Feb 03, 2023 Last Updated 3:56 AM, Jan 31, 2023

Losing the battle

Published: Jul 26, 2007


Jayne Curnow

Will customary marine tenure and resource management become a casualty of modernity and globalisation? In Maluku local institutions have a long history of adapting to changing demands for particular resources, along with environmental and political change. However, unprecedented development in the last twenty years has seen fishing technology, particularly capital investment in boats and trawl nets, increase beyond the control of local power structures.

It is not clear how customary resource management will adapt to these new conditions. Local communities are concerned that at current levels of exploitation there will not be much of a resource left to manage.

Maluku has the highest annual per capita consumption of fish in Indonesia. Fish is consumed by 98 per cent of households. Depletion of marine resources has obvious repercussions for daily subsistence and health. Less tangible and obvious will be the demise of local cosmological beliefs relating to marine species that are under threat.

Creation myths

On Haruku Island in Central Maluku a myth is told about the crocodiles of Seram who asked a pregnant crocodile from Haruku to help them kill a snake. The Haruku crocodile went to their aid and helped defeat the snake. As a gift the crocodiles of Seram gave the Haruku crocodile three types of fish to feed its baby. On the return journey the baby crocodile left lompa, make, and parang-parang fish along the coast.

Apart from explaining the abundance of these fish at different locations, the full version of this myth articulates identities and relationships within communities, and between communities and the environment. It sets a precedent of exchange between the people of Haruku and Seram, and geographically locates and explains the presence of marine animals, which is codified in traditional law.

Under decentralisation, economic growth is a priority in Indonesia’s poorer provinces, including Maluku. This can lead to a disparaging of customary institutions and management practices as old fashioned, backward, and a hindrance to economic development. Adat or customaryinstitutions such as pertuanan and sasi (see box) are easily marginalised in the name of development, or devalued by those who value a more modern lifestyle and knowledge base.

Commercial fishing

Medium and large scale commercial fishing operators from other Indonesian islands, the majority of whom come from southern Sulawesi, arrive in larger boats that have the capacity to harvest large amounts of fish, prawns and other saleable items. Coastal people in Maluku are predominately inshore, small scale fishers. While they can attempt to evict larger (sometimes foreign) boats, reporting their presence to local authorities does little more than record the event, because long distances hamper response times.

Prawn trawlers in particular damage marine habitats and net large amounts of by-catch. Foreign vessels are also able fish the waters of Maluku often unchallenged. Neither the people of Maluku nor the Indonesian navy, charged with patrolling Indonesian waters, has the capacity to monitor this vast area of sea or challenge these illegal fishing operations.

The Indonesian government must govern the land and sea for the benefit of all Indonesians. As in many other countries, there is tension between local customary practices and the demands of the larger scale nation-state. Something is always lost in translation. Or will customary marine tenure and resource management again adapt to these outside forces?

Jayne Curnow (jayne@coombs.anu.edu.au) is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 80: Oct - Dec 2004

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