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Small-island fishers petition Indonesian president to end coastal dredging

Fishers in Rupat Island of Indonesia's Riau province are opposing sand mining operations to protect their livelihoods and marine ecosystem. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • Fishers on a small island off Indonesia’s Sumatra have called for an end to coastal dredging that they say has decimated their daily catch.
  • Sand dredging along the north coast of Rupat Island ran from September to December last year, stopping due to protests by fishers.
  • The fishers have petitioned Indonesia’s president and the energy minister to revoke the dredging company’s permit, and are backed by an environmental group’s findings of high rates of shoal erosion in the area.
  • The government has issued 1,400 dredging permits throughout Indonesia as of November 2021, covering an area of almost 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) and affecting some 35,000 fishers, according to activists.

PEKANBARU, Indonesia — Fishers in Indonesia’s Riau province have petitioned President Joko Widodo to end offshore dredging operations that they say threaten their livelihoods and the marine ecosystem.

The letter, submitted in April to Widodo and the energy minister, calls for the revocation of the permit held by dredging company PT Logomas Utama. The company is currently allowed to dredge sand along 5,030 hectares (12,430 acres) on the northern coast of Rupat Island, off the province of Riau in Sumatra. The petition follows a government initiative to review thousands of palm oil and mining permits, and to revoke those deemed to be moving too slowly in exploiting natural resources.

“We’re not carelessly accusing them here,” Akhun, a member of the Adesta Seagull Fisher Group, said in a press conference on April 18. “Before the sand mining started, our catch was enough to cover household expenses. It has declined so much since the dredging began.”

He added that the dredging had put “our families on the line,” with “hardly anything” to bring home to their wives and children. “Pay us attention,” Akhun said. “Help us small fishers.”

Fishers on Rupat Island off the coast of Sumatra say dredging has decimated their daily catch. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.

The fishers accuse Logomas, which began operating in the region in 2021, of destroying their fishing areas, leading to a decimation in daily catches: from 10-20 kilograms (22-44 pounds) previously, to 1-2 kg (2.2-4.4 lbs) today. Environmental activists have also voiced concern over the dredging, saying it violates a 2007 law on the management of coastal areas and small islands.

Preliminary results from an investigation carried out by the Riau chapter of Walhi, Indonesia’s biggest environmental NGO, support the fishers’ claims about the impacts of the dredging. They point to a high rate of erosion of shoals around Rupat Island.

“This has been contradictory to the push for developing tourism in Rupat Island and the surrounding small islands,” Even Sembiring, executive director for Walhi Riau, said in a press release. “Sand mining activities have damaged the tourism destination.”

Logomas obtained its concession in 1999, but didn’t start mining for several years, in part due to a moratorium imposed by the Riau governor from 1998-2003. The company obtained a permit renewal in 2017, apparently without having updated its environmental impact assessment, Walhi said.

In September 2021, the company finally began dredging, prompting protests by fishers in Rupat. It ceased operations on Dec. 24 and doesn’t appear to have resumed since then, according to Walhi.

“Our hope is that the president and the minister immediately revoke Logomas’s permit so fishers can feel secure to look for fish, shrimp and others,” said Eriyanto, head of the Grouper Fisheries Group from Suka Damai village on Rupat Island.

A fisherman with his catch on Rupat Island off the coast of Sumatra. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.

Coastal dredging to mine sand for use in construction is common around many of the remote and often uninhabited islands that make up Indonesia. The government has issued 1,400 dredging permits as of November 2021, covering an area of almost 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) and affecting some 35,000 fishers, Walhi says. The mining threatens to exacerbate pressures on small islands that already face the threats of rising sea levels and seismic activity: 83 islands, including Rupat, could be lost due to climate change, while 55 could be destroyed by earthquakes, according to a 2016 study by the country’s Marine Geology Research and Development Center.

“It’s part of an accumulated damage or crisis in coastal areas and small islands that’s affecting the livelihoods of fishers,” said Parid Ridwanuddin, Walhi’s coastal and marine campaign manager.

“All small islands must be protected from the extractive industry, otherwise we would lose many of those islands, which are part of Indonesia’s identity and characteristic as an archipelago.”

A fisherman with his catch on Rupat Island off the coast of Sumatra. Image by Suryadi/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on April 30, 2022.

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