‘Mother Widow’

The outboard motor thrums as the boat makes gentle progress along one of 19 tributaries of the Nibung.

“We’ll go to the Mak Janda River first,” says Riyansyah, Planet Indonesia’s fisheries lead.

The Mak Janda tributary is named for a woman who lived along the river. Years ago, after her husband died, she stayed on for a while before moving to be nearer other people. Fishermen then converted her house into a base to fish. They named the river Mak Janda, or “Mother Widow.”

Here in West Kalimantan, one of 34 provinces in the world’s largest archipelagic nation, mangrove forests occupy approximately 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) and are home to around three-quarters of all Indonesian mangrove species.

Mangrove cover remains fairly thick in Kubu Raya, the coastal district south of the provincial capital, Pontianak, where you find the Nibung River. But the distinctive trees with their above-water breathing roots have faced sustained pressure in Sungai Nibung due to settlement building and demand for firewood. In other nearby villages, mangrove dieback has proved extensive. Anecdotal reports indicate fishermen there are struggling.

A scientist from the Center for International Forestry Research traverses a mangrove swamp elsewhere in Kubu Raya. Mangroves are among the most carbon-rich forests in the tropics. Image courtesy of CIFOR.

The recovery in Sungai Nibung isn’t happening entirely in isolation in Indonesia. In Kaimana district, for example, on the southern coast of West Papua province, a community employs similar temporary closures to protect sea cucumbers. At the national level, policy is driven by Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s colorful fisheries minister, who courts headlines with a popular set piece: blowing up seized illegal foreign fishing vessels in front of journalists.

In 2016 the ministry issued a regulation requiring local governments to draw up local fisheries management plans and embark on collecting data recording fish stocks. The regulation requires these fisheries plans to “guarantee sustainability.”

In 2017 the Sungai Nibung village government began closing tributaries to any extractive practices. The closure was decided after consultation with the village’s natural resources co-op, the forest management office, fishermen and Planet Indonesia. The local government established patrol teams to monitor and enforce the moratorium. On one occasion, a patrol arrested someone from a nearby village, but decided to let them go without sanction.

“Maybe they didn’t know,” says Planet Indonesia’s Riyansyah. “But now they do know about the open-close system, the news should spread.”

“Larangan” means “forbidden” in Indonesian. The sign hangs above a river in Sungai Nibung. Image by Aseanty Pahlevi for Mongabay.

The first period saw closures from October-December 2017. The second phase shuttered the rivers from April-July 2018.

The result was not only a jump in overall catch volume, but also a reported increase in the weight of individual crabs caught. Crabs weighing 1.4 kilograms (3.1 pounds) were pulled from rivers, fishermen said.

Planet Indonesia surveys indicate the average income of fishermen after the first moratorium increased by 55 percent. By the end of the second phase in July last year, incomes had soared by 70 percent compared with the pre-moratorium baseline.

A chart shows the peak of the crab harvest is from December to February. Image by Aseanty Pahlevi for Mongabay.

Along the banks of the Mak Janda, the mangroves are mostly dense and rise to around head height. People know that if the mangroves are cut, the crabs, fish and shrimp will die out.

“Since this was applied there are more crabs,” Jamalludin, head of the natural resources co-op in Sungai Nibung, tells Mongabay. “After we closed for the second time [in July 2018] it turned out to be a great success.

“I would guess the catch increased by 50 percent,” he says.

Root and branch reforms

Stakeholders here say education is another important driver of the change.

“Illiteracy is quite high, not because people can’t pay tuition fees,” Neneng, the head of the local middle school, tells Mongabay. “It’s because once people start earning a bit of money they forget about going to school.”

Planet Indonesia is working to address the complexity of interdependent factors at issue. “We have several programs, such as business development, financial education and literacy,” says the NGO’s Miftah.

During a visit in February, Mongabay saw Planet Indonesia distributing literacy certificates to people who had recently finished a course. Muhammad Tahir, who owns a food stall in Sungai Nibung, is among those who signed up to the NGO’s literacy program.

“I wasn’t really thinking about school before,” Tahir, who finished some high school, tells Mongabay. “Money came first.”

Back then the rivers were teeming with fish, and Tahir could come home with tens of kilos of catch. He remembers watching recent arrivals to the area in the 1980s bathing in the river and yelping after being snagged by large crabs. Then the catches became thinner over time.

But the temporary closure means the crabs, fish and shrimp are back in numbers. Tahir says he’s recently had to start watching his step in the river, in case he gets nipped by a crab.

For Neneng, who has spent a decade teaching on the Nibung, literacy is a prerequisite if people are to grasp the layered challenges of conservation. “If you can read and write,” she says, “then you can understand environmental protection.”

Toward a new economy in Sungai Nibung

After the legwork to replenish fisheries stocks, Sungai Nibung’s leaders are now working to maximize the benefits accrued to the people. The village plans to form different village-owned companies, known as BUMDes, to manage local assets and sell crab and fish stocks.

Planet Indonesia is helping the village as the community identifies how to boost its bottom line while fishing less frequently. The village government is also considering establishing an ecotourism BUMDes to bring in visitors.

Adam Miller, the founder of Planet Indonesia, tells Mongabay that the NGO wants to integrate these new village companies with special regional funds, known as PUMK, through which people can pool savings. Tahir says these funds can be drawn on when boats need repairing, or if fishermen need to buy new rope for nets.

When I left Sungai Nibung, the local government was discussing building new businesses to maximize value by processing the catch into products such as fish crackers and processed crab meat.

“They choose the type of business,” Miller tells Mongabay. “We can help them build the market.”

Parallax images courtesy of Planet Indonesia.

This story was reported in part by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on March 11, 2019.

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