The challenge of making a living

Down to Earth No 68  February 2006

Ruslani Ruslan has depended on fishing for most of his life. He has produced dried fish and has been a wholesaler of fresh and dried fish in North Jakarta for nearly forty years. He is now head of a fishing co-operative and the NGO Expindo, which supports fisherfolk and coastal communities. The following piece is a summary of his presentation at the opening session of conference held by the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID) in November 2005.

In general, the one thing that does not change for fishermen is that we have to live from day to day. When the westerly winds bring the rains and rough seas for four months a year, fishing communities face hard times. They sell whatever they can and sometimes have to live on handouts. Also, boats do not put to sea for about ten days at full moon as there are few fish to be caught. So when people's food supplies are finished, they depend on credit.

Fishing communities pay off their debts when it is the season of plenty. When the catches are good, people spend money like water and indulge in whatever they have dreamed of during the long hard months before. Then they feel free from poverty! Fishermen's lives are tough and full of challenges. They risk their lives at sea and, when their nets are empty day after day, they often wish they could give up their jobs. But when the alternative is unemployment, what else can they do?

Fisherfolk are used to surviving on their unreliable incomes. Things have been much the same for them since Indonesia became independent. But that does not stop them hoping, like everyone else does, for a better future.

During the early years of independence, fisherfolk depended on canoes and sailing boats and used fishing platforms, fish traps, hooks & lines, simple nets and traps for small crabs and shrimps. They caught enough to live at subsistence levels and lived along the shores in fairly squalid conditions. From 1966 onwards, Suharto's New Order regime promoted a 'motorising fishermen movement': sailing boats were put aside and fishing became industrialised. There were fish processing units and housing for fishing communities; we were encouraged to set up fishing co-operatives and got access to credit. Since 1998, foreign fishing boats have been coming into our waters and exports of fish are increasing - some types of fish are becoming very expensive. Fishermen are beginning to question the policy of motorisation, especially with the rises in fuel prices. We are really feeling the effects. The costs of putting to sea are hardly worth it, especially with diminishing catches.

It is not facilities that are the issue: we've got more than enough infrastructure in the form of fish markets, housing, fishing gear, credit facilities and financial support from charities. There is even a special fuel subsidy for fishing boats. So why is our fishing community complaining about hard times?

One reason in North Jakarta is corruption. Members of the security forces collect illegal levies at the fish markets instead of enforcing regulations and ensuring our safety at sea and on dry land. Also, certain officials have asked for our fishing passes. Some boat owners hand them over, thinking this will help them get loans. Instead, these are used to claim fuel allowances which are then sold illegally to Singapore.

But the main reason is that fish are much harder to come by. These days it seems that only the trawlers can make a decent living.

Nearly all leaders of fishing fleets will pray for a good catch and protection against danger before putting out to sea. It is not uncommon for captains to use magic, even black magic. The Koran also reminds us that we should be thankful for all the wealth of the seas that Allah has provided for our benefit (Q16/14). So it is right that we should donate a proportion of our catches to those in need. But despite all our prayers and offerings, it is ironic that fish are harder to catch than in the old days when we didn't have all this modern equipment.

Why are fish so scarce? There are many reasons. Mangroves, which are the breeding grounds for fish, have been destroyed along coasts and estuaries. The seas and rivers are being polluted with rubbish and industrial wastes. Although 'bomb fishing' is now prohibited, it has destroyed marine habitats like coral reefs. Fishing platforms may be reducing catches of large fish by removing the small fish on which they feed. Certain types of trawlers scrape the sea floor of all living things and damage the livelihoods of fisherfolk who depend on more traditional methods of fishing. Small-scale fishermen have held demonstrations against these trawlers, but the owners are wealthy people who have no problems in meeting their loan repayments. So the ordinary fishermen have just accepted their fate. It is crucially important that there is proper marine zoning which takes into account different locations; fishing techniques; the time of day; seasons; and the types and amounts of catch.

Finally, it is important that all sectors of the community work together for the future to tackle the challenges that fishing communities are confronted with, not just leave this to the coastal communities and fisherfolk themselves.