- Rural communities in South Sumatra, an Indonesian province that’s two-fifths wetlands, have long relied on catching freshwater fish as a source of livelihood.
- The region is renowned for its variety of preserved fish products, which are sold throughout Indonesia.
- However, the wetlands are disappearing at a rapid rate, filled in to make way for oil palm plantations and highways, and threatening the region’s long-running fish-preserving tradition.
- Today, most of the freshwater fish processed here comes from fish farms, and include exotic species not native to the region, which some say doesn’t taste as good as the traditional species.
PALEMBANG, Indonesia — Lithan, 68, grew up eating fish caught from the rivers and freshwater swamps near his village in Ogan Ilir district, near the southern tip of the island of Sumatra. Fish were so abundant, he recalls, that the villagers would smoke them, salt them, ferment them, even make fish crackers out of them.
But the fish — predominantly baung and lais, catfish from the Hemibagrus and Kryptopterus genera, respectively — have become increasingly scarce as the water bodies in the region are degraded by the conversion of land for farming.
“Nowadays, a lot of the people here make smoked fish from catfish that they raise in ponds,” says Lithan, identifying these farmed fish as patin (Pangasius spp.), lele (Clarias spp.) and even Nile tipalia (Oreochromis niloticus), an exotic species introduced here from Africa.
“But the taste is different and there’s not much demand for it,” adds Lithan, who heads the farmers’ collective in the village of Muara Penimbung Ulu. “So this [fish-preserving] tradition could disappear as the freshwater fish are vanishing.”.
It’s a similar story in the neighboring district of Ogan Komering Ilir. Here, in the village of Menang Raya, freshwater fishing was for a long time the main source of livelihood for residents, according to village head Ryan Syaputra. But the fish started to disappear just as oil palm plantations began expanding in the area, he says, filling in the swamps and peatlands that are typically the spawning grounds for the region’s various catfish species.
Both Menang Raya and Muara Penimbung Ulu villages were part of the fish production heartland in South Sumatra, a province where wetlands account for two-fifths of the total land area. Freshwater fisheries and traditional farming used to be the main way of life for many people in the region; catfish would thrive in the waterlogged rice fields, allowing the villagers to harvest both fish and grain at the same time.
“But those who no longer have farms now have to go elsewhere to catch fish,” Lithan says.
In a province that’s seen some of the most extensive and rapid changes in land use anywhere in Sumatra, driven largely by the palm oil boom and associated infrastructure, the rivers and wetlands where people can still catch fish is shrinking fast. Vast swaths of wetland have been bulldozed and filled in for plantations or toll roads, disrupting entire freshwater ecosystems that the fish depend on.
“It’s not the knowledge [of fish preservation] that’s disappearing, but the fish have become hard to find,” Ryan says. “Right now, we’re just trying to preserve the swamp areas that still remain.”
With natural wetlands disappearing, fish farms have become the main supplier to the region’s processed-fish industry. Ogan Ilir district produces 8,900 metric tons of processed freshwater fish a year, most of it from fish farms that cover a combined area nearly twice the size of London.
“The low production of fish caught from the wild is evidence that the rivers and swamps in Ogan Ilir have been damaged or altered,” says Yulion Zalpa, a researcher at Raden Fatah Islamic State University in Palembang, the South Sumatra provincial capital.
Yulion says the government’s Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BGRM) should prioritize Ogan Ilir district in its landscape restoration program. “The only way to preserve the freshwater fish is to maintain and improve the remaining wetlands,” he says.
Indonesia has nearly 20 million hectares (49 million acres) of inland waters, most of it swamps and wetlands, but also 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of rivers, according to the fisheries ministry. A biodiversity hotspot, the country is home to more than 1,300 species of freshwater fish, the highest in Asia.
Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.
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