Fishing communities

Down to Earth No 64  2005

Fisherfolk in Aceh are particularly vulnerable in the process of Aceh's recovery and reconstruction. They lived in coastal communities that were worst hit by the disaster. Many were poor and used to live very traditional lifestyles. Typically, their homes were small thatched huts close to the seashore. Their whole way of life was completely dependent on local marine resources. This was basically subsistence-level fishing. They would go out in small boats to the reefs or inshore waters overnight or in the early mornings, then sell their catches at local markets, repairing their nets and resting in the afternoons.

Before the disaster, fishing rights along the coast of Aceh were still governed by customary regulations (adat) in many areas. Customary leaders, called panglima laot, each had authority over several traditional fishing communities. They determined where, when and how much fishing could take place and settled local disputes. The panglima laot also played an important role in representing small-scale fisherfolk's interests to the local authorities. They took up local fisherfolk's complaints about the intrusion of large trawlers on their fishing grounds and the use of illegal fishing methods like cyanide poisoning or bombing and protested about falling catches to government officials, the police, the navy and customs.

When the tsunami waves hit, some fishermen were at sea. They returned to find their homes and families gone. Whole villages had been swept away. Countless nets and boats were damaged or destroyed. Boats were even carried several kilometres inland in the worst hit areas. In the weeks immediately after the disaster, fisherfolk whose boats were undamaged were reluctant to put to sea for fear of catching in their nets some of the tens of thousands of bodies washed out to sea. For the same reason, even people in parts of Banda Aceh untouched by the tsunami did not want to eat fresh fish.

Some fisherfolk are so traumatised that they cannot contemplate going back to their former way of life. But many more are desperate to return. They fear the loss of their identity and culture as fisherfolk and most have few other livelihood options. They do not want to stay in relocation centres or villages away from the coast where they lack the skills, equipment, experience, capital and land to become farmers or traders. "We want to rebuild our lives and make some money", said one.

Many factors are acting against them. The very shape of the coastline has changed in some areas and the former locations of many fishing villages are now under water. Elsewhere, the places where fisherfolk sold their catches, and the people, who bought them have gone. Roads and transport systems in coastal areas have been destroyed or badly disrupted, as have supplies of ice, making it hard to transport catches further inland for sale. Dramatic changes in the seabed have also occurred. This could change local sea levels and currents, bringing coral reefs nearer to the surface and altering conditions where fish, crustaceans and other marine life feed and spawn. In addition, the government does not want to allow people to resettle before official land use plans have been redrawn and announced. Meanwhile various national and international agencies have made public statements about plans for a coastal safety zone and mangrove replanting schemes in which no settlements will be permitted within a certain distance of the sea.

These plans are likely to have a serious impact on local livelihoods. Small-scale subsistence level fishing may well be wiped out. The structure of traditional fishing societies has been completely disrupted as communities have been dispersed between friends, families and refugee camps. Central government legislation in the 1970s and decades of conflict had already weakened traditional decision-making systems, like the panglima laot. The deaths of a disproportionate number of older people - those most familiar with traditional law - will hamper the revival of adat.

It is likely that government and NGO aid programmes will try to introduce modernisation in the name of 'development'. The danger here is that urban-based entrepreneurs and larger operators will find it easier to get access to loans and grants for bigger boats. Traditional fisherfolk will lose control over their livelihoods and become no more than hired hands in bigger commercial operations.

* * * * * * *

The Directorate General of Fisheries and Marine Affairs has promised help for fishing villages in Aceh. UNHCR is currently undertaking a study of coastal communities and is due to report in March.