from Gunungsitoli, Nias's main town, almost three times as long as the trip normally takes. The journey required dismounting a dozen times, including at six damaged bridges. At one of them, the bike was lifted onto an improvised wooden ferry piloted, Huck Finn-style, by an oarsman.

Students walk in the ruins of their classroom on the first day of school in Gunungsitoli, which was hit hard by a magnitude 8.7 earthquake. (Dadang Tri -- Reuters)

The Chinese families' role in the economy is so broad that they own the only two large, 100-ton boats that carry coconut and rubber out of Lahewa. One family owns the largest store in town. The factory of another family employs at least 100 people.

Baeha noted that, over the years, a degree of resentment has emerged between the native non-Chinese and the ethnic Chinese "because the Chinese hold the economic power." Those feelings, rarely expressed, are in contrast to the close cooperation that the quake elicited between Christians and Muslims on the island.

But in the last five years, Lahewa's economy was becoming fairer, Baeha said. The roads were improved and small coconut, cocoa and rubber traders were able to get their goods to Gunungsitoli and on to other cities on Sumatra island. "It changed the market a lot," he said.

Non-Chinese Lahewans resent their dependence on a handful of businesses. "We sell our product to these Chinese businesses," said Warowu, 30, an island resident. "They set the price very low. And it's not fair. We know it's worth more than that."

But many people see reopening the businesses as the only way forward. "They're the only party who can buy our coconuts because they have capital and we don't," said Antonius Zebo, a local labor union leader, standing outside a school gym where government rice was being handed out.

Special correspondent Yayu Yuniar contributed to this report.

< Back  1 2

© 2005 The Washington Post Company