The archipelagic country’s chief security minister, Luhut Pandjaitan, said the floating cages could stay as long as they followed environmental regulations.
The military and police had been deployed as part of an effort by the state to turn Lake Toba into a prominent tourism destination.
Vice president Jusuf Kalla is scheduled to visit the lake at the end of this week.
After an Indonesian district deployed the military and police to enforce a controversial program to dismantle fish farms in a Lake Toba village, chief security minister Luhut Pandjaitan said that not all fish farms need to be eradicated, but must simply follow environmental regulations.
“They are allowed, but the technology must be improved, the pollution monitored,” he said Monday on a visit to Pematangsiantar, a town surrounded by but not part of North Sumatra’s Simalungun district, where the cleanup was taking place.
His comments came after Simalungun head JR Saragih sent an estimated 600 soldiers and police officers last Wednesday to disassemble floating cages in Sualan, a village of 45 families on the banks of Lake Toba.
The villagers were initially told they had until Monday to get rid of all the cages. Of the initial 1,073 cages, 247 have been dismantled.
The troops returned every morning for four days to take down the nets, until the villagers requested that the government halt the project as the farmers were still growing fish in some cages. The farmers estimate that the losses could amount to 6 million rupiah ($456) for each cage.
“Please give us time so that the small fish can be grown and harvested. Then we can dismantle it ourselves,” said Nikson Butar-butar, a 46-year-old farmer.
Most Sualan residents have relied on growing tilapia in the makeshift nets as their only source of income for about two decades.
The villagers are requesting for the government to either extend the deadline until at least the end of November when the remaining fish can be sold, or provide them with compensation.
Unregulated floating cages have become an increasingly controversial issue on Toba, the world’s largest volcanic lake, with many residents claiming they pollute the water and reduce the lake’s aesthetic charm.
Worries were worsened when in May the village of Haranggaol, 60 kilometers north of Sualan, saw the mass death of millions of fish. The provincial fisheries agency pinned it down to a lack of dissolved oxygen in the water, but the incident amplified concerns about the fish farms in general.
The cleanup in Sualan was launched as part of the local government’s broader efforts to reduce pollution and develop tourism in Lake Toba — one of president Joko Widodo’s priorities for the region.
Sualan sits next to Parapat, a tourist town, and has thus been targeted for the cleanup.
On June 28, five of the seven districts on the lake agreed to completely eradicate the floating cages. Simalungun has not yet signed the agreement.
On Monday, Luhut said that floating cages do not need to be completely outlawed on the lake.
“They have to conform to laws regulating the environment,” he told reporters at a school in Pematangsiantar during his three-day visit to the region. “If they cannot comply, administrative actions will be determined.”
In the case of Sualan, however, he said the cleanup must continue in order to develop tourism in the area, though he supports a deadline extension for the fish farmers.
“We will give them an extension for them to clean it up themselves. But after that, we will not give them tolerance. In the end, how would tourists come if it smells, if there’s pollution?” he said.
Despite Luhut’s comments, Simalungun officials have not yet issued a formal, revised order on whether or when the remaining cages in Sualan will be taken down.
“We are still considering it,” Simalungun fisheries agency chief Pardomuan Sijabat said on Monday afternoon.
In the meantime, the government has pulled the military from the village, and the troops did not return on Sunday or Monday.
Nikson, the farmer, said the villagers welcomed the respite.
“We are just trying to tidy up and conduct normal activities with the remaining cages,” he said.