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Indonesia’s ex-fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti leaves big shoes to fill

  • Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s popular and highly regarded fisheries minister, has been replaced in the new cabinet unveiled by President Joko Widodo for his second and final term in office.
  • Maritime and fisheries observers have criticized the move to drop Susi, who has a proven track record in the sector, in favor of a transparently political appointee with only tangential exposure to fisheries.
  • The move signals a loosening of protections for coastal and marine ecosystems and fishing communities as the president seeks to ramp up investments and development projects, the observers warn.
  • Susi has called on her successor, Edhy Prabowo, to maintain the pace of reforms already achieved and to ensure the protection of the environment and coastal communities from extractive industries.

JAKARTA — Maritime experts have slammed the decision by Indonesia’s president to replace his experienced and internationally praised fisheries minister with a political appointee.

Susi Pudjiastuti, the country’s fisheries minister for the past five years, was one of the high-profile omissions from the new cabinet announced on Oct. 23 by President Joko Widodo as he starts his second and final term. Widodo instead named as the new minister Edhy Prabowo, the longtime right-hand man to Prabowo Subianto — Widodo’s rival in the last two elections.

That prompted a popular backlash on social media and spawned the trending hashtag #WeWantSusi. Ahmad Marthin Hadiwinata, the head of the legal department at the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen’s Union, said Edhy’s appointment was nothing less than a political transaction by Widodo.

“It proves that he no longer considers fisheries a top priority [for reform],” Marthin said.

Indonesia’s fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, on board the Viking fishing vessel prior to its destruction. Image by Gary Stokes/Sea Shepherd Global.

Widodo’s supporters have defended the president’s decision as part of efforts to create a unity government after a particularly divisive election campaign earlier this year. By embracing Prabowo, whom he also named to his cabinet as the new defense minister, Widodo is seen to be consolidating support in parliament for his agenda of massive deregulation and increased investment.

But critics say this single-minded focus on growth at all costs threatens to unravel already tenuous protections for the environment and for small-scale fishers, who contribute 80 percent of Indonesia’s fisheries output.

“It puts capital interests at top of the agenda, above the welfare of maritime communities,” Susan Herawati, the secretary-general of the NGO People’s Coalition for Justice in Fisheries, said in a statement.

Susan added that the government’s plan to establish several strategic economic and tourism zones would force the relocation of many coastal communities. “The government of Joko Widodo only sees the ocean, coasts and small islands as objects for investment — as objects for exploitation, even,” she said.

There have also been suggestions that Susi was not retained because of her frequent clashes with the coordinating minister for maritime affairs, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan. Luhut, Widodo’s closest aide in government and longtime business partner, was one of the highest-profile critics of Susi’s policy of sinking seized illegal foreign fishing boats, saying she should focus instead on increasing fish exports and redistributing the captured vessels to small-scale fishers.

Most recently, the pair fell out over the fate of Bali’s Benoa Bay, where the local government and residents have for years protested against a planned reclamation project that would raze the mangrove-rich ecosystem for a tourism development. Susi earlier this month issued a decree designating the bay as a maritime conservation zone, effectively nixing the development plan. But Luhut insisted soon after that the project could still continue despite the decree.

Luhut’s expanded role in the new cabinet overseeing investment flows into the country, including for projects with potentially damaging impacts on marine ecosystems and/or coastal communities, may have also been a factor in Widodo’s decision not to retain Susi, observers said.

Susi Pudjiastuti leads an Indonesian Coast Guard-assisted capture of an illegal fishing boat in the Natuna waters. Image courtesy of Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

Susi was arguably the most popular minister during Widodo’s first term in office. Within a month of her inauguration in 2014, she ordered the detonation of dozens of seized foreign fishing vessels. She said at the time that she wanted to send a clear message to the poachers who had for years been plundering Indonesia’s waters. Many foreign observers, particularly in other Southeast Asian countries from where many of the vessels originated, saw this “seize and sink” policy as “wrong” and “disturbing.” But domestically there was overwhelming support for Susi who insisted that it was about ensuring a sustainable fishery. By the end of 2018, her ministry, with help from the navy, had scuttled nearly 500 illegal fishing vessels.

Besides the show of force, Susi also issued two pieces of regulation in 2014: one imposed a moratorium on the issuance of fishing licenses for foreign vessels, while the other banned the mid-ocean transfer of fish catches between boats, known as transshipment.

In 2015, Susi banned the use of trawl and seine nets in a bid to protect coastal areas where many species of indigenous fish spawn. But this particular regulation drew fierce criticism from many fishers, particularly along the northern coast of Java who largely depended on these types of nets, known locally as cantrang. Three years later, Susi relented and gave the fishers of that region a grace period, and financial aid, to gradually switch to more sustainable fishing gear.

Susi’s policies to protect the ocean also included targeting the establishment of 200,000 square kilometers (77,200 square miles) of marine protected areas (MPAs) across the archipelago by 2020 (the ministry claimed to have achieved this by 2018). In 2017, Susi led Indonesia to become the first country to publish its proprietary Vessel Monitoring System data, which track the location and activities of commercial fishing boats, in a bid to improve transparency in the country’s fisheries sector.

She went even further and called for a global pushback against the practice of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which is estimated to cost countries $10 billion to $23.5 billion annually. Susi also planned to go after the owners of illegal fishing vessels under a new bill, which remains in parliament.

Susi’s tough, no-nonsense approach to tackle IUU fishing paid off, according to a study, with foreign fishing activity in Indonesia declining by more than 90 percent since 2014, while fish stocks reportedly surged to 12.5 million tons in 2017 from 7.3 million tons in 2013.

The minister was also keen to tackle Indonesia’s marine pollution problem; the country is the number two contributor to the plastic waste crisis in the oceans, after China. Susi campaigned for Indonesians to stop buying goods packaged in single-use plastics and also led beach cleanup events.

Susi Pudjiastuti and her successor, Edhy Prabowo, at a handover ceremony on Oct. 23 in Jakarta. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

The new fisheries minister, Edhy Prabowo, appears to have only tangential exposure to the industry. He was kicked out of the military for disciplinary reasons and taken under Prabowo’s wing. He went on to serve on the board of one of Prabowo’s paper companies, and from 2014 to 2019 sat in parliament as a member of the ex-general’s Gerindra party. There, he chaired the committee overseeing agriculture and fisheries affairs.

Observers have also called on him to use his new post to improve the welfare of fishers through programs such as access to life and health insurance for all fishers, establishing more marine protected areas, and tackling the marine plastic pollution problem in Indonesia.

In response, Edhy said he would continue to fight for traditional fishers and businesses in the marine and fisheries sector. He said the president had also tasked him with improving aquaculture fisheries.

Hours after the announcement of the new cabinet on Oct. 23, the fisheries ministry held an official handover ceremony from Susi to Edhy. The outgoing minister called on her successor to continue ensuring that Indonesia’s fisheries and maritime sector benefited Indonesians, including by maintaining the ban on foreign fishing vessels and foreign investment in the fisheries industry. Susi also asked Edhy to continue the phase-out of unsustainable fishing gear and techniques, to allow fish stocks to recover to sustainable levels.

Lastly, she asked Edhy to protect marine and coastal ecosystems from the extractive industries.

“Mining and the likes require huge capital, and not every Indonesian can afford that,” Susi said. “Fisheries are the source of our protein [and] a source of livelihood that’s still accessible for many people. That’s what I hope you will maintain.”

Susi Pudjiastuti aboard the U.S. Navy’s amphibious transport dock ship USS New Orleans. Image by Brandon Cyr/U.S. Navy via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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