Moh. Tamimi, Sumenep, Indonesia – Fisherwomen on Indonesia's Madura Island are at the forefront of a protest against a plan to convert a stretch of their coast into salt farming in their efforts to protect the ecosystem that has provided a key source of income for the community.
A group of women in Sumenep district of East Java province is leading a protest against the local government's proposal to develop a salt farm on 20 hectares (49 acres) of land on the coast of Gersik Putih village. They say the plan could jeopardize their job as fishers and the sustainability of the marine ecosystem on which they have for generations depended for their livelihoods. The fishers also believe that the salt ponds have exacerbated the flooding there in recent years.
"For those who don't have a land for agriculture, like me, I'm grateful that God has gifted me the sea, and it's become my source of livelihood," Maimunah, a fisherwoman who is one of the movement's leaders against the salt farm development in Gersik Putih, told Mongabay-Indonesia in a recent interview.
"The ocean is rich. It's really, really, rich. Thank God, it's always been fruitful," she said.
In 2009, the local government issued land titles on 73 hectares (180 acres) of land along the coast of Tapakerbau hamlet in Gersik Putih, and all of it was to become salt farms. While much of the area has been developed, the remaining 20 hectares have been in dispute as fisherwoman Maimunah and others have been opposing the plan since 2013. Several efforts to reconcile between the protesters and local officials have been made, but to no success.
"How can you produce a title on the sea?" Maimunah said. "That area has always been part of the sea even since the time of our grandparents and before. It was much bigger even then."
The protesters have demanded that officials publish the permits and environmental and social impact analysis of the project, but the government couldn't meet that. The opposers have alleged that the salt farms were to blame for the worsened flooding in the village this summer.
Muhab, the village head of Gersik Putih who took office in 2013, said the government had offered compensation to the fishers in the form of titles on 2 hectares (4.9 acres) of land. He said the opposition was partly driven by the political interests of some people in the village.
"What they refer to as the sea is actually not it. It's not the sea, it's the tide," Muhab told Mongabay-Indonesia in a separate interview.
Muhab said the plan was to split the funding of the 20-hectare salt farms between his office and investors because the village's budget couldn't cover it all. He said his office has yet to decide on who the intended beneficiaries are, but it could be either a village-owned enterprise, a foundation or a community business entity. "Because we have a program to elevate the people's economy," he said.
Responding to the recent flooding in Tapakerbau, Muhab claimed that it was common for the area to be inundated in the middle and end of the year. He claimed the completion of the salt farms could reduce flooding because the ponds would serve as barriers between the sea and the houses.
"That's an old problem. If only the houses had been raised, [the flood] wouldn't have leaked in there," Muhab said.
Ahmad Shiddiq, head of the Tapakerbau neighborhood, said he would continue to fight for the preservation of their beach. Shiddiq said that he has a clear regulation that the sea should not be converted, not even a land title on the coast. He also has photo documentation of Tapakerbau hamlet in 1933 from the top side, which clearly shows the length of the Tapakerbau beach.
The protest in Sumenep is one of many against plans for the development of coastal aquaculture in Indonesia, a country that has the world's second-longest coastline. At the start of his second term in office, in 2019, President Joko Widodo ordered the fisheries ministry to boost the country's aquaculture productivity.
Global aquaculture production grew by 527% from 1990-2018, with Indonesia among the top producers worldwide. The country's aquaculture output in the third quarter of 2021 was 12.25 million metric tons, a 6% increase from the same period in 2020. The aquaculture sector contributed the equivalent of $1.94 million in non-tax state revenue for the year to November 2021, well above the target figure of $1.39 million, according to the ministry.
Experts have welcomed the government's push to boost the aquaculture sector but say it must guarantee sustainable environmental planning, particularly in terms of land clearing and waste management for the farms. Developing aquaculture farms in Indonesia has typically entailed clearing carbon-rich mangrove forests and coastal degradation to build the ponds.
Khalisah Khalid, public engagement and action manager of the NGO Greenpeace Indonesia, said large-scale development often has the potential to pose multiple ecological, economic, social or cultural risks. She said investors would become the owners of natural resources for them to control, while most citizens become laborers, leaving them without any choice to access the resources. Khalisah added that women were often left out in various development agendas, despite the businesses using the jargon "to improve the welfare of the community."
In terms of economic calculation alone, she estimated, the minimum wage of Sumenep is around 2 million rupiah ($130), residents can get 4.5 million rupiah ($292) per month with the assumption of 150,000 rupiah ($9.75) per day from fishing marine creatures on the coast.
"The economic model that's used actually further impoverishes women. If they fight to maintain their living space, it is because that is the only way women can survive to support the family economy," Khalisah said.
– Translated by Basten Gokkon