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Selling Indonesia's coast for cheap prawns and profit

Jim Wickens

24th November 2009

In an exclusive investigation, the Ecologist Film Unit reveals the impact of Indonesia's plans to privatise its entire 90,000 km coastline

Set against the looming construction cranes and gleaming plastic roofs of the newly built factories, the last remaining fishing village in Jakarta Bay looks increasingly out of place.

For countless generations the community here at Marunda Kepu village have eeked out a living from the sea; farming fish, collecting mussels and setting nets in the estuaries and shallow coastal waters of this region of Northern Java.

But today they live in squalour, penned in by industrial developments all around them. Puddles of stagnant water surround the crumbling brick homes and disease is rife.

'My livelihood is the sea. If there is no more access to the coast or the sea then where should i go? How can I live?' asked Habiba, as she nursed her sick child.

She is referring to the impact of the ‘coastal areas and small island management law’, or HP-3 as it is more commonly known. If passed, HP-3 will allow all of the commonly-held land on and around the Marunda Kepu community, as well as the coastal waters and the seabed up to 12 km offshore, to be offered to the highest bidder, on leases lasting up to 60 years.

'HP-3 will definitely destroy our livelihood: the more factories here, the more difficult it will be for us. If they do this coastal development, we, the fishermen in the coastal area, will be jobless', said Koba, one of a hundred fisherman from Marunda Kepu struggling to feed their families.

Squeezed into ever tighter patches of land from industrial developments on either side of them, the pressure on the community has been enormous, and when the Ecologist spoke with them, they complained of harassment and intimidation from private companies seeking to build on their land.

Threat of eviction

It is the same for coastal communities across Indonesia, hundreds of thousands of people will face potential eviction if they do no have official land certificates, irrespective of how long they may have lived in the area or used the coastal resources, explains Riza Damanik, Secretary General of the Indonesian coastal advocacy group KIARA.

Click here to see a gallery of images showing what's at stake in Indonesia
Click here to see a gallery of images showing what's at stake in Indonesia

'It means in the future, Indonesia’s coastal areas would be dominated by those with big funds, big capital, either they are local or international businessperson or those who are related or linked to government officials or those in power..People’s access to their natural resources will be even more limited because they will be driven out from coastal areas,' he said.

Industrial aquaculture, mining and commercial tourism sectors all look set to reap rewards from the offering up of Indonesia’s coastline. Supporters of the controversial new law claim that the transformation of rural coastal areas into industrial zones, helps to create employment in areas otherwise starved of economic assistance. But these employment opportunities come at a price.

Mangroves: why they matter
and how to save them

In the past few decades, the shrimp industry has undergone phenomenal growth: world production rose from over 1 million tons in the 70s to some 6.5 million tons today. 
 
Much of this abundant supply has not been fetched from the sea, but harvested in shrimp farms that now pepper the shores of Southeast Asia and more recently parts of Africa and South America. An estimated one million hectares of coastal wetlands, including mangroves, are estimated to have been lost in the process.
 
Mangroves exist at the junction of land and sea. They are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, providing spawning grounds for a great diversity of marine life - including wild shrimp.
 
The recent UN 'Blue Carbon' report highlights the importance of life in the oceans in capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But mangroves, along with salt marshes and seagrass beds, really stand out in their ability to lock this carbon away.
 
Together they cover less than 0.5 percent of the seabed, but they absorb up to 70 per cent of all carbon permanently stored in the ocean floor: the equivalent of nearly half of the emissions from global transportation.
 
But the world is rapidly losing these natural allies against climate change. More than a third of the world’s mangroves are estimated to have been lost since the 1940s, while the figure is as high as 60 percent in some parts of Asia. While human population pressures along the world’s coastlines are partly to blame, shrimp farming is considered the number one threat to mangroves. Nearly 40 per cent of mangrove loss to date has been attributed to the industry. 
 
Most of the shrimp is destined for export markets in the US, Europe and Japan, making the industry something of a poster child for the kind of climate haggling going on between the ‘consuming nations’ of the industrialised world and the ‘producing nations’ of the developing world.
 
'India and China are very significant countries in the climate negotiations,' said Dr. Christian Nellemann, editor of the Blue Carbon report. 'There is a lot of uncertainty on whether a deal can be reached on reducing emissions in Copenhagen because developing and emerging countries are reluctant to hold back development.
 
'But the way to tackle climate change is not just by reducing emissions but by ensuring that we capture more carbon dioxide,' said Nellemann. 'We can actually take our emissions back to their original form over time.'
 
Reversing the tide of mangrove destruction would be, in Nellemann’s words, 'a super win-win' for countries like India, in reference to a statement made by the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, which suggested that his country would likely support a U.N. proposed fund to protect and restore carbon sinks. 
 
Fortunately, the forests can be restored with a little help. One environmental campaign group, the Mangrove Action Project (MAP) has its eyes on the quarter million hectares of abandoned shrimp farms for a mangrove restoration initiative, which banks on nature’s capacity to self-heal. 
 
'In nature, mangroves restore themselves via seedlings that fall from the trees into the water and then get deposited on the shore during high tide,' said Alfredo Quarto of MAP. 'Shrimp farms alter the natural hydrology of the landscape.'

By restoring natural water flows and relying - when possible - on nearby forests to supply seedlings, the MAP approach essentially sets the stage for the forests to recover on their own.
 
Over half a million mangrove saplings were planted in one day in the Thatta District of Pakistan, in what is now a Guiness World Record. With looming sea-rises threatening 10 per cent of the world’s population that live along the coast, this kind of fervor seems warranted.

Carolyn Lebel is a freelance journalist in Paris


Guarded development


You could be forgiven for thinking you were entering a military zone. Armed guards, dressed head-to-toe in black, stop and search vehicles passing in and out of this tightly controlled piece of mud road.

We had travelled to the Lampung district of Southern Sumatra, at the entrance to the largest shrimp farm in the world. Carved out of mangrove forest and covering over 16000 hectares, it is home to 20,000 people;  shrimp pond workers, their wives and children.

The workers are bonded in contract or ‘plasma’ farming arrangements whereby almost everything in their life is owned by the parent company, in this case a Thai multinational.

In the eyes of Riza, this so-called ‘contract’ farming is deeply exploitative.
'The farmers are forced to buy prawn feed from the company, the farmers are forced to buy fertilisers, prawn seed from the company, they are forced to get electricity, water and even houses from the company. This is unjust. It makes the farmers dependent on the company,' explains Riza.

Dressed in company uniforms so as to avoid detection, the Ecologist was smuggled through the strict security controls, and managed to meet farmers on this coastal development, whose plight has been invisible up till now.

Don't read; just sign

Like thousands of others in the shrimp farm complex, Khalid has a house and a couple of shrimp ponds that he shares with his family. He explained how he first entered into the contracts that dog them to this day. 'We signed the contract without reading it first…there was no time to read. There was a long queue behind me, so we had to be very quick.'

Today most of the farmers at this farm are deeply indebted to the company that owns their land and houses. It is, claims Riza, a problem he comes across in shrimp farms across the country.
'If we look deeper into this shrimp farming industry, we could see clearly that the shrimp farmers do not anymore have control or access to their own resources or to their ponds, because they are dependent on big companies, in terms of getting prawn feed, prawn seeds, water, electricity etc.'

As we snaked our way along the myriad canals, embankments and bridges that form this vast farm, the local union leader spoke of their growing frustration at relying upon one company for everything in their life. As the economic crisis has affected the company, so has this in turn slowed the investment in the services that the farm workers and their families need to survive.

'Everything has slowed down and it has affected our household economy, money for our children to go to school. And the economy of the local community has not recovered. We sell our prawns at local price, and the company then sell them at export price. It means there is a big gap between our price and the company’s price...we think they don’t care too much about social problems, including public facilities, whether it is the mosque, road, school etc,' says Nafian Pais, head of the the shrimp farm union at the farm.

Environmental price

It’s not just the contracts that worry the community. What was once a healthy mangrove forest protecting coastal communities from storms surges and freak tsunamis, now resembles a patchwork of rudimentary worn-down flood defences and tree stumps, explains Tukiyat, a farmer who traces his finger across the breaking waves, pointing to where the forest used to be.

'In the past, the mangrove trees stretched around one kilometre from the ponds to the beach,' Tukiyat says. 'But now, only several metres are left. In some places there are no mangrove swamps at all. I think it’s a critical condition now. The company here hasn’t responded to the call to look after the mangrove swamp.'

A fair trade?

One particular source of anger is the huge differential between the price that the prawn farmers receive and what western consumers are prepared to pay for the end product. The Ecologist has learned that the contract farmers we spoke to are paid about £1.90 per kilo for the prawns they raise. By comparison, Indonesian prawns are sold on the UK high street for around ten times the price at £17-26 per kilo.

'When can we pay off our debts?' asked Agus, another shrimp farmer who agreed to act as our host for the night. 'We don’t know when we can do it! We’re used to be disappointed here, we don’t know where to channel our anger!'

Despite the social and environmental problems that have arisen from industrial prawn farms in southern Sumatra, with the passing of HP-3 these colossal contract farms look set to spread. Eager to cash in on foreign export earning, the Ecologist has learned that the Indonesian government plans to expand industrial prawn farming in coastal areas by over 700 000 hectares in the coming years.

Amidst the crowded coastlines and dwindling mangrove forests of Indonesia however, question marks remain over where this land will come from, and who really benefits, from the sale of Indonesia’s seas.

Jim Wickens is a journalist with the investigative agency Ecostorm and works with the Forest Peoples Programme

Useful links
Eco-Storm
Forest Peoples Programme

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