- The giant lake has struggled with pollution as fish farming and other activities have spread in the region.
- President Joko Widodo has announced plans to clean up Lake Toba and turn it into a prominent tourist destination.
- Now, farmers in Simalungun, a district in the lake region, are told they have until Monday to get rid of their floating cages.
- The anxious farmers want the government to either extend the deadline or compensate them for their losses.
From the shore, the fish farmers looked on as soldiers dismantled their floating cages. These community-owned tilapia farms had been the main source of income in Sualan — a village of 45 families on Lake Toba, in North Sumatra’s Simalungun district — for about two decades.
On July 14, district officials visited the village to announce that the cages needed to be “cleaned up,” as part of a broader effort to reduce pollution in the giant lake and develop the region’s tourism industry.
On Thursday, Simalungun head JR Saragih sent an estimated 600 members of the military and police to disassemble the cages. The troops have been back every morning, working through the afternoon to take down the nets.
The villagers are told they have until Monday to get rid of all the cages. Of the initial 1,073 cages, 247 have been dismantled.
“We weren’t given time,” said Nikson Butar-butar, a 46-year-old farmer who owns 10 cages. “We are still growing the fish. Where are they supposed to go?”
The unregulated proliferation of fish farms has become one of Lake Toba’s most controversial problems. What started as small-scale, local farming has sprawled into vast networks of cages lining the 1,130-square-kilometer (436 square miles) lake. Two major companies, PT Aquafarm Nusantara and PT Suri Tani Pemuka, also operate fish farms in the area. Much of what the firms produce is exported, including to the U.S.
“The reality is that it needs to be regulated,” said Mixnon Andreas Simamora, head of the Simalungun Regional Development Planning Agency (Bappeda).
Surrounded by picturesque hills, the lake — Indonesia’s largest — was once a thriving tourist destination. The unsightly fish cages have been blamed as one source of the decline.
Additionally, fish feed are thought to contribute to pollution, according to Karliansyah, the environment and forestry ministry’s director of pollution and environmental degradation.
“The fish has overpopulated. If this is over [the limit], the feed is also over [the limit]. Both can produce phosphor effluent,” he said at a meeting in Jakarta on Monday. Excessive and untreated feed waste is among the suspects of a mass fish death last May in Haranggaol, 60 kilometers north of Sualan.
Touting it as both an anti-pollution and pro-tourism measure, on June 28, five of the seven regencies that border the lake agreed to completely eradicate the floating cages, known as the “Zero KJA” campaign (keramba jaring apung means “floating cages” in Indonesian). Simalungun has not yet signed the agreement.
As such, the order to completely tear down the cages came as a surprise to the farmers in Sualan. Villagers said that government officials explained the order was prompted by upcoming visits from the president and vice president.
“They said that this needs to be cleaned up because of [vice president] Jusuf Kalla and the president’s visits,” said Nikson. Kalla is planning to come on Friday next week, and president Joko Widodo is set to visit the lake in August.
Mixnon, the Bappeda head, denied that was the reason, and said the deadline was merely “the result of a meeting.”
The villagers in Sualan are demanding two options: either the deadline be extended until the end of November when the remaining fish can be harvested, or the government provide compensation for the lost value.
“The small fish, compensate them if we must really clear the cages. If not, then give us an extension,” said Koden Siadari, 43. He estimated that each cage, which contains an average of 10,000 fish, is worth 6 million rupiah ($460).
Despite their pleas, Mixnon said the deadline remains.
“The regulation will benefit the people,” he said.