Between October and March each year, large flocks of wading birds visit the north coast of West Java. At dusk during these months, hunters from villages in Krangkeng district carry nets out into the rice fields and fishponds. The next morning, after a night's work, they return carrying bundles of trussed-up live water birds. At the Cimanis bridge on the Cirebon-Indramayu road, the hunters meet bird wholesalers and the birds change hands.
Bird hunting is an economic system for a community living in the Krangkeng area of West Java. In addition to bird hunters and wholesalers, there are processors who pluck the birds, as well as the cooks and vendors who staff street stalls selling fried water birds. Although the bird marketing extends as far as Jakarta, vendors mostly sell fried birds in the night markets of the nearby cities of Cirebon and Indramayu.
These wading birds are a small proportion of more than two million shorebirds, around 100 of the world's 200 water bird species, that fly between their breeding areas in North Asia (Siberia, China, Korea, Japan) and their non-breeding areas to the south (Australia, New Zealand).
Along the way, to obtain energy for their long flights, the birds visit Southeast Asian wetlands rich in foods such as shellfish and worms. Some 30% of these waders fail to arrive at their final destination. Apart from natural hazards such as storms, the birds face human related threats.
Many key sites that shorebirds use for resting and feeding are under threat from development projects. Moreover, local people living along the route hunt an estimated 0.5 to 1.5 million shorebirds each year, including several endangered species. In the Krangkeng area, in a stretch of coast 5-10 kilometres wide and 60 kilometres long, villagers catch close to 200,000 migratory and resident water birds each year.
The coastal villages of Krangkeng lie along a busy road serving the north coast of West Java. Here a flat coastal strip around one kilometre wide stretches from the rice paddies towards the sea. Once a belt of mangroves grew here, protecting the coast from the sea. However, following a boom in shrimp farming, the area has been converted into brackish water ponds and very little of the original vegetation remains. During the dry season salt water seeps into the wells, and fresh water has to be trucked into the villages. Due to poor irrigation works, during the wet season the area often floods, while during the dry season it is subject to drought.
Although nature in Krangkeng provides meagre resources, the main reason for poverty in the area is the lack of work for the landless and unemployed. Resourceful villagers work as seasonal labourers in the rice fields or fishponds, drive pedicabs, labour on construction sites, or move to other areas in search of work. Others have taken to bird hunting.
Local people stress that bird hunting is a very difficult and unreliable way to earn a living. Hunters have to stay by their nets all night in rice fields and fishponds. Often they are soaked by the rain, while sometimes they return home without catching a single bird.
Hunting is only a seasonal activity. Even in peak season, hunting is impossible around the full moon, so that villagers can hunt perhaps only 22 nights each month. Most hunters say that they hunt only in bad seasons, when there are no other sources of income. Yet this is still a major source of income for many people.
In Krangkeng, local people have hunted birds since before 1945, the year Indonesia declared independence. The first written records begin only in 1979. At that time, an Indonesian researcher estimated that local people caught 1 million birds each year.
During a later more systematic survey, two researchers estimated that hunters were catching around 300,000 water birds. As the hunting threatened the viability of populations of migratory water bird species flying across East Asia, the Indonesian Directorate General for Nature Conservation (PHPA), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Asian Wetland Bureau (AWB - now Wetlands International) began to investigate the trade with the long term aim of finding a solution to the problem.
In 1990, a larger joint Indonesian-Australian team carried out a detailed study, concluding that hunting placed an unsustainable pressure on many species. Marketplace surveys over a few months revealed catches of 12,000 water birds from 30 species, including 90 milky storks (Mycterisa cinerea). This resident water bird is a threatened species with a world population of about 5,000 birds. The researchers also found that hunting culled about 20% of the world population of one particular species, the oriental pratincole (Glarerola maldivarum).
Later, with funding from AusAID and the support of the Royal Australian Ornithological Union and the Australasian Wader Study Group, Rusila, an Indonesian ornithologist working with AWB, commissioned further work.
A survey from 1992 showed that on average a hunter working locally catches 53 birds each week. These birds fetch prices of only Rp 200 - 1,800 (US$0.10 - 0.90 at the time). This meant that in one year each hunter earned only around US$75 from the trade. According to estimates, this makes up 44% of the family income of hunters. If these figures are accurate, then an average bird hunter lives on a yearly income of only about US$200.
On average, hunters working outside the Krangkeng area caught many more birds: up to 128 birds per week. As bird numbers fell locally, the number of hunters working outside the area increased. Bird hunters moved west to Jakarta and Merak, east to Tegal and Semarang (Central Java), south to Cilacap (south coast of Central Java), and to Lampung in Sumatra. Survey teams even found Krangkeng bird hunters as far north as Jambi and Riau in East Sumatra. A local informant told of hunters borrowing money from local wholesalers to support hunting activities elsewhere. Later hunters return, disembarking from buses with bundles of live birds or with dead birds packed in ice.
However, the number of hunters fluctuated widely. At times, in addition to those who hunt regularly, many others took up bird hunting to support their families. In 1990, a severe drought pushed many people into bird hunting, as occurred again in 1993, when the harvest failed twice. Bird hunting is also an occupation passed on from fathers to sons. As the population grows, the number of bird hunters has grown.
From a national or an international perspective, bird hunting in Krangkeng degrades valuable components of the world's biodiversity - the common heritage of all humankind. But from the local perspective, migratory water birds are an 'open access' resource: all people have the right to catch migratory water birds, for, until a bird is caught, it belongs to everyone (or no-one). Poor villagers are affronted by the thought that some people and organisation would care more about the migratory birds than they would about the impoverished villagers. Hunting of water birds in Krangkeng shows the wide gulf between the conservation values most often associated with the West and the survival needs of the poor.
Bird hunting presents a difficult problem. There are no incentives for sustainable hunting. Given the pressing need of hunters to feed their families, the short term self-interest of every hunter is to catch as many birds as possible.
In the future, when bird harvesting has become a hopeless option, they will of necessity find other opportunities. As no individual hunter directly meets the cost of the declining bird numbers, that cost is shifted onto the wider world. In this respect a bird hunter is like a polluter who, by dumping toxic effluent into a river, shifts the costs of their activity onto a wider community.
However, unlike some areas of Indonesia, here there are no traditional adat institutions controlling who can hunt and how much they can take. In other places, over time traditional communities have developed systems to ensure that each person gets a share without depleting the resource. In Krangkeng, given the huge area involved and the flexible nature of the trade, developing such institutions would be very difficult.
With AusAID funding, PHPA and AWB started to educate people about the protected status of several water bird species. Soon after, this work scored an early success: villagers ceased hunting the milky stork. Then, in 1992, following attention in the national press, the forestry department carried out a raid on local bird hunters. This struck fear into the impoverished hunters and threatened local cooperation with the project. Unless local people had an alternative livelihood, law enforcement would only further marginalise poor people without solving the underlying problem, which was the ability of local people to earn an adequate living.
Outsiders can not impose a solution. The villagers need to develop solutions in keeping with their own abilities. Given the deep seated community problems in the Krangkeng area, such an outcome will only emerge over several years. To this end, in 1993, Bina Desa, a national non-government organisation experienced in working with marginal groups, placed two community workers in the area. However, following the environmental education program and the first stage of community mobilisation, the process slowed further when the project was suspended in 1994 due to lack of funds.
Later, with the support of Wetlands International, a group of teachers were able to continue environmental education. But there is a lingering need to tackle the more difficult problem: relieving local poverty and finding alternatives to hunting water birds. Without sufficient funding and institutional support, participatory approaches that try to link community development and conservation face formidable challenges. However, what other choice do we have?
John McCarthy works at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia. Extracted from an article in the Journal of Environment and Development vol 5, no 1.