Illegal cyanide fishing in Indonesia is doing a lot of damage to exotic coral reefs. But in spite of being banned, this illegal practice continues to flourish.
This Indonesian diver is using cyanide to get fish out of the coral, photo: Annet Pauwelussen
Nature management organizations are failing to get to grips with it. Anthropologist Annet Pauwelussen wondered why. She spent one and a half years with the fishers and received a PhD with distinction for her report on that experience.
One of the species cyanide fishers dive for is sea bass. These fish hide in amongst the coral and to get them out, the divers spray them with a solution of sodium cyanide. This stuns them and makes them easy to catch. Then the fish are revived and shipped live to China. In the better restaurants of Hong Kong the fish can easily fetch 100 euros each, says Pauwelussen.
Fishing with cyanide is dangerous. The fishers of the Bajau people regularly die or become partially paralysed. Divers’ disease, a westerner would call it. But that is a typically western way of looking at things, explains Pauwelussen. ‘In my research I came across ideas about the sea and how people relate to it which are fundamentally different to the western view of nature.’
‘I went to sea with them for weeks,’ says Pauwelussen. ‘I went to islands that aren’t even on the map. I realized that I should go to sea with them if I really wanted to get to understand their world. Their idea of time is cyclical rather than linear. To us, what we do with the coral today has consequences for tomorrow. But that is not always the logic of it for the Bajau. To them the relationship with sea spirits is central. The coral is a place where various sea spirits live, which you need to stay on good terms with.’
Cyanide fishers have been criminalized for decades now and depicted as impoverished folk driven by greed,’ adds Pauwelussen. ‘But that kind of explaining away only makes it harder to grasp how they think. If nature managers want to intervene, they need to start by understanding the world of the fishers: what do they do and why do they do it that way? I take their reality seriously. It is important for the decisions they make.’
Equality between nature conservationists and the people who make their living from the sea is crucial, in Pauwelussen’s view, to a good dialogue about nature management. ‘On an equal footing you can look for shared interests. It is important that you don’t place one reality above another. And that is precisely what happens at the moment. The Bajau belief in sea spirits is real, because it affects the decisions they make.’