When climate adaptation fails, who is responsible? Indonesia is asking.

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Djafar, a fisherman in Asilulu, Indonesia, pulls up a traditional fishing trap with help from two other fishermen on June 24, 2021. Declining catches of tuna fish have disrupted the community's maritime economy.
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Nature’s bounty has long sustained life on Ambon, an island in eastern Indonesia that was fought over by 17th-century European spice traders. In the village of Asilulu, the richest bounty was found at sea, where most residents made a living from catching tuna. That is, until a rapidly warming ocean slashed the daily catch. 

As tuna migrated to cooler waters, fishermen faced longer journeys to catch them. When they tried to adapt, their business model couldn’t keep up, and today most have abandoned their traditional livelihood. Some have switched to coral reef fishing. Others have turned their backs on the sea.

Why We Wrote This

Climate change means communities must adapt in order to sustain their livelihoods. But there are limits to what small fishing villages can do by themselves.

Their challenge is emblematic of the increasingly tough choices faced by many communities that depend on fish stocks and other natural resources that are being disrupted by climate change. From their perspective, it is the richer industrialized countries whose greenhouse gas emissions have led the planet down a perilous path from which there is no respite. 

Climate change is ... a cumulative result of global human activities,” says Aminuddin Mane Kandari, an Indonesian environmental scientist. “But the ones who first face the impacts are vulnerable communities.” 

The fishermen of Asilulu knew something was up when the tuna fled their shores for cooler waters. They didn’t grasp that global warming was heating the ocean and displacing the fish on which their livelihoods depended. But they knew they needed to rethink how they fished.  

So the community of roughly 2,000 people adapted. They pooled their resources so boats could travel further in search of tuna. In 2011, an Indonesian PhD student wrote his thesis about Asilulu’s successful community-led adaptation to climate change on a seashore thousands of miles from the centers of power where climate policy is decided.

That was then. This is now: Most fishermen have since given up on long, costly expeditions and turned their back on the sea that nourished past generations. “The fish have gone too far,” says Umar, one of the last remaining tuna fishermen.

Why We Wrote This

Climate change means communities must adapt in order to sustain their livelihoods. But there are limits to what small fishing villages can do by themselves.

The need for adaptation is a mantra in climate debates and there are many examples of adaptations that work, from heat-resistant crops to natural flood defenses. But perhaps just as resonant is the story of those that failed to outrun a rapidly warming planet and its devastating effects on livelihoods, particularly in poorer countries like Indonesia, a vast archipelago of islands that straddle the equator.

For fishing communities who depend on the ocean’s bounty, there may be no easy solutions and only hard questions for richer industrialized countries whose emissions have led the planet down a perilous path of extreme weather from which there is no respite.

"Climate change is a global phenomenon that affects the livelihoods of vulnerable communities. So it is justifiable for them to demand justice from governments of richer countries that are reluctant to cut their emissions," says Linda Yanti Sulistiawati, an associate law professor at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta and a lead author of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report.

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Fish are distributed at a gathering in Pulau Satu, in Indonesia's Southeast Sulawesi, on June 24, 2021.

In 2009, wealthy nations pledged in Copenhagen to provide $100 billion a year in public and private financing for developing countries to respond to climate change. That target was due to be reached by 2020. But since it wasn’t specified what counted towards that target it’s unclear how much assistance has flowed; studies suggest that far more investment has gone to climate mitigation – for example, renewable energy projects – than to helping communities adapt to warmer and less predictable weather patterns.

Even these efforts strike some Indonesians as inadequate to the scale of the disruption.

"International financial aid is helpful but it only acts as a ‘painkiller’. What we need now is real actions by industrialized countries to cut their emissions," says Aminuddin Mane Kandari, the dean of the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Sciences at the University of Halu Oleo in Southeast Sulawesi.

Studying a spice island 

When Subair, a doctoral candidate at IPB University in Bogor, Indonesia, first visited Asilulu in 2011 he found a coastal community that was trying to adapt to a changing climate. Around 70% of households relied on tuna fishing for their livelihood.

Asilulu is on the northern tip of Ambon, one of the spice islands that lured 17th century European merchants to colonize the Indonesian archipelago. A sea breeze makes the coconut trees dance, framing crystal-blue waters; at dusk a gorgeous violet sunset fills the tropical sky. 

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A street view in Asilulu, a coastal village on the island of Ambon in Indonesia that is struggling to adapt to changing oceanic temperatures.

Behind the village stands a dense forest containing nutmeg trees. For centuries nutmeg was grown only on the tiny Banda Islands, south of Ambon. In 1677, the Netherlands swapped Run, one of the Banda Islands, with Britain, which took possession of a North American island called Manhattan.

In 2011, Subair, who has only one name, found that tuna fishermen in Asilulu had already noted the changing environment. The weather had become increasingly unpredictable, they told him. “The wave has become evil…I can’t predict when it’s gonna hit,” one of the fishermen said. Tuna were moving into the open sea, which meant buying more fuel to make longer roundtrips.

Still, at that time adaptation seemed manageable. Strong social ties within their community had built resilience against a crisis. Richer people in the village acted as sponsors, providing fuel and larger boats to poorer fishermen so that they could fish in the Banda Sea south of Ambon.

But today the tuna trade in Asilulu is all but extinguished. Fishermen who used to hunt tuna off nearby islands say that the cost of fuel to travel 50 or more nautical miles to new hunting grounds is prohibitive. Fishermen who borrowed from wealthier neighbors, hoping to catch enough tuna to turn a profit, found themselves trapped in debt. Many defaulted, hitting their sponsors.

Some tuna fishermen have switched to coral reef fishing, using traditional traps. Others have turned their back on the sea and taken jobs on construction sites, or taken up nutmeg harvesting. A kilogram of nutmeg sold at market is enough to cover daily expenses. This represents another side of resilience, says Subair. “People could farm on the land when they don’t go to the sea,” he says.

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Djafar, a fisherman in Asilulu, Indonesia, pulls up a wooden fishing trap with help from two other fishermen on June 24, 2021.

What happened in Asilulu shows how climate change threatens the livelihoods of coastal communities across Indonesia. Maritime industries, including fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism, make up around 28 percent of Indonesian economic output. And while climate change isn’t the only factor – pollution and overfishing are other threats – it raises thorny questions about global responsibility and burden sharing. 

According to Climate Watch, a climate data platform run by the World Resource Institute in Washington, D.C, wealthy nations in Europe and America contributed 79% of global carbon dioxide emissions from 1850 to 2012. “Climate change is…a cumulative result of global human activities but the ones who first face the impacts are vulnerable communities,” says Prof. Aminuddin.  

Warming oceans, extreme weather 

Across the oceans that surround the Indonesian archipelago, and in the waters on which Indonesian small scale fishermen depend, sea surfaces are warming and fish are migrating to colder regions.

Overall, Indonesia’s sea temperature may have warmed by nearly one degree Celsius since the 1980s, according to the national Meteorological, Climatology, and Geophysics Agency, or BMKG. A study led by Ishak Iskandar, a physicist in Sriwijaya University in South Sumatra, shows the warming trend is particularly high in the Banda sea, where Asilulu fishermen hunted tuna.  

An analysis by a U.S.-funded Indonesian climate adaptation project found that climate change had affected fish migration patterns. Extreme weather also resulted in fewer days on which fishermen could put to sea and drove up their operational costs.

Indonesia’s current five-year development plan contains climate adaptation programs. These include $1.6 billion to build sea-walls on vulnerable islands and install computerized weather boards in harbors. Three of these boards are operational in villages on Saparua, an island east of Ambon, says Ilham Tauda, the head of the economic division at a regional development agency.

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A view of Mekar, a fishing village in the Indonesian province of Southeast Sulawesi, on June 18, 2021.

“So before [fishermen] go out to the sea, they know the wind speed and the wave height”, he says.

Mr. Tauda says climate adaptation is challenging in a nation of more than 17,000 islands, and funding is limited. Only a few villages in his region of 1,340 islands were chosen for the adaptation program. “We cannot reach all of them,” he says.

In Asilulu, none of the fishermen know of any such funds. “As long as I live, I haven’t got help from anyone,” says Djafar, aged 60, who fishes on the remaining coral reef in Asilulu.

Sea nomads settle down

Several hundred miles west, on the starfish-shaped island of Sulawesi, another fishing community has also tried its hand at adaptation, with mixed results.

The Bajau, an ethnic group known as sea gypsies, are found across Southeast Asia. The ocean is their home: As nomads, they hop from island to island, living from the sea bounty.

In the 1990s, one group of Bajau moved to the mainland of Southeast Sulawesi after tiring of being flooded out of their temporary wooden houses.  “The waves hit us too often, we needed to go to a safer place,” says Haji Aminudin, a 70 year-old Bajau.

Three decades on, their group has put down roots in Mekar, a village of 753 people located two hours away from the regional capital. On a recent afternoon, women chitchatted in front of their brightly colored wooden houses and children ran around. Clothes dried in the breeze against a background of gray clouds and pale blue sea.

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Lukman, a fisherman, holds his spear gun on his boat in Mekar village in Indonesia's Southeast Sulawesi on June 19, 2021. His community of former sea nomads is trying to adapt to changing weather and oceanic conditions.

Lukman, a fishermen wearing a red-and-white long-sleeved T-shirt, sat inside his living room watching television. He usually fishes for tuna around Sulawesi, but not today. “Just look at that cloud above,” he says, pointing to the sky. “If it’s dark, then we can’t go.”

Most Bajau in Mekar still rely on the sea for their livelihood, even though they live near a city. So their particular adaptation – moving to permanent housing on the mainland – still leaves them at the mercy of a changing environment. Mr. Lukman says the sea has become “unfriendly” to him.

The eastern monsoon winds that used to end in June now linger as late as August; government data show that the east wind has become more dominant here in the last two years and that 4-foot-high waves are more common.

Such unpredictability is a hazard for fishermen, most of whom use small boats. “Small-scale fishermen are the first ones who see the impact of climate change,” says Faisal Habibi, a scientist at BMKG, the meteorological agency. 

A risky nocturnal dive

Working with a regional fisheries agency, BMKG has taught fishermen about climate change and how to use weather information to adapt to changes. Some villages now have windsocks, the conical tubes flown at airports, to show the direction and strength of the wind.

But none of these programs have reached Mekar. Instead, some villagers are adapting to diminished tuna catches by spear fishing closer to home, diving at night to catch coral fish.

“They sleep at night, so it’s easy to catch them,” says Tahring, a young fisherman with curly hair. On a recent morning he landed a haul of colorful fish; it had been a long night, diving from midnight to dawn, scooping fish into his blue canoe.

The sun was rising as Mr. Tahring approached a house on stilts belonging to an old man to whom he usually sells fish, and who had already whipped out his notebook and pen. Mr. Tahring smiled as the buyer weighed the catch and offered him the equivalent of $35. “It is a lot more than my last fishing day,” he says.  

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A day's catch is displayed in Soropia, in Indonesia's Southeast Sulawesi, on June 19, 2021.

But this livelihood is perilous since most fishermen use a compressor to breathe underwater. In Indonesia, the Bajau were long renowned for their lung capacity, diving underwater for several minutes to spear fish, but that tradition hasn’t survived here. The Indonesian government has banned compressors for diving because they can lead to potentially fatal lung complications.

Mr. Lukman still remembers the day he returned to the surface and vomited blood. “I got lung problems and I don’t want to get sick again,” he says.

For an alternative source of income, some in Mekar are raising fish using a keramba, a square netted cage anchored to the seabed. Mr. Lukman takes care of one for his uncle, so one morning he went to feed the fish.

Inside the keramba, a school of white fish swam in clear blue water. These fish command a decent price, but a full-grown lobster for export can fetch more than $50, says Mr. Lukman. He used to raise lobster, but he usually sold them as juveniles because he needed the cash.

Asked whether lobster farming could cover his daily needs, Mr. Lukman hesitated. He still needs to fish on the open waters, he says, but only when the weather is favorable. He scanned the horizon.

“People say the sea is rich, but our sustenance is not certain,” he says.

This reporting was supported by the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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