Indonesia, the largest archipelago in the world, holds some stunning coastal and deep-water resources. With more than 17,500 islands straddling two oceans, the sea is not only a way of life, but also a source of it.
Fisheries account for a significant part of Indonesia’s trillion-dollar economy – the largest in Southeast Asia. More than 30 percent of global maritime trade finds its way through the Strait of Malacca, which is among the busiest of international shipping lanes. Tourist havens are seemingly everywhere, from the palm-fringed beaches of Bali, to the abundant shallow-water reefs of the Coral Triangle.
Managing marine ecosystems is therefore an unsurprising priority for the vast number of actors that have a stake in Indonesia’s coastal economy. At once unexplored and overexploited, the oceans represent neoliberal development’s final frontier. The twin processes of ocean acidification and global warming, and related international political responses further complicate matters.
New analysis was recently published in the journal Science, indicating that oceans are heating up 40 percent faster than a United Nation panel of experts predicted in a study carried out five years ago.
The study further concluded that in 2018, seawater temperatures reached an all time high and were expected to escalate further in the coming years. Theses studies mirror those on land, where combined data from NASA and NOAA show that the five hottest years ever have occurred in the 2010s.
For many, marine ecosystem management, fisheries management, and climate change mitigation strategy are embodied in a redoubled commitment to the blue economy – the idea that the financialisation of oceans can reap economic profit and save the environment at once.
But what kind of development does the blue economy seek, and for whom? In Indonesia, small-scale fishers and their communities are holding fast to various manifestations of traditional knowledge that they see as key to ensuring the survival of the seas and of future generations.
The Indonesian islands have long been at the forefront of oceanic policy and development circles, in large part because of their sheer numbers and strategic location.
One such high-level process held recently was the Our Ocean conference, which took place in late October in Bali. The meeting brought together a large number of powerful actors to debate some of the most pressing oceanic issues: climate change, fisheries, the blue economy, pollution, maritime security, and marine protected areas.
As is the case in many top decision-making spaces, representatives of governments, corporations, and intergovernmental institutions were given a seat at the table. Notably absent, however, were those closest to the sea – fishers.
Marthin Hadiwinata, Chief Executive of the Indonesia Traditional Fisherfolk’s Union (KNTI), said: “Policies on marine issues cannot be addressed in the absence of fishing communities who have direct linkages to the ocean”.
Hadiwinata explained that the issue of marine pollution, for instance, most deeply affects people living around the coastal areas and small islands: “Rather than inviting fishers to share their solutions,” he added, “companies who are involved in mining and other forms of extractive industry that dump their waste into the sea are regarded as corporate partners in cleaning up dirty waters”.
Likewise, climate change mitigation and adaptation projects often turn to the problems that caused the environmental crisis in the first place as a way of responding to it. Take for example Blue Carbon, where, as with other carbon sequestration programs such as REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), polluters are allowed to continue their practices so long as they purchase ‘offsets’ in ecosystems elsewhere.
Most often, the burden falls on the shoulders of peasant and indigenous rural working communities, converting their crops and gathering spaces into monocultures such as industrial tree plantations.
Blue Carbon applies this logic to mangrove, coral, and seagrass ecosystems, while small-scale fishers who work in these areas are treated as nuisances and prohibited from future access to their fishing grounds.
Blue Carbon has been championed in high-level policy spaces such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) processes, as well as through ‘big green’ organisations like the Nature Conservancy. It is currently being pioneered in Indonesia.
Indonesian social movements and grassroots organisations have long been in the business of carefully protecting the islands’ cornucopia of natural resources. In the rapidly evolving marine sector, fishers are forced to be quick on their feet when putting their solutions on the national agenda.
KNTI, the small-scale fisher’s movement that is present in nearly all of Indonesia’s 34 provinces, is playing a leadership role in turning the tide of both discourse and policy towards justice and sovereignty for fishers. This task is done at scale, targeting national and transnational political dynamics.
When word of the Our Ocean conference and its lack of grassroots representation reached KNTI’s members, they were quick to clap back by organising their own participatory meeting: the Ocean’s People Conference. Unlike its ‘official’ counterpart, the parallel meeting reflected the diversity of Indonesia’s small-scale fisheries sector.
The gathering strategically took place in Jakarta – not just to make it more accessible, but also to shed light on marine mega-projects encroaching on the busy capital. The most notorious of these has been a land reclamation projectsupported by Indonesia’s former colonisers, the Dutch.
This project has been centred on protecting Jakarta from floods by installing a network of fake islands and a giant seawall in Jakarta Bay. While the Governor of Jakarta finally revoked some of the permits necessary to complete the project – thanks, in large part, to a strategic battle fought at the hands of social movements like KNTI – much of the damage has been done.
Ipah Saripah, a fishworker from North Jakarta, explained that the reclamation issue has profoundly impacted her family’s livelihood: “Even though the reclamation stopped, they’ve already constructed four islands,” she said, “and that development is right in the middle of our fishing areas.
“We have been bribed, intimidated, displaced, and even tortured to make way for this reclamation,” she added.
Saripah and other activists from the fishing communities feel that big reclamation projects like the one stalled in Jakarta Bay serve as a blueprint for coastal development in Indonesia. Similar mega projects are being rolled out in other parts of the country, and they are woven together with the common thread of replacing traditional fishing practices with profit-seeking industries backed by big Asian and European capital.
That’s what the Ocean’s People Conference and related gatherings of people’s movements are attempting to shut down. Ibu Rofi’ah, a representative of a peasant organization in East Nusa Tengarra, Indonesia’s southernmost province, said: “We are not looking for money, but for means to spread our knowledge.”
Ibu Rofi’ah travelled to Jakarta to explain how she played a leadership role when her community put an end to an iron-mining operation. Today she is working with fisheries cooperatives that find themselves in standoffs with corporations in the mining and tourism sectors.
Members of KNTI recognise that their struggles reflect those of fishing communities elsewhere. To this end, the movement is an active member of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), a transnational social justice movement dedicated to serving the unique needs of fishers and fishworkers.
Since the issues affecting fishers have become increasingly entangled – for instance, when climate change adaptation policies meet big capital – WFFP has doubled down on its attack strategies to protect the communities it represents.
A key part of that is actively promoting the Small Scale Fisheries Guidelines, which is the only comprehensive global governance instrument intended to protect fishers and traditional fisheries. KNTI has been doing this work across Indonesia, and making its demands global through social movement gatherings and even United Nations processes.
Marthin Hadiwinata said: “Here in Indonesia, we are pushing the government to immediately recognise and protect fishers’ rights. And at the same time, we are building the global movement to resist financialisation and privatisation of the world’s oceans.”
Salena Tramel is a journalist and PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, where her work is centered on the intersections of resource grabs, climate change mitigation, and the intertwining of (trans)national agrarian/social justice movements.