Suciati Agustin

Published: May 21, 2024

NORTH SUMATRA, Indonesia — Belawan Bahari, located in Medan City, North Sumatra, is a tight-knit neighborhood with 350 families. Women here not only manage households but also supplement incomes by working in local fish processing, gathering shellfish, and producing mangrove-based products. 

However, dwindling marine catches and mangrove fruits in recent months, possibly caused by impacts of the climate crisis, have hit these women’s livelihoods.

The villagers of Belawan Bahari have been living on the frontline of the climate crisis, experiencing its impact as part of their daily lives. The residential structures in Belawan Bahari are predominantly wooden and precarious, built on stilts above waterlogged ground and surrounded by scattered debris. Prior to the urban planning initiatives undertaken by the Ministry of Public Works and People’s Housing (PUPR), this area was susceptible to flooding from tidal surges, sea-level fluctuations, and water channels.      

Herna (45), a small fish processing business owner, said the last flood in October 2023 reached up to 1.5 meters.

Rohim, a lecturer in Water Resources Management at the University of North Sumatra (USU) and the Research and Monitoring Manager at Yagasu Foundation, an organization in Medann focused on mangrove restoration, explained that climate change has led to tidal floods along coastal areas. (The writer is also one of the Yagasu Foundation’s staffers)

“Global warming, triggered by the melting of polar ice caps, can lead to an increase in sea levels. While the initial rise may not seem substantial, over time, its effects become more significant. This phenomenon is particularly evident in coastal regions, such as those along the east coast of Sumatra Island, including Belawan Bahari District,” he said.

Although embankments and pump houses constructed as part of the Belawan area development program by the Ministry of Public Works and Public Housing (Kementerian PUPR) have eliminated flooding, rising sea levels, a consequence of climate change, are now damaging the livelihoods of women in Belawan Bahari. 

Dwindling catch 

A snapshot of the dilapidated housing in Belawan Bahari village was taken on January 12, 2024. These homes, built precariously on stilts with wooden materials, are surrounded by rubbish brought in by seawater.

Herna, the breadwinner of her family, has witnessed a significant decrease in the supply of fresh fish and shrimp from local fishermen since 2023.

Herna’s business involves processing catfish and shrimp into dried and salted products to be distributed to various markets through local distributors. In the past, she could process 100 to 150 kilograms of shrimp and 50 to 120 kg of fish daily, allowing her to earn a gross revenue around Rp 10 million per month. From the gross sales, she made a profit of approximately 20%, which translated to around Rp 2,000,000, a portion of which she uses for the daily needs of her family, including her two children and elderly mother.

Herna also used to employ an average of 10 local women daily to fillet and sun-dry the fish, paying them Rp 5,000 for each para (a container made of woody sticks covered with shade nets for drying the fish under the sunlight). 

But as Herna was forced to suspend her business due to the lack of raw material supply, she needed to stop hiring these women indefinitely, leaving them without income.

The women in Herna’s community are burdened with the responsibility of ensuring food availability for their families. With the drastic reduction in their husbands’ income due to the scarcity of fish, they are forced to be resourceful and find another way to keep the family survive.

“We’ve never faced such difficult times before,” Herna said, pointing to her empty drying racks during an interview on January 12. “Many women here are selling household items such as bed sheets, audio speakers, LPG gas cylinders, and other stuff just to buy food.”

“Usually, in a day, those women could produce 2 to 3 paras, earning between Rp 10,000 to 15,000. It’s quite decent to supplement their husbands’ income, who mostly work as fishermen. The fish catch has also decreased, and they often return home empty-handed these days,” Herna continued.

Despite efforts by the Social Affairs Department of Medan to facilitate business equipment and form joint business groups, the lack of raw materials of fresh fish and shrimp hinder the businesses from functioning effectively.

“Our parents, the first generation in this village, understood the fish and shrimp seasons well. They could stock up and never faced shortages like we do now. But today, it’s unclear when the seasons occur, and our knowledge is limited,” she added. 

Rohim explained that the changing patterns and unpredictability of fish and shrimp seasons are also directly linked to climate change. 

“The unchecked climate change leads to ecological disruptions in coastal waters, such as coral bleaching and increased water temperatures, which in turn affect fish stocks and reproduction cycles, ultimately impacting the availability of sea biotas,” he said.

Mangrove loss

Bottles of mangrove-based syrup, crafted as alternative sources of income by women in Belawan Bahari, were captured on March 5, 2024. Mangrove deforestation in this area has made it difficult for women to obtain raw materials, leading to a significant decline in their production capacity and income.

Local environmental concerns, including widespread pollution and the destruction of mangrove forests in the village, exacerbate the situation. Almost all the mangrove areas have been cleared for intensive shrimp farming. 

“We, as ordinary people, lack the knowledge and skill, so we need the government’s help in conserving the ecosystem,” Herna said.

This changing coastal condition is not exclusive to the Belawan Medan village, as most of the North Sumatra’s coastal area is experiencing mangrove deforestation over the years. The research conducted by the North Sumatra Environmental Agency in 2013 indicated that 90 percent of the province’s mangrove forests were damaged, mostly converted into oil palm plantations and fish and shrimp ponds. 

The government is aiming to rehabilitate the degrading mangrove forests. The North Sumatra office of the Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM) aimed in 2022 to restore 13,357 hectares of mangroves. They, however, were only able to rehabilitate 373 hectares due to budget constraints. 

“Rehabilitation budget for North Sumatra in 2022 was Rp 4.3 billion for 373 hectares,” stated Hartono, the head of BRGM. 

Other women in Belawan Bahari find livelihood by selling processed mangrove foods, such as Hanum (40), who turns mangrove into chips, cakes, dodol (sweet toffee-like confection made of sugar palm), syrup, and jam. Hanum usually produces dodol and cakes ahead of the Islamic holiday of Idul Fitri, with profits of Rp 100,000 per kilogram of cakes and Rp 60,000 per kilogram of dodol. 

However, Hanum can no longer produce cakes and dodol due to the increasing rarity of mangrove of the Avicennia species, which is used in making them. 

Hanum also used to regularly produce up to four dozen bottles of syrup and 16 cups of jam every month to be sold to the Medan mayor’s office, one of her regular customers. These sales typically yielded a profit of up to Rp 200,000.

But nowadays, it is hard for Hanum to find Sonneratia fruits (locally known as Berembang), the main ingredient for making syrup and jam, so she can only produce half of what she used to. For now, Hanum relies only on the sale of Jeruju (Acanthus ilicifolius) chips, producing only 5 kilograms per week with a profit of Rp 150,000.

“The good thing is that Jeruju leaves are still easy to obtain because it is a minor mangrove species and looks like grass, unlike Avicennia and Sonneratia that are woody species,” said Hanum.

Other women work by gathering shellfish to be sold to intermediaries or directly to factories. But the job is not easy. 

“We have to leave for work early in the morning and return by 5 p.m., searching for shellfish along the beach by hand. We also must navigate through mud, risking injuries to our hands and feet from sharp objects that may be present in the mud,” said Midah, one of the women from Belawan Bahari who works as a casual laborer at a fish processing plant in the village.

Their earnings depend on the quantity of shellfish collected. Previously, each person could collect 15 to 30 kilograms per day. But with fewer shellfish available, they can now only bring home an average of 5 to 10 kilograms, sold for up to Rp 10,000 to intermediaries. 

Solutions for Belawan Bahari fisheries

The Belawan Bahari women hope the government will assist them in finding sustainable solutions to address declining fish stocks and the challenges of unpredictable fishing seasons. They seek expertise and technology to ensure the continuity of fish and shrimp supply and revive the local economy.

Rohim suggested creating a map of the North Sumatra coastal area, including its economic potential like dried and pickled fish, to connect producers with potential buyers.

“The map would include locations classified as fish nursery grounds, feeding, and spawning grounds. Efforts should be made to protect areas classified as fish spawning and nursery grounds more, and to avoid various threats that can damage the environment. Because these areas are where the initial phase of the fisheries resource life cycle occurs,” he explained.           

He also recommended an integrated mangrove restoration approach that combines scientific research with local knowledge to effectively replant mangrove trees. 

“Mangroves serve as crucial nursery areas for many commercially important species, providing shelter and food for juvenile fish and shrimp,” he continued. “Therefore, integrating scientific insights with traditional knowledge can optimize the restoration process and ensure the sustainability of coastal fisheries.”