Real Stories From Indonesia’s Seas
Walk past any kindergarten or grade school in the country during music class and you’re likely to hear the students belting out the words to a timeless children’s song that recounts the tale of a brave band of fishermen who risked heading out to sea during a raging storm to bring back food for their village.
It’s a song and a story that captures the imagination of young children, and you can hear the excitement in their voices as they sing the verses leading up to the story’s climax.
But eventually the last verse is sung, the next song begins and the fishermen are forgotten, left on their own to do battle with the angry sea until the next time someone decides to remember them through song.
The real tragedy may be that the flesh-and-blood fishermen who head out to sea every day to earn a living and help feed the nation feel like they too have been pushed aside and forgotten.
The country’s territorial waters account for about 70 percent of its total area, but little has been done for those who make their livelihoods from the sea.
When people eat fish, they rarely take into consideration the complicated journey their meal has taken to get from the ocean to their plate.
If you were at all curious about the country’s commercial fishing industry — or the proper way to operate a barbecue — the place to be was a small house in Kalibata, South Jakarta, last Wednesday night.
Fishermen from all over the country gathered at the modest residential house that serves as the headquarters for a fishing advocacy group called the People’s Coalition for Fisheries Justice (Kiara).
The group was holding its biannual four-day strategy meeting, aimed at charting the course for the future of the country’s commercial fishing industry.
The main purpose of the meeting was to provide a place where fishermen, marine biologists and government officials could discuss and debate solutions to industry-related issues like regulations, quotas and length of seasons.
It was designed to forge common ground among the groups, which often work for opposing outcomes.
Kiara was founded in 2003 as a means of representing fishermen in a growing backlog of cases filed against the government.
The disputes related to everything from corporate pollution to the ever-shifting vagaries of import and export laws.
Despite the wide-ranging nature of these cases, the founders of Kiara felt that one factor united them: The fact that the government refused to hear them.
Riza Damanik , the group’s secretary general, paints a worrying picture of the country’s fishing industry, saying it is beset by chaos.
“Even after the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries was established, things didn’t get much better for fishermen,” he said.
But at least now not every single encounter between the fishing industry and the government is hostile. There are even channels opening up that have led to positive results for both sides.
However, the biggest problem on the horizon for the industry is one that is unfolding on a global scale. It’s also something that the government is powerless to fix: Overfishing.
Kholid, a fisherman from West Java, said he had seen the problem spread across the archipelago.
“I suspect we have lost thousands of fish and shellfish species — flying fish, crabs, white mussels, sea cucumbers and certain types of sea horses,” he said. “Where are they now?”
He claimed that industrial waste from private factories near his village had killed off the fish near the coast. Thirty years ago, he said, fish were plentiful even just 50 meters from the beach.
“These days, I sail for thousands of kilometers and sometimes I still can’t find any fish,” he said.
Another fisherman, Sopuan, said he was upset with the government, which he said only cared about farmers.
When prices of rice, corn and other agricultural products go down, the National Logistics Agency (Bulog) comes to the aid of farmers by fixing prices, he said. But he and his fellow fishermen say that there is no such system in place to support them.
Amin Abdullah is a fisherman from a small island next to Sumbawa in West Nusa Tenggara.
He said that a few years ago, a giant mining company began polluting the waters in the Alas Strait, between Lombok and Sumbawa, where he had fished for most of his life.
The fishing grounds have been ruined by the pollution and fishermen in the area, unable to learn a new trade, are now forced to make a seven-day voyage each time they want to find fish, he said.
“The company dumped tailings into the water for 10 years,” Amin said.
“We filed complaints with the government, but they said the fish and squid had already gone because we used dynamite that destroyed the ecosystem.”
It’s this type of case, and government response, that is most damaging to the industry because, as Riza points out, 93 percent of the country’s fishing is still undertaken by independent fishermen employing traditional methods.
Moreover, about three-quarters of the fish consumed every day across the country is caught by these fishermen.
Riza said that despite all the problems, his group could only take on one issue at a time.
Kiara is currently looking to focus on a push to secure government aid for some 550,000 fishermen across the country who have been unable to work because of an extended period of bad weather that makes going out to sea dangerous.
“We will encourage the government to declare this a national disaster so our fishermen will get the full attention they deserve,” Riza said.
When the barbecue in Kalibata began to wind down on Wednesday night, some of the gathered fishermen said they would never give up, in spite of all the setbacks they had suffered in their fights on land.
“When something happens to me when I’m at sea, I’m sure none of our lawmakers will be there to help me,” said Sopuan, who lost one of his sons in a fishing accident in 1994.
“For us, the sea is our graveyard. I will defend it until I die.”