Coastal resources in crisis

Down to Earth No. 45, May 2000

Coastal communities are being impoverished by large-scale illegal fishing operations; the country's coral reefs are badly damaged and its mangroves are rapidly disappearing. Indonesia's coastal resources are facing a grave crisis. The question now is whether the government of President Wahid has the political commitment to stop the devastation.

The past three decades have taken a heavy toll on Indonesia's coastal resources. Like the forests, these resources have suffered from the emphasis on commercial exploitation for short-term profit-making. This has undermined or destroyed traditional sustainable community management systems and has left Indonesia's fishing communities among the poorest of the poor.

Recent studies have found that coral reefs are being devastated by fish bombing - the illegal use of explosives to catch fish, cyanide poisoning, as well as coral mining and pollution. Coral bleaching - linked to rising sea temperatures - and natural causes like earthquakes have also played a role. According to the Oceanology Study and Development Centre of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), only 7% of corals are in a good condition and 70% have been badly damaged. Other figures used by officials say that of the country's 60,000 sq km of coral reefs, only about 6% is in good condition.

Fish-bombing is a crime which carries a ten year prison sentence and a Rp 100 million (US$14,000) fine under a 1985 law. It is nevertheless widespread throughout the archipelago. In recent weeks, cases have been reported in Aceh, northern and southern Sumatra, the Seribu Islands in Jakarta Bay, the East Nusa Tenggara islands and Sulawesi. The fish-bombing or poisoning is often organised by large-scale operators who supply the explosives to fishermen. Since these fishermen are sometimes drawn from local communities, the operations become a cause of division and conflict between villagers as those using traditional methods try to defend their livelihoods. An indigenous Bajau fisherman from Kendari Bay, Sulawesi, told the Indonesian news agency Antara in February how men using explosives threaten to throw fish-bombs at traditional fisherfolk who get in their way. The practice has also had a devastating effect on the number of fish. A fisherman from South Aceh described how stocks have declined in the Banyak Islands, due to the destruction of coral reefs. Ten years ago he could catch from 15 to 20 tons on a three-day trip, whereas now he would find it hard to catch one ton after a week at sea. Studies have shown that half a kilo of explosives can kill fish within a 10 metre radius and destroy the coral within 3 metres of the detonation. The coral takes at least 40-50 years to recover.

A further cause of destruction is international demand for reef products - like aquarium fish and decorative corals - which supports the unsustainable exploitation of corals. Indonesia supplies 41% of world exports of products from coral reefs, according to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, with the United States importing over half the world production.

Mangroves have suffered a similar fate to coral reefs. According to recent government data, 1.5 million hectares have been wiped out during the past 18 years. These valuable breeding grounds for fish and shrimp have been reduced from 4.2 million ha in 1982 to 2.7 million this year. Along the eastern coast of Sumatra, as much as 90% is reported to have gone.

The major causes of destruction include conversion to shrimp and fish ponds, pollution (especially from the oil industry), overlogging for timber and charcoal, and conversion for housing and industrial projects.


Marine facts and figures


Land area: 1.9m sqkm
Sea area: 3.1m sqkm
Coastline: 81,000 km
Est.sustainable catch: 6.18m tonnes/yr
Actual Indon. catch: 3.6m tonnes/yr
Fisheries exports: US $2.2m/yr
Est. loss from stolen catch US $4.5 billion
Coral reefs... 60,000 sqkm (12-15% world total) good condition: 6%
...estimated value: US$ 70,000/sqkm
Mangroves 1982: 4.2m ha
Mangroves 2000: 2.7m ha

70% of oil and gas deposits are under the sea

(Source: Republika 19&10/Nov/99 Govt. Research & Technology Agency, BPPT, figures; LIPI in Bisnis 5/Nov/99; Banjarmasin Pos 17/Nov/99; Suara Pembaruan 15/Feb/00, Indonesian Observer 25/Feb/00; Kompas 25/Feb/00)

With a few exceptions, local government authorities have paid scant attention to the need to protect mangroves. In East Kalimantan none of the 150,000 hectares of mangrove forests of the Mahakam Delta have protected status. Only 15,000 ha of the original area is left now, with most of the rest converted to shrimp farms. Several islands in the delta have now disappeared below sea-level as a result.

In Indramayu District, West Java, coastal abrasion due to mangrove loss is threatening to swallow up the homes of 50,000 people in 28 coastal villages and to swamp the coastal road. In Bengkalis district, Riau, villagers have moved inland as the sea encroaches by between 5 to 15 metres each year. In Central Java, the mangroves, beaches and corals near Cilacap have been polluted and damaged by the Pertamina oil refinery and other industrial plants.

A further major problem is illegal fishing by trawlers and fine-mesh nets in coastal waters. These operations are known to by-pass laws by relying on the collusion of the local navy or police authorities. The government believes that around US $4.5 billion is lost in stolen fish, a figure that dwarfs Indonesia's export earnings from fisheries estimated at $2.2 million per year. Some 300 Thai fish processing factories are believed to be supplied mostly from Indonesian waters.

(Source: Kompas 9, 23&29/Feb/00, 15/Mar/00; Republika 18 & 25/Mar/00, Riau Pos 19/Feb/00, 7/Mar/00; Suara Pembaruan 15&27/Feb/00)


What communities want

Coastal communities who rely largely on traditional fishing methods to subsist, want immediate action against the practices that destroy their resources: trawling, fish-bombing and poisoning, and mangrove conversion. They want an end to the collusion between government, security forces and businessmen which ensures that companies can violate laws without fear of legal action.

Since the ousting of former President Suharto, rural communities in general have become more outspoken in their defence of resource rights and demands for justice against illegal fishing. Protests against commercial overfishing and illegal trawlers were common during the Suharto era, but were usually silenced by intimidation and violence from the security forces. Now the democratically elected government is in place, there is greater hope for reform. Fishing communities are forming new associations, like the anti-trawl network, GRANAT (see DTE 43:14), and teaming up with NGOs to press home their demands. Villagers are demanding that the illegal practices are stopped and those responsible brought to justice.

In some cases, the continued lack of response from the authorities has ended in unilateral action - raids by local people on illegal fishing boats and boat-burning incidents. In one recent case in Kumai, Central Kalimantan, villagers burned a Thai-owned boat in protest against the lack of effective police action against illegal fishing. 

(Kapos 3/Mar/00)


Can Sarwono make a difference?

The man chosen for the new cabinet position of Minister for Marine Exploration is Sarwono Kusumaatmadja. He is known to be a shrewd politician with a flair for publicity. Despite his association with the discredited Suharto regime - both as environment minister and one-time secretary of the former President's political vehicle, GOLKAR - he does have some credibility with environmental organisations. This originates from his term as environment minister when he was known for being more outspoken than most other ministers, especially during the catastrophic forest fires of 1997-98.

What exactly the minister will do - the extent of his responsibilities and the clout he will wield relative to other ministers - has not yet become fully clear, but early indications are that the emphasis will remain on the economic potential of marine resources. Exploitation of fisheries is likely to be stepped up in order to generate more revenues for the ailing economy. In April Sarwono announced a temporary halt to the issuing of new fishing licences pending deregulation in the sector - a move that will be in line with the IMF's economic 'medicine' for Indonesia.

One task that has been announced is to raise the profile of Indonesia as a maritime nation. President Wahid says he wants Indonesia to establish itself as a maritime culture and utilise the seas as a natural resource for the wealth of the nation. According to Sarwono, the need to establish a maritime culture is important since it concerns Indonesia's identity as a nation, as well as its "efforts to tap sea resources," and "the effort to unify the nation."

Sarwono has also said that the new ministry would act as a maritime planning board and would be given the task of setting up an information centre on marine resources to service "stakeholders", including potential investors. It would also draw up relevant national-level policies and regulations.


International assistance

Australia has pledged A$ 8.2 million for a 3-year coral reef rehabilitation and management project (COREMAP). The programme aims to develop community-based management, research and monitoring, public awareness and law enforcement. A pilot project will start in Kupang Bay, West Timor.

This is part of a broader 15 year coral reef management programme co-financed by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, the Japanese International Co-operation Agency (JICA) and the Indonesian government. The US $30 million funding is part loan and part grant.

Norway has funded (by grant) a project to draw up a master plan for the prevention, and response to, oil pollution from ships and offshore drilling. The project was completed November 1999.

(Indonesian Observer, 25/Feb/00; Jakarta Post 10/Nov/99; Suara Pembaruan 22/Feb/00)

Until now responsibility for marine resources has been divided between other ministries: fisheries with the Department of Agriculture, mangroves with the Forestry Department and offshore oil and gas exploration with the Mines and Energy Ministry. The division meant that lack of co-ordination for marine and coastal resource planning became a major problem. Sarwono is rumoured to want to claw back responsibility for marine resources from other ministries, thereby carving out an important political niche for himself within the government.

Sarwono has been careful to cultivate relations with NGOs and peoples' organisations representing fishing communities. He met a group of NGOs soon after taking office and promised to include them in planning the "vision" of the new ministry. He told them that while it was his job to deal with national level policy-making, regulations and co-ordination, at local level, marine resources would be managed by local people. He said it was essential that customary or traditional sea management areas were mapped. Sarwono has also made visits to coastal regions and in March, met a delegation of fishing community representatives from Sulawesi, Lampung and North Sumatra. He promised them he would search for a solution to the problems of trawling and fish-bombing. The same month Sarwono's ministry announced Rp 22 bn (US $3 million) in soft loans (10.5%) to eradicate poverty among fishermen. In April, he announced that traditional fisherfolk, fish farmers and fisheries entrepreneurs would be invited to a meeting to help formulate policies in the sector.


Coral campaign

In February President Wahid launched a national campaign to save the nation's coral reefs under the title "Save the Coral Reefs now!" (SeKarang!). The campaign, which runs alongside the World Bank/ADB/JICA and COREMAP programmes (see box) is intended to highlight further the plight of coral reefs during the year when Bali is to host the ninth International Coral Reef Symposium. The aim is to raise national and local level awareness of the need for conservation and sustainable management. Pilot projects are planned for Riau, South Sulawesi and West Papua.


Higher profile

The coral campaign launch, plus meetings and visits, news of policy initiatives and the "maritime culture" announcement have all been reported in the Indonesian press. They are part of Sarwono's plan to raise the profile of marine issues in Indonesia. It is not Sarwono's publicity skills that are in doubt, however, but whether he will be able to fulfil the expectations he has raised. There are many obstacles: corruption, lack of commitment to law enforcement, inter-departmental power struggles, the unknown impact of regional autonomy and the debilitating effect of the economic crisis are only the most obvious. Internationally, the lack of agreements to prevent illegal fishing in Indonesian waters needs to be addressed.

On the positive side, coastal communities, along with other civil society movements, are gaining strength and demanding their democratic rights. This imperative for change may be hard to resist.

(Source: Bisnis 5/Nov/99, 25/Mar/00; Results of NGO meeting with Sarwono, 27/Oct/99, circulated by Walhi; Jawa Pos 10/Mar/00; Indonesian Observer 18/Feb/00; Suara Pembaruan 17/Apr/00; Antara 31/Mar/00 Republika 16/Feb/00, Kompas 22/Feb/00)


Regional autonomy and coastal resources

Sarwono has criticised the 1999 law on regional autonomy which devolves some responsibilities to regional authorities at district level. He says the law does not regulate seas or marine resources because no marine expert was consulted while it was drafted. Sarwono wants to ensure that rules on marine resources are included among the regulations now being prepared in support of the law and due to be published in May at the latest. He says these should at least reduce the potential for conflict over marine resources between districts.

NGOs and peoples' organisations representing fishing and coastal communities such as Jaring Pela are concerned that regional autonomy may strengthen the hand of local elites. They fear that local military commanders will use regional autonomy to gain more control over coastal resources and collect more profit from their already well-established partnerships with commercial enterprises. A draft regulation on fisheries and regional autonomy circulated in mid-1999 failed to address either of these concerns.

(Source: Indonesian Observer 10/Nov/99; Kompas 10/Feb/00)