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Insight Into Indonesia - Rivers Under Covid-19

By Michael Risdianto, Wild Water Indonesia

Indigenous people protest against destructive fishing
A Dayak village in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Locals protest against destructive fishing methods.

From November to December 2019, people of three villages in the mountains of East Kalimantan on the upper part of the Mahakam River began to breathe again. First, because the planting season had ended; also the great festive rituals that are tiring and costly had ended. Second, it hadn't been that long since the new business that is invigorating the local economy had become more real; anglers from various cities in Indonesia and greater numbers from overseas were boosting the local economy. The extraordinary potential of mahseer fishing in this region was fast-spreading news.

Of the villages, we will first look at Long Tuyoq. It is inhabited by the Long Glaat, a Dayak tribe, and a sub-tribe of the Dayak Bahau. Long Glaat Dayak has two main rivers; Tepai River and the one with the greatest potential for mahseer; Nyaan River, which translates as the forbidden river.  

Second, we will look at the village of Long Apari, which is inhabited by the Dayak Aoheng community. They has several large rivers with great mahseer potential; Usoq River, Seke River, Tetangoi River, Merata River, and others, including the upper Mahakam River itself (called Tegaharuq River) near the border with Malaysia.

The Nyaribungan village community on the border of East and Central Kalimantan, inhabited by the Bakumpay Dayak community, also had the chance to experience this new activity. They have several large rivers, with Ratah River the main river, and Dason River, Jeromai River, Danum Paroi River, Nyeribungan River, among the many tributaries. All of the names of the rivers that I mentioned above have abundant mahseer;  including what are locally recognised as green, blue and red mahseer. Other fish that are also easily found here are the ancient goonch (Bagarius yarellii), wild giant gourami, and hampala barbs (jungle perch).

For a relatively short period of time, ecotourism with mahseer as the main target has begun to develop and bring prosperity to the local community. The ‘sweet fruit’ of this long journey has been the collaboration between modern and more traditional conservation ideas, since the people in this region became closely connected with adventure TV programmes. These began to be broadcast on Indonesian television around 2016 with locally-produced programmes, and with international television starting in 2019. I was the first Indonesian person to enter this region for documentary purposes. My biggest thrill was when joining with some good friends to guide the documentary team of the 'Fish Or Die' (Animal Planet) programme in October 2018 (aired February 2019), which made this mountainous region famous as a world-class recreational fishing destination.

Photographer takes photo of angler with jungle stream mahseer catch
Michael captures the man who captures the man who captured the fish! From Animal Planet's 'Fish Or Die'

It is well known that indigenous people in Indonesia practice sustainability on the waters, although in some cases guidance is still needed to ‘sharpen’ the traditional conservation they practised. For this reason, I, along with several other volunteers who care about water conservation carried out independent exploration over many years from 2016 and conducting a ‘guerilla awareness’ campaign. On these visits to various waters, we invited all tribal leaders and community leaders to unite behind these conservation concerns.

For example, the Long Glaat Dayak community has the concept (or indigenous law we call Hukum Adat) of traditional conservation named tanaa peraq, which regulates the utilization of its potential rivers and sets sanctions for violations. However, without connections to the outside world, through adventurers and conservationists, there is no framework for bringing in external influences and economic encouragement, hence their wild water benefits are difficult to sustain.

The peak of this campaign was manifested in an agreement in October 2017 when I was able to meet all tribe leaders from the Dayak Bahau and Dayak Aoheng tribes during the Hudoq Pekayang Festival.  At this epic cultural moment we send ‘sustainable greetings’ as a form of determination to preserve the waters’ potential, especially in the upper Mahakam River. Not only for mahseer of course, but also for the wider aquatic ecosystem.

The waters in the upper Mahakam River were experiencing environmental pressure through destructive fishing. Mahseer is the main target of public consumption because it has a very delicious taste and good economic value in the local market. There is no illegal mining (sand mining) in this area and even relatively few palm oil plantations, that can damage the health of river waters. Following our work, all tribes have moved away from poisoning rivers to catch the fish (racun ikan), and rarely practice electro-fishing (setrum ikan).

Before the outbreak of Coronavirus, up until late 2019, the rural communities of East Kalimantan who lived on the upper of the Mahakam River were all positive about their fish and river. This ‘good life’ has its roots in the preservation of the natural potential, especially mahseer, which makes the area one of the most important as an ecotourism destination in Indonesia. In my country, if a region is visited by many foreign visitors and is covered by broadcasts on television, the development of its infrastructure is increasingly considered by the government, because it has raised a good image of the region. In this case, it is the District of Mahakam Ulu and East Kalimantan Province.

One example that might seem funny, but gives an insight into some of the issues facing this region, is that in 2016 the people of Long Tuyoq and Long Apari villages had to climb mountains just to get cellular signals. After the villages were aired on many adventure TV programmes the government soon built a cellular signal transmitter. The community can now very easily do long distance communication. They have no need to climb mountains anymore.

Enabling easy communication with the outside world certainly impacts other fields, for example by helping local commodity trading outside the region. The price of fuel in this interior part of East Kalimantan is now almost the same as in the administrative hub and most populated island of Indonesia: Java. This certainly has an impact on lowering the cost of living in the interior of East Kalimantan; mobilisation on the river for various purposes, public and goods transportation has more route options and can carry more tonnage. Previously, the cost of living in this region was very high due to uneven fuel pricing.

Increasing visits of river adventurers to this region is very important to the strengthening the local economy. Increased income of rural communities is a necessity. Owners of large and small boats, logistics operators, local people as crew, craft makers and others also enjoy this stretching of the ‘mahseer economy’. Now they have been able to 'sell' their waters’ potential to wild-water adventurers without having to lose any of their mahseer fish. For example, in one trip I may have to bring up to 32 local crew for two weeks. Imagine the economic impacts through this one trip.

Speedboat battles against waves and rocks on a jungle river in Borneo
Travel to access remote rivers is not for the faint-hearted!

The amount is even greater if we unite the expenditure on logistics with potential sales of handicrafts belonging to the community, local cultural performances for visitors and even the idea that their villages can also get incentives as rewards for their commitment to conservation (conservation fees).  

The villages I mentioned in East Kalimantan are just a few of the many villages in the mountains that are starting to experience the same, all over West, Central and North Kalimantan. What I have written is a real development journey that I, myself saw, starting in 2009. Although I have explored so many wild rivers in Kalimantan, I am not the only one, other parties are also making extraordinary efforts. As a result, inland communities in Indonesia with mahseer fish potential are embarking upon a sweet start as a result of their commitment to river conservation.

So how is the condition of mahseer habitats in Indonesia today? Again, I will discuss the island of Borneo, due to its extraordinary fishing potential. The tourism sector clearly received a hard ‘punch’ during this pandemic. All popular tourist destinations across the nation were closed. Included were inland villages which did self lockdowns; refusing outside visitors. This means that the local economy which had stretched from the rapid development of ecotourism is now stuck. The big smile is delayed.

We may conclude that nature can rest for a while to repair itself. Less traffic on the water? It could be the opposite. Before the Coronavirus, for many years, we encouraged indigenous peoples to reduce their exploitation of mahseer fish by providing a substitute in ecotourism. Recently, based on my communication with several contacts in West, East and North Kalimantan, it seems that communities are looking back to their rivers as one of their ‘free markets’. Spear-fishing to target large mahseer (which previously we urged to be reduced), and catching large amounts of fish (over fishing) had to be tolerated due to urgency of food needs (until 2019 we have called for this to be stopped and people limited the size of catches).

Regarding destructive fishing such using poisons (in previous eras Dayak people practised traditional tuba; catching fish on a large-scale during the dry season by disposing of poisons, whether chemical or biological poisons, into rivers), we are sure that this will not be done during this pandemic. Traditional law in various Dayak tribes has strongly issued that tuba is now prohibited.  This has been widely stated by many Dayak tribes (there are more than 400 Dayak tribes in Kalimantan) because they realise the danger of this biological poison in damaging their fishery’s potential.

Interestingly, the prohibition, in the remote interior, of conducting large gatherings in an attempt to overcome the pandemic, will be manifested in the absence of large-scale cultural festivals which are usually attended by thousands of people. Previously, if a big festival is held, the host village usually provides food and drinks for the entire delegation. Mahseer is one of the must-have dishes made available in large quantities and means that over-fishing will happen during these festivals. Therefore, the absence of any large-scale festivals in the mountains has ensured that the massive, yearly exploitation of mahseer, legitimised by tribal boards, will not happen.

A lone angler balances on a dead tree, in the middle of a jungle river
Only the river and fish for company.

Our programme to manage fresh potential for mahseer, which was delayed due to the pandemic, occurs in the mountainous area of North Kalimantan Province, on the Bahau River, a river system that is connected with Malaysia.  Representatives of the Dayak Kenyah community in this region contacted in late 2019 us to establish communication and build new possibilities in managing their tourism potential. I feel that I must have personal knowledge of a destination in order to guide adventurers on wild waters. Because it has been impossible for me to travel, the plan to build the Bahau River into a water that is capable of being a sustainable economic base, similar to those in East Kalimantan, has not yet been realised.

Mahseer stocks in the upper Bahau River are extraordinary. In the dry season we easily find mahseer holding spots in various corners of the river. Access to this area is pretty difficult because it can only be reached through rivers, and requires several days travel. The same situation also happened with the planned development of mahseer ecotourism in the upper Kapuas River in West Kalimantan. I was unable to realise this due to the lack of travel opportunity during this pandemic.  These two upper river systems in these two regions must receive more attention and strict conservation boundaries if they are not to follow the lowland rivers in both regions. These have been destroyed by over fishing, destructive fishing, and illegal gold and sand mining.

During this pandemic, Indonesian people were familiar with a new joke called the “lauk daun”, a pun on the word lockdown. Translated literally, this means "we eat rice with leaves". The meaning is, that it is time to rely on food needs maximizing the potential of the natural environment. But we do not expect that in the interior of Kalimantan, for example, where it is believed that mahseer is very delicious. We have high hopes that social security funds released by the government of the Republic of Indonesia, which amounts to trillions of rupiah, can be used by lower-class Indonesians throughout the country to secure their food needs. Specifically, in the interior of the Kalimantan mountains, we hope it lifts pressure from mahseer being an important survival food in these very hard times.

Leafy canopy over a rushing stream in Borneo
Plenty of leaves available for 'lauk daun'.

How about on the island of Java? Although the mountains rivers are also mahseer habitat, it can be said that the potential cannot be ‘sold’ for ecotourism as is happening in Kalimantan. The mountain rivers in Java are small and for a long time have been destroyed by over fishing and destructive fishing (electro-fishing and poisoning).

Settlement development in the mountains of Java is also growing rapidly, with the associated increase in non-organic waste that damages the waters. In many important rivers of Java, mahseer species have been become endangered and in several rivers declared extinct! This means that even before the Coronavirus outbreak, mountain rivers in Java were the target of conservation activities.

Together with a lot of volunteers, my Wild Water Indonesia group is restocking local, native fish, including mahseer.  For some species of mahseer, to be honest, availability of seeds are constrained, but we still try our best. Before the pandemic, movement of volunteers to guard the rivers of Java was easy because there was no ban on gathering. Police officers also actively enforced the law. Specifically, statute of the Republic of Indonesia No. 31/2004 Concerning Fisheries, allows them to act against violators on the island of Java (against those who electro-fish or use poison rivers). Without wishing to disrespect law enforcement efforts in Indonesia, many destructive fishing suspects on the rivers of Java ‘escaped’ from punishment by arguing ‘economic reasons’; they did electro or poison fishing because of being poor or in emergency economic need.

During the pandemic the rivers in Java were deserted, both from local fish conservation activities, from volunteer patrols guarding waters, and also from official law enforcement. Almost all police personnel in Indonesia are now deployed in handling various effects of the pandemic. Many people think that a disease pandemic only destroys the economy and stretches society’s social ties, in Java it has brought another disaster. The Coronavirus has stopped efforts to care for the waters. For me, I have now been locked in a village in East Java for four months. Even my small village on the southern coast of East Java now has dozens of checkpoints to guard against this virus, but mahseer rivers in Java today are now without the guards. Mahseer are once again under the threat of illegal and destructive fishing.

Some of you may question: are you not able to make conservation efforts in this lockdown? Are there ways small numbers of people could work without having to violate the rules of gathering? The answer is: no, I can't cross another district’s boundaries.  The policy here is stay at home or work from home. This has been the same as in many other countries. In Indonesia the police will send us back if we cross other district boundaries, and if we argue we could go to prison.  

Current conditions in Indonesia are aggravated by increasing crime; especially theft and robbery. Almost all regions in Indonesia do not allow outsiders to enter their territory, with checks based on ID cards. Strangers mean threats; strangers are feared to be carrying the virus, or are considered potential criminal offenders. It is not possible to do long distance journeys, conduct conservation efforts and expect law enforcement agencies to enforce the law on public waters in situations like this.

Tattooed angler returns a fish to a jungle river
Michael has a dream to bring the economic benefits of catch-and-release angling to the whole of Indonesia

Mahseer habitat in Java is currently struggling alone in dealing with illegal and destructive fishing activities. What is encouraging, although a paradox, is that during this pandemic, damage to waters due to disposal of factory waste has lessened because so many large factories have stopped their operations, but thousands of workers are suddenly unemployed and are desperate for food. However, in January 2019 for the first time in Java, the East Java Province Fisheries Service succeeded in establishing a local fish bank for restocking needs in public waters.  Two species that have been spawned and can be restocked by anyone into public waters are Neolissochilus soroides and Tor tambra. Bearing in mind that previously the Fisheries Department was busy spawning and restocking non-native fish, namely Nile tilapia and Mozambique tilapia, hopefully, soon all Regional Fisheries Offices throughout Indonesia will be working towards restoring native mahseer stocks.

All that is needed then is for travellers to return to the wild forests of Kalimantan to continue the good work we have done previously, and then to establish new locations on restored rivers of Java. It is my dream.

If you have the time and interest to find out more about the mahseer in my country, please go to @wildwater_indonesia (Instagram), and Wild Water Indonesia (Facebook page). 

Tribal man sets mahseer fish free
A Dayak man releases a mahseer back to the river. Join Michael to help build on this success.

Want a glimpse of the travel required to visit these villages and do conservation outreach work? Take a look at Michael's film and others on his YouTube channel.

All photos are copyright and used by the kind permission of Michael Risdianto. To use these and other photos, please follow the links above to contact Michael.


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