The people of coastal northern Sumatra were largely dependent on the sea for their livelihood and nutritional protein. Host Steve Curwood talks with Indonesia specialist Susie Ellis of Conservation International on how the catastrophe could affect human health and ecosystem health in Aceh province.
CURWOOD: Many people living in the crowded coastline of northern Sumatra near the most intense effects of the tsumani are deeply impoverished. This is due, in part, to the political strife that has kept them from receiving the benefits of development programs that the Indonesian government has used with some success elsewhere in the nation. So, many of the poor have been forced make a living from the sea.
Susie Ellis is vice president of Indonesian and Philippines programs for Conservation International. She’s here to explain what the disaster means to marine resources and the people who rely on them. Welcome to Living on Earth.
ELLIS: Hi Steve, thank you for inviting me.
CURWOOD: Now, Indonesian waters are some of the most productive waters for fishing in the world. To what extent were these people relying on the ocean for their livelihoods? And what will happen to them now?
ELLIS: Well, first of all, I think it’s important to point out that Indonesia sits right in the heart of the Coral Triangle – it’s an area that has the richest marine biodiversity on the planet. Most of them are fringing reefs that are, essentially, adjacent to the coastline. About 60 percent of Indonesia’s 220 million people live near vulnerable coastal areas and do depend on marine and coastal resources to make a living.
CURWOOD: Tell me what the fishing culture was like there in this region before this disaster. How do people live in relation to the ocean?
ELLIS: Most people live in small villages on the coast in very, very modest homes, usually with thatched roofs. Many of them have small boats. They go out to the reefs or to other areas in the offshore coastal zone and just, basically, do subsistence fishing. There is a deep dependency on marine resources and not a lot of other livelihood options. Part of the reason some of the reefs have been so challenged is that some larger commercial fisheries have come in and been in conflict and in competition with local communities. This has, in some cases, forced local fishers to turn to more destructive fishing techniques. Some of the reefs already were over-fished, but putting the additional pressure of using destructive techniques like cyanide fishing or dynamite fishing on top of other damages forces resource exploitation beyond sustainable limits.
CURWOOD: Now, what has happened to the ocean resources in the area, in terms of the beaches and the coral reefs themselves?
ELLIS: The answer is, we just don’t know and we’re still trying to find out. But an important thing to note is that some of the mangroves, for example, and sea grass beds that lie off these areas have diverse ecological functions. They also provide economic benefits for coastal fisheries by serving as nurseries, as spawning grounds and feeding grounds for fish and shrimp and other marine organisms. So if mangroves have been uprooted there’s definitely a ripple effect on fisheries and, subsequently, the economy because these nursery grounds have been destroyed.
There is no comprehensive historical data set on, for example, coral reef recovery after tsunamis. We do know that past tsunamis have uprooted entire wedges of reefs, sometimes up to one ton. And, you know, depending on the epicenter, depending on how the plates have shifted, some reefs may have been uplifted and exposed. If this is the case then they’ll die because the water will be too warm to be able to sustain the coral colonies. The thing we do know for sure is that economically this area will definitely suffer.
CURWOOD: What’s the best way to help these people rebuild their environmental infrastructure, particularly this marine environment infrastructure, upon which they depend for their livelihoods?
ELLIS: If you recall 9/11, the state of shock this country was in, and you compare the level of damage that’s taken place in northern Sumatra, you can understand that it’s a logarithmic increase, I think, at least for the staff and the people that I work so closely with, in terms of shock and just incredible and profound sadness. Right now, people are focusing on the humanitarian crisis. We have to restore people’s lives. We have to figure out a way to give people hope. And keep a long-term outlook, as well, in terms of natural resource management and linking the quality of people’s lives to natural resources. Because without the ability to fish and simply make a living, it’s going to be almost impossible to turn this around.
CURWOOD: Susie Ellis is Vice President for Indonesian and Philippines Programs for Conservation International. Thanks for taking this time with me today.
ELLIS: Thank you, Steve. We’re very grateful for your time.
[MUSIC: L.S. Gelik “Jeruk Manis" The Rough Guide to the Music of Indonesia (World Music Network) 2000]
CURWOOD: Coming up: why a popular treaty to protect the oceans is floundering, perhaps I should say “foundering,” in the U.S. Senate. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Grup Bamba Puang "Los Quin Tallu-Tallu" The Rough Guide to the Music of Indonesia (World Music Network) 2000]
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