Just Below the Surface. «Dadong»

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A close neighbor of both Mama and Saleh, MuLammadong, better known as “Dadong,” started fishing full time around 1985 when he was in his mid teens. Unlike his neighbors, Dadong never fishes with spear guns nor gathers other sea products like trepang.Rather, he relies almost exclusively on the commonly used weighted hand lines of monofilament wound onto homemade wooden spools. Like others, when setting out in his boat to fish the reefs, Dadong first trolls for baitfish with homemade aluminum lures while heading for favorite spots, usually next to a patch of corals where specific species of fish are known to congregate during certain seasons. If the fishing looks promising, the anchor is dropped onto the sandy bottom and the boat is allowed to drift over the corals. Often, boats will join one or two others from the village, fishing near one another for a time and even sharing bait. If the fish are not biting, the boats will, one by one, move on to other areas. While others like Saleh and Mama’ prefer to fish for anywhere from several hours to up to three days at a time, depending on their fishing success, Dadong often goes fishing for up to three weeks before returning home. On these occasions, Dadong sells fresh fish to villagers on another island and dries the rest for subsequent sale to an agent after returning home; the agent then carries the fish to Makassar for resale. Others, like Saleh, prefer to carry their own baskets of dried fish into port aboard local trading ships, cutting out the middleman and realizing higher profits. While at their peaks the east and west monsoons bring high wind and waves, Dadong will set out any time of year when the weather is good. When he first started fishing in the mid-1980s, fishermen usually needed only to travel to the edges of nearby reefs in dugouts powered by paddle and sail to secure large catches. However, with the growing use of destructive practices by outsiders since the early 1990s, those fish stocks have been rapidly depleted, forcing Dadong and others to travel farther and farther across the Sabalanas in diesel powered joloro’ to ply their trade. Where once it took a dugout up to twenty four hours to travel across the Sabalanas to reach the island of Saregé, 30 nautical miles from Balobaloang, Dadong can get there in just four hours in his joloro’. With the reduction in travel time came much larger catches per trip, and while fuel prices have risen dramatically in recent years, so has the price of fish. So, until the use of blast fishing and cyanide poisoning became a common occurrence and spread to the far reaches of the Sabalanas, Dadong and others were, for a while, still realizing reasonable profits. Still, they understood that blast and cyanide fishing were driving them further and further from the island and that the entire fishery was rapidly being destroyed.4 Why, I wondered, in the face of this wanton destruction of their precious resource, hadn’t the people of Balobaloang stood up against the blast and cyanide fishermen? Over several months of interviews and participation with them onboard their boats, local fishermen gradually revealed the history of their attempts to halt the destruction and the extensiveness of the corruption that blocked change. The first thing I learned in 2003, after I had begun my research project of fishing, was that the majority of blast fishermen in the area came from nearby Sumanga’ Island, while fleets of cyaniders traveled nearly 100 nautical miles to fish the Sabalanas from their home island of Lai Lai, just off of the coast of Makassar. While these were different operations run by separate bosses in Makassar, the cyaniders parked their boats at Sumanga’ and got fresh water there.

This relationship had evolved because while both bosses paid protection money to the village head living on Balobaloang, shares were distributed to the local leader on Sumanga’ as well as the resident police and military officers. While only a decade earlier they had resided on the main island of Balobaloang, both now chose to reside on Sumanga’, out of sight of the residents of Balobaloang, who had made it clear that they were opposed to the practice and wanted it to stop. Initially, Dadong and others had hoped that, as in the past, the police would enforce the law if they had the evidence presented to them. Thus, a few years earlier Dadong boldly stole cyanide from the boat of one of the offenders and took it to the police as evidence, hoping they would lock up the illegal fishermen. Instead, due to endemic corruption among government officials, Dadong was threatened with arrest for possession of an illegal substance. Reluctantly, he dropped his case and returned to Balobaloang to fish rather than face possible prison time himself. About a month after Dadong told me this, a boat carrying ice and a crew from Sumanga’ detonated a bomb just a few hundred yards offshore from our house, not far from a spot where villages had recently begun a small reef rehabilitation project.5 This had been the first bombing in a while in the area. A few people sat on the beach and watched, and a couple of dugouts from Balobaloang went out to share in the spoils by gathering fish that were floating dead on the surface. I had a hard time understanding this, wondering again why villagers just looked on without protest and even took advantage of the situation. Later, in an interview discussion with one of the local fishermen, I was told that as far as the bombers from Sumanga’ were concerned, all one has to do is paddle out and ask them to not come so close to the island. This is what he and others had done on the south side: they explained that previous bombs had shaken and cracked the concrete walls and tall minaret of the village mosque, and the bombers agreed to stay away. As fellow Muslims, they consider the mosque a sacred place and one that cost the villagers large sums of money to build and maintain. As for the larger question of why they didn’t impede blast and cyanide fishers from elsewhere, I was told that several years earlier, men from Balobaloang had boarded a boat from Lai Lai whose crew were fishing with cyanide and told them to leave the area. The captain agreed but went back on his word and simply continued sending out divers with cyanide. Angered by this, the villagers reboarded the boat and towed it to the adjacent island of Sabaru, where they discharged the crew and burned it. When the rest of the fleet returned to Lai Lai with their story, the pongawa was outraged that the authorities on Balobaloang and Sumanga’, whom he had paid off, hadn’t prevented this act of aggression. In retaliation, he sent word to the captains of the trading ships from Balobaloang, who were loading cargos in the harbor at Makassar, that should they try to leave the harbor, he would burn and sink their ships. Pragmatically, it makes sense that the value of a large ship laden with valuable cargo is many times that of a simple fishing boat, and that the act of destroying a cargo ship would immediately deprive the families of the owner and crew of their livelihoods. Seen another way, a ship owner had far greater political and economic power than the owner/operator of a small fishing boat. However, when the captains of the cargo ships went to the police, they said that there was nothing they could do; their superiors were already on the payroll of the pongawa. Thus, after several days of negotiations, the pongawa “forgave” the villagers on the promise that the ship owners and village leaders would never again allow the villagers to interfere with his operation. By now, I was identifying with the fishermen who had been blocked at every turn from saving the reef and their livelihoods, not to mention that a major source of nutrition for all the villagers was being depleted. With the help of colleagues in the city, I met with an officer in the maritime police who appeared to be incorruptible and who had already led several sting operations against illegal fishing operations. As zealous as he was in his desire to end destructive fishing in South Sulawesi, he simply lack the money he needed to launch more than two or three raids per year. And, even with these sting operations, perpetrators and their boats had been released from custody by local judges who were in the pockets of the bosses. He did, however, manage to carry out one operation, capturing the mother ship with a cargo of live grouper from the Sabalanas to Makassar. Covered on television news and in local newspapers, this event delighted the villagers with whom I spoke, but, understandably, did not overcome their lack of trust in the system. What it did accomplish was to rid the area of cyanide fishers for several weeks. Soon after this, Amelia Hapsari, a graduate student and videographer from Ohio University, came to Balobaloang to produce a participatory video with the villagers.6 Hapsari, a native of the city of Semarang on the island of Java, had never been to such a remote part of her own country, and, as an urban, middle-class ethnic Chinese, had to work hard to develop rapport with the relatively ethnocentric and class-conscious Bugis villagers. Inspired by the work of Paulo Freire, an influential Brazilian educator and philosopher, Hapsari believed that if oppressed people were provided the opportunity to tell their own story, they could start the process of becoming liberated from their oppression.She was determined, therefore, to involve villagers in every major decision regarding the video, starting with the subject matter. This did not take long; after the second open meeting, it was clear that the fishermen and even several ship owners who were not allied with the village head wanted her to document the lives of the fishermen and the destructive fishing practices that were increasingly making life harder for everyone on the island. By her shear dedication and risk-taking (she even traveled aboard a local fishing boat on a choppy sea to film a blast fishing operation and interview the fishermen aboard their boat while the fish were being loaded on board), Hapsari was soon able to gain the trust of many villagers. In the process, we learned about yet another obstacle to resolving the problem. Standing opposed to the “individualism” that Americans, in particular, take for granted as “human nature,” most Indonesians have traditionally placed greater value on social “harmony” (Geertz 1961; Mulder 1996; Tobing 1961). This, in itself, is a complex idea and one that expresses itself in a variety of ways. In this case, we were immediately warned against inviting villagers to “go public” by discussing the problem of illegal fishing on a film that would later be viewed and commented upon by other villagers. By doing so, we risked upsetting the social harmony of the village and the complex web of social relationships upon which villagers rely to ensure that, no matter what, their material and social needs are met. Operating together with “patron– client” relationships, this meant, for example, that a fisherman who needed a loan to repair or buy a new boat or engine could go to a ship owner with the understanding that should the ship owner subsequently require help, he could rely on the fisherman and his family to provide it. For example, if the ship owner eventually needed assistance with a wedding celebration for his child, he could rely upon the fisherman and his kin to provide fish, help build the wedding stage, and prepare the food for the guests. Because almost everyone in the village was related to one another either by blood or marriage, and many had relatives scattered across the Sabalanas, including on the island of Sumanga’, openly criticizing or accusing any particular individual patron could tear at the very social fabric that held the small society together. Hapsari and I saw this ethic of reciprocity or “sharing” manifesting itself in many ways among the fishermen themselves. For example, aboard local fishing boats, if the captain caught many fish while someone else caught few or none, the captain always shared part of his catch with the other fisherman. If, however, the accompanying fisherman had a particularly good day, he would share his catch with the captain to help defray the cost of fuel. Less benign than this, when blast fishers came close to Balobaloang, they always shared some of their catch with village fishermen, thus obligating them to put up with the destruction they were causing. And, on a larger scale, the village head could claim that if it were not for the bribes that he and other officials accepted from the bosses, he would have to raise revenue to build and maintain infrastructure—or to simply float a fisherman a needed loan—through taxation of the catches of the village fishermen. It is all the more surprising, then, that in spite of this ethic, people did speak out, asking Hapsari to take the video to the mainland to show it to the authorities, believing that once they had the evidence, the authorities would feel compelled to intervene. Even after she had done so and had shown them footage of the noncommittal responses of the authorities, many villagers were pleased that their voices had finally been heard. When I returned to Balobaloang in 2006, the rapidly escalating cost of fuel, coupled with the reduced fish stocks, had forced at least one fisherman to take his family and move to an island further south where, it was said, laws were enforced and fish were more plentiful. By now only seven full-time fishermen remained in the village, but they and other villagers were happy to see an edited version of Hapsari’s video. Still hopeful that it might force the government to act, they asked that it be broadcast on national television. I promised them that I would convey their message to Hapsari. However, when Hapsari, herself, returned to the village a few months later to gather footage for the final cut of the video, she felt the full brunt of the ethic of harmony and sharing when none of the fishermen who had earlier spoken out on film allowed her to film follow-up interviews. Off camera, Dadong said that he could no longer participate in the project because he was afraid the village head would see him as a pagar makan tanaman or “fence eating the crops” (someone who is insincere, taking [from] both sides), saying on camera that the leaders were receiving bribes from the pongawa but then going to the village head to ask for money. He affirmed, however, that he and others like him who had little capital and wanted to remain independent would neither join the blast or cyanide operations and become bound by debt to the pongawa, nor would they buy larger trading ships and take on the responsibility, as patrons, of guaranteeing the livelihoods of crew members and their families. He said that he and others had to decide carefully when and where to fish so as to not waste expensive fuel. Finally, he said he would continue to fish and, perhaps, explore other technologies such as mariculture (raising fish in enclosures in the ocean), and he believed he could remain an independent fisherman through ingenuity and hard work. Across Indonesia—indeed, around the world—people and communities are facing grave and complex challenges to their lives and livelihoods. Whether we obtain our food by foraging on land or at sea, farming, and/or buying it in a shop or supermarket, in our daily choices each of us helps to collectively transform our environment at an ever-accelerating rate. These transformations, in turn, both limit and create future opportunities for procuring sustainable livelihoods. For the people of Balobaloang, the choices seem rather limited at this point. As much as many of the residents would like to create a just and sustainable fishery, choices made by more powerful government officials have continually frustrated local efforts at resolving the growing environmental crisis facing them and their neighboring islanders. Traditional values of harmony and sharing help bind this community together, while global capitalism assumes that economic progress is the result of individual competition in a free market. With increasing demand for seafood in regional and world markets and lack of enforced regulations, fisheries like those surrounding Balobaloang are rapidly being depleted and even destroyed. In the meantime, stories like these are increasingly focusing international attention upon the need to foster sustainable fisheries and curtail the destruction of coral reefs worldwide. In Indonesia as elsewhere, this increased attention is forcing governments to respond with new regulations and development projects. However, even if fisheries can be saved and, over time, restored, questions remain as to whether people like Dadong, Saleh, and Mama’ will be able to continue to rely on fishing as a sustainable source of livelihood for themselves and their families and as a source of sustenance for their neighbors.

 

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