- Many among Indonesia’s Duano Indigenous community have hung up their fishing nets in response to recent environmental and economic shifts.
- A study published in October found that intact mangroves were associated with up to a 28% increase in fish and shellfish consumption among coastal communities.
- Duano elders say young people from the community are increasingly retiring from the community’s traditional livelihood to take up poorly paid casual work.
INDRAGIRI HILIR, Indonesia — For generations, the seafaring Duano Indigenous community in Indonesia’s Riau province has relied on paddles and basic nets for their livelihood, launching small boats into healthy fishing grounds off the eastern coast of Sumatra.
In the past, a single Duano canoeist could haul 80 kilograms (176 pounds) of fish to shore every day, explained Samsuri, a fish trader who belongs to one of 33 families of the Duano community here in Kuala Selat village.
On a recent fishing expedition, he said, what remains of Kuala Selat’s artisanal fleet managed to collect only 60 kilograms (132 pounds) between them.
“Today we can’t be sure; it’s unpredictable,” Samsuri said as a few fishers arrived at his home with plastic boxes of fresh fish. “It keeps on going down.”
Years of environmental stress compounded by inflationary pressures mean this traditional way of life survives among just a handful of Duano families today. Few hold much hope it can continue for much longer.
Instead, many here now rely on poorly paid day labor to make ends meet. Young people are increasingly crewing long shifts at sea on larger fishing vessels or taking casual work hauling aggregates on land.
Like many here in Kuala Selat, Samsuri links the deterioration of the community’s economic position with the dearth of mangroves separating the land from sea.
The world’s largest archipelago country accounts for more mangrove forests than anywhere else, with around 3.5 million hectares (8.6 million acres) of mangrove species fringing coastlines and lining river basins.
These mangroves sequester more carbon in their biomass and soil than Indonesia’s upland forests, placing additional importance on the trees in restricting carbon emissions.
But for people on the shoreline here, and in countless other coastal communities around Indonesia, the trees also confer important practical benefits here and now — from nutrition to protection against extreme weather.
A regression analysis of more than 100,000 Indonesian households published in The Lancet Planetary Health in October concluded that intact mangroves were associated with up to a 28% increase in the amount of fish and other aquatic animals consumed, equivalent to around 134 grams (4.7 ounces) in additional fish consumption.
“The results on the national level regression show quite a large effect of mangroves on fresh fish consumption overall in Indonesia,” the authors concluded.
The elected leader of Kuala Selat, a 55-year-old fisher named Bujang, recounted the first time he fled after a storm surge razed his village in 1989.
Since then, Bujang and others from Kuala Selat have watched powerless on two subsequent occasions as king tides, wind swell and northerly gales wrecked their homes.
Many blame the removal of the shoreline’s mangrove trees, which act as a defensive line against rushing seas and coastal erosion. Mangroves attenuate the force of waves, while their root systems reinforce soils and support buildup of sediment, which restricts erosion of the shoreline.
Analysis of public satellite imagery shows the coastline has retreated by more than 400 meters (1,310 feet) since around 2008.
Keti, a Duano community elder, worried that coastal erosion and loss of the mangrove defense meant families would be exposed to any storm surge in the future.
“If the mangroves are gone, these houses will also go,” the 63-year-old told Mongabay Indonesia. “The fact is, the mangroves were fortification for our homes — there is no defense anymore.”
Indonesia’s environment ministry considers around one-third of Riau’s 482,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of mangrove estate to be degraded. That reflects decades of conversion that peaked in Indonesia in the 2000s as mangrove trees were uprooted for aquaculture and plantation production as well as smaller community industries like charcoal.
Communities living on peatlands also often rely on mangrove branches to secure foundations in the construction of homes.
Duano elder Keti recalled better times when the mangroves remained intact and the community’s fishery thrived.
“In the past, when there were still mangroves, you could get up to a ton of shrimp and fish — the shrimp were everywhere,” Keti said. “Now that is long gone.”
Many young people here have taken work shinning up coconut palms for around 30,000 rupiah (about $2) per ton of coconuts collected. Others find work trucking aggregates to construction sites, or take long shifts on larger vessels, which have greater economy of scale and the ability to reach more distant fisheries off-limits to the Duano.
“If the wind is strong, then you join someone in a big boat. If you use your own canoe, you have to paddle — how do you get to Tanjung Datuk?” he said, referring to an island more than 50 kilometers (32 miles) offshore from Kuala Selat.
Duano fishers like Yanto go to sea for 15 days a month for around 1 million rupiah (about $65). Madi, another resident of Kuala Selat, tried to make a life as a crew member on larger vessels but found the conditions stifling and the pay insufficient to feed his family.
“Enough of being a fishing crew,” Madi said. “Have your own enterprise and you’re not forced to work when you’re sick.”
In 2020, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, expanded the remit of the agency he established in 2015 to restore 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of peatland following the country’s catastrophic wildfire season that year. That shift meant the Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency became responsible for breathing life into 600,000 hectares (1.48 million acres) of mangroves by 2024.
Tengku Fauzan Tambusai, who runs Riau’s fisheries department, said the provincial government has a formal program to rehabilitate mangrove areas in Indragiri Hilir district. This year, seedlings were planted in Sapat, a village in Kuala Indragiri and Mandah subdistricts.
The integrity of coastal forests will only become more vital to health and well-being as sea levels rise and become more acidic, placing further pressure on fish stocks and the communities who rely on them.
“The Duano do not have a farming culture,” said Zainal Arifin Hussein, a lecturer at Indragiri Hilir Islamic University. “They don’t think about having a farm; what they think is that the mangroves must be maintained.”
For communities like Riau’s Indigenous Duano people, success in reforesting Indonesia’s shorelines has implications spanning childhood nutrition to the safety of their homes.
“If not,” said Parid Ridwanuddin, national coastal and marine campaign manager at Walhi, an Indonesian environmental NGO, “traditional fishers are at risk of becoming climate refugees.”
Banner image: The Kuala Selat coast after being hit three times by tsunami waves. Houses are hit by sea waves and sometimes submerged when high tide comes, and the lives of fishermen are getting worse. Image by Tonggo Simangunsong.
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