Aceh's guardians of coastal and marine resources

Down to Earth Special Issue, October 1999

The indigeous coastal communities of Aceh have a well-developed traditional system to manage and protect their coastal and marine resources. Strong traditional institutions control access to fishing rights. The head bears the title of Phang Laot or 'Admiral'. Several of these customary fisheries protectors operate along a stretch of coast line under the overall authority of a 'Super Admiral'.

Each Phang Laot has his counterpart in the forested interior: the Phang Hutan who traditionally controls the use of forest resources by indigenous communities.

Typically, a Phang Laut has jurisdiction over the shores between the mouths of two rivers and communities lying within this area. Using his knowledge of the local natural environment and the spirit world, he choses the best sites for settlements – where the fishing is good, but homes are protected from high tides and other dangers. He then allocates fishing areas to each community, leaving certain areas which must not be fished at all. The Phang Laot also determines how catches are shared out between boat owners and crew.

These traditional resource management systems are still important in Aceh, particularly along the western coast, although they are not as well known as the equivalent system in the Moluccas known as sasi. If they are revived, strengthened and adapted to cope with present day pressures, they could provide the key to the sustainable use of marine and coastal resources for future generations in other parts of Indonesia.

However, for this to happen, the government must take effective action to counter powerful external market forces, such as the tropical fish trade to Hong Kong, the use of dynamite and cyanide by other fisherfolk, large-scale commercial fishing and the conversion of mangroves to shrimp farms – all of which threaten the survival of indigenous coastal communities in Aceh and elsewhere in the archipelago.