Gender and Fisheries in Indonesia

Solidaritas Perempuan Anging Mammiri South Sulawesi & Transnational Institute

Coastal communities around the world base their cultural identity and economic sustenance on fishing. Activities that take place on boats tend to be the main images that come to mind when we think of fishing. These also happen to be the jobs that are dominated by men. However, besides the women who go out to sea, there are a whole range of pre- and post-harvest tasks that primarily women do, which sustain local fishing economies as well as households. From mending nets and gear, to keeping the books, from child care and job training to commercialization, women occupy diverse and essential roles in fisheries around the world. These contributions are important to sustaining households, and ensuring access to healthy diets for fisher families. And, as the FAO has estimated, small-scale fishers who mostly sell to local markets provide some two thirds of the fish destined for direct human consumption. Seen in this way, fishing communities play a crucial role in healthy food systems and the decisions made about fish at the local level: which fish can be caught, and which needs to stay in the water, which gear to use, which to dry and which to eat fresh, which market stand to buy from, how to clean or process them, and which recipe to prepare and how to cook are all important components of food sovereignty1, and women in particular are regularly making these decisions and keeping these activities going.

Woman processing fish for lunch. Photo credit: Zoe W Brent

In Indonesia, an archipelagic nation comprised of more than 17,000 islands, fishing is a way of life for over 6 million people and some 85-90% of the total catch is brought in by small scale fishers.2 However large-scale infrastructure projects in the name of the president Jokowi’s Blue Revolution, that seeks to frame the country as the ‘World Maritime Axis’ are putting pressure on fishing communities and undermining food sovereignty in these places. Fueled by a total reorganization of ocean space under the banner of marine spatial planning, sand from the sea floor is being mined, shipped and piled up to redraw the Indonesian coastline, making space for new ports and logistic hubs, touristic development and high end real estate. This process of turning ocean space into new coastland is referred to as reclamation. As sand is moved from one place to another, ocean currents are disrupted, fish habitats are destroyed, and fishers themselves are being displaced to make way for new infrastructures positioned to integrate Indonesia’s peripheral regions into central trade and transport routes as well as to better position the country for global commerce.

Reclamation site under construction for luxury resort, Bintan island, Indonesia. Photo Zoe W Brent

This short article examines these processes through a feminist lens in order to understand the threats and opportunities for food sovereignty in fishing communities. Based on action research3 in these affected fishing communities, and in light of ongoing mobilizations against this kind of large-scale development logic and projects, we argue that women are key protagonists in the struggle for food sovereignty in fisher communities.

Makassar: Indonesia’s shipping hub displacing traditional fisheries

Makassar is one of the major port cities, being positioned by Jokowi as a central logistics and commerce hub in Indonesia. The two main infrastructure development projects currently underway in the region are the Makassar New Port (MNP, a national strategic project managed by state owned port management company, PT Pelindo IV), oriented towards shipping set to reclaim 1,428 ha; and the Central Point of Indonesia (CPI, managed by Ciputra Group and PT Yasmin Bumi Asri), which proposes to reclaim 156 ha geared towards tourism. To prevent protest of the CPI, a large mosque has been built on the site, which has limited resistance to CPI; however, the MNP has been the target of ongoing mobilization by fishers and allies.

The development of the MNP prevents fishers from accessing fishing grounds and coastal areas key to local livelihoods, for example around the villages of Tallo, Sengka, Batu and Buloa. In these communities the role of women in the local fishing economy is very important. One of the key fishing activities is only practiced by women: harvesting mussels, lingula and oysters on the sea shore. That said, women are working throughout the value-chain, from harvesting mussels, to washing them and taking them to market. They are also involved in post harvest activities of the boat-based fishery practiced primarily by men who use traps to catch crabs. Women often wash and sell the crab as well. They also dry fish and shrimp, but now with the construction of projects like CPI and MNP have limited access to the raw materials and are left without this important source of income.

The development of the MNP, which began in 2017, has been written into the marine spatial plan, which was approved with little consultation of fishers, even though the process was promised to be participatory. The construction of structures at sea has generated pollution on the shore and increase in mud and coastal erosion due to the waves carrying larger particles from the reclamation means that fishers have to go farther out to catch fish. Before MNP construction began fishers using boats used roughly 1,5 liters of fuel a day, now they use between 5 and 10 liters, and catch less fish. They both eat the fish themselves and sell it in local markets. They use the money to pay for the oil, household food, school and hospital fees for the family. Before they could earn between 300,000 IDR – 1M IDR a day but since the reclamation they do not earn more than 100,000 IDR a day.

Gendered impacts of infrastructure development

While men and women alike are being negatively impacted and excluded from the places they fish and collect mussels, women especially are bearing the burden of a wide range of other consequences. We can see this in terms of the productive role of women (activities generating an income, job opportunities, paid employment), as well as relative to their role in social reproduction (which can be divided into two categories: domestic and care work to reproduce people/workers and ensuring the reproduction of the social system these people/workers live in).

First, in terms of economic production, according to fisherwomen in Tallo, the amount of mussels they collect has also declined by half from two baskets sacks bringing in around 100,000 – 120,000 IDR/day to one sack worth 50,000 IDR/day. Some fishers have stopped fishing altogether, because they don’t have access to their fishing grounds anymore, and therefore there are no possibilities to catch fish or harvest mussels anymore. This means that fisherwomen are forced to seek other jobs as informal warehouse workers where they are hired on a precarious day-to-day basis for 80,000 IDR/day.

Similar situations can be observed in Jakarta and Surabaya, where big infrastructure projects also have gendered impacts. Fadhilah Trya Wulandari interviewed women mussel collectors from the communities of Muara Baru and Kali Baru, in the context of the NCICD project in Jakarta Bay (a sea wall closing the Bay of Jakarta supposedly to avoid flooding). She notices that women observed an increase in the production costs after the projects, particularly because it increases the distance between the areas where mussels are processed and the area where they are sold.4 Therefore, the transport costs are increasing. The costs for investments have also increased because the gear used to raise mussels were negatively impacted by the project, and as a consequence, the owners of the aquaculture ponds reduced the salary of the women they employ to compensate those costs.

In parallel, women also observe a decrease in their incomes, because the pollution of the water is changing the growth rate of mussels and they become smaller in average. Women are paid depending on the number of kilogram of mussels they collect, so the smaller mussels are, the longer it takes to collect one kilogram.

To summarize, big infrastructure projects have two direct impacts on the production of women mussel harvesters. The space taken by the infrastructure is increasing production costs and the pollution created by the project is decreasing the availability of appropriate mussels and thus the income of women fish workers.

Second, in terms of social reproductive tasks in the household, the financial impacts are generally shouldered by the women who are traditionally seen as the financial managers of the family. The decline in incomes among fisher families has meant an increase in debts. Some of their children drop out of school, because they cannot pay the fees anymore. Worse still, child marriage (out of economic desperation) is increasingly frequent as a way of earning a dowry and relieving financial pressure from the family. Traditionally, women are seen as responsible for household accounting, so, the stress of making ends meet in these impossible circumstances falls primarily on the women’s shoulders.

Makassar fishing boat Photo credit: Thibault Josse

Finally, as fishermen’s livelihoods are undermined, this can fuel what might be seen as a crisis of masculinity in a context where traditional patriarchal gender roles assume that men bring in the most money. As this is rendered impossible, interviews with local community organizers suggest that frustration and pressure are rising, as is domestic violence.

Lastly, the very often unseen and feminized labor of maintaining social cohesion, and community structures and norms is also impacted. There are several local NGOs in and around Makassar encouraging fisherfolk to take compensation from the government due to the negative impacts of the MNP. Unfortunately, the amount offered is quite low – around 1 million rupiah -, and ironically the women are often not consulted. Other fishers flat out reject compensation. This is causing further tensions within the community, which the women end up having to manage.

Institutionalized patriarchy

Women’s Solidarity organization, Solidaritas Perempuan (SP), argues that the process of marine spatial planning in Indonesia has been developed and implemented according to a patriarchal logic. “RZWP3K (the marine spatial plan) is allocating space to different sectors. Who is the most important in this? Some people will lose. In Indonesia there are patriarchal priorities – big projects. But for us creating jobs for women in fishing communities should be a priority, but they are not seen. Women are invisibilized and therefore will lose.”5

Indeed this lack of recognition of women is institutionalized by the state and within their own communities. Women are legally registered on their ID cards as the wives of fishers, rather than fishers themselves, even if they go to sea and contribute in many ways to local fishing economies. Insurance and public finance options don’t recognize women as fishers so they cannot get support from the government. Women have to have a marriage certificate to inherit property, and this is only possible if they become widowed, otherwise they cannot own property. And in the limited consultation processes that did take place in the development of the Makassar Marine Spatial Plan, women were not invited and could not give their contribution because they were not recognized as stakeholders. In the law it says that the head of the family is the man. Thus in the words of SP, “the law itself and policy specific to fisheries are patriarchal.”6 At the same time, their own husbands and other men in the community often claim that women aren’t needed in the process. Thus traditional fisherwomen’s perspectives are not being taken into consideration and their contributions are invisibilised. But in reality what they do is fundamental for subsistence. “The New Port is not about subsistence, it’s about big business.”7

This development logic has serious ecological implications as well. Therefore, as Buckingham-Hatfield (2000) describes, “women are disproportionately affected by negative environmental impacts because of their social and domestic roles and a greater likelihood of poverty.”8 As Kurniawaty from SP and Wulandari’s analyses show, environmental degradation is a form of discrimination, part of an oppressive system, institutionalized by policies that advance large-scale infrastructure development while invisibilising the rights and needs of women.

Fishing pier, Makassar. Photo credit Thibault Josse

Mobilization and the way forward

These projects on the ground leading to displacement of fisher people not only have gendered impacts, but also gendered reactions and mobilizations. Solidaritas Perempuan Association (SP), formed in 1992, supports women’s mobilisation and provides feminist leadership training from its 11 offices across Indonesia. The vision of SP is to create a democratic social order, based on the principles of justice, ecological awareness, respect for pluralism, in an equal system regarding male and female relations, in which they can fairly share access to and control over natural, social, cultural, economic and political resources.

On the ground, SP has 76 members in Makassar, and is working particularly in fishing communities like Tallo, facing the impacts of the MNP development. They use popular education and action research, to analyze gendered impacts in Indonesian communities, and empower women so that they can fight the issues described here. The type of research methodologies they use prioritize women only spaces where they seek to raise awareness about what is happening in the communities and specifically to understand women’s perspectives, without men encroaching on the speaking space of women. “If we want to make working groups, which is important to work more easily, if women are in groups with men, then we won’t be heard. We need our own groups.”9 These groups are carefully collecting data and information about the MNP construction processes and its impacts in order to strengthen advocacy work. Community meetings organized in this way, thus, help to gather data about gendered impacts of big infrastructure development while also supporting women in organizing and building strategies to resist against big infrastructure development policies, deeply rooted in a patriarchal system.

Fisherwomen discussing organizing strategies. Photo credit: Zoe W Brent

In particular, SP members have analyzed how policy tools like marine spatial planning (MSP) are used by the national and provincial governments to justify and implement big infrastructure projects. MSP is described as a neutral tool to solve conflicts over ocean space, but as a recent report on the topic shows, gender bias is clearly evident in the way MSP is implemented on the ground, taking advantage of patriarchal cultural and institutional dynamics to keep women out of a decisions making process that is likely to impact them strongly.

This type of participatory action research has helped to create a vehicle for fisherwomen’s mobilization. On one hand, they have put pressure on government from outside the institutions, organizing multiple protests in front of the local government (DPRD for its initials in Indonesian), with hundreds of women to voice their concerns. And on the other hand, SP leaders have been invited to give public speeches inside the DPRD to insist on the gendered impacts caused by MSP.

In 2015, the “Aliansi Selamatkan Pesisir” (Save the Coast Alliance) was formed in order to push forward litigation against the CPI coastal development. This work was led by Walhi Sulsel (Friends of the Earth South Sulawesi) and Anging Mammiri joined on behalf of SP in order to strengthen the role of grassroots women in the alliance. The strong presence of SP on the ground also allows its members to put gender as a central issue in the coalition, raising awareness of other NGOs, which may be less aware of gender dynamics in the communities. This puts gender at the center of civil society organizing, helping to slowly address patriarchy within NGOs as well as bring a feminist analysis to the advocacy work.

Implications for gender and food sovereignty

Fishers, especially women are being stripped of their ability to fish, and maintain their autonomy from this work. By prioritizing large-scale infrastructure development to facilitate long distance trade and national economic growth, the autonomy and survival of local communities are at risk, and environmental destruction becomes another form of discrimination women have to face every day.

The food sovereignty agenda provides a critique of this global profit driven logic, which undermines the ecological and social health of the people who live and fish in those places of global commerce. Feminist perspectives articulated by SP dovetail nicely with this food sovereignty vision, emphasizing the importance of prioritizing the systems that ensure life and dignity. As the CPI and MNP construction barrels forward, the lives of entire coastal communities are put at risk. Taken together a feminist-food sovereignty agenda puts life and life ensuring activities like food production at the center of decision making. A gender sensitive food sovereignty analysis helps us pay closer attention specifically to the lives and needs of women and their diverse roles in the food system from food production to provision, among other things. This makes clear the need to challenge institutionalized patriarchy, which does not recognize these crucial contributions, as well as patriarchy within communities and civil society organizations. Therefore, the fact that SP is part of the CSO (civil society organizations) coalition and engaging inside and outside local institutions can be seen as a needed diversity of tactics to deconstruct patriarchal dynamics, within governmental institutions, within the civil society and within communities.

At the same time, these elements highlight the ways in which the small-scale food producers that keep local food economies going and marginalized communities fed, are being squeezed out and dispossessed in favor of global trade and investment.

This case also reveals the doubly important role of fisherwomen. On one hand, food producers are essential, given that the fruits of their labor, literally keep us all alive. But fisherwomen specifically do this as well as attend to the social reproduction of food producers themselves. Therefore, strong role in the struggle itself is highly needed, as they are often doubly impacted by big infrastructure development, as we describe above. The role of SP in the coalition, and the space they managed to create inside and outside the local parliament had a strong impact on women’s empowerment in the communities, who are now more actively engaging in and resisting infrastructure projects and the policies that justify them.

SP feminist leadership school. Photo credit: Zoe W Brent

For food sovereignty advocates, the needs and perspectives of these life ensuring people are central to guiding the direction of change. Thus, the work of SP in providing spaces for cultivating feminist leadership and training among fisherwomen so that their voices and demands can be more powerful, is a crucial part of building food sovereignty. The example of Makassar is just one instance and similar cases can be observed all around Indonesia. SP has drawn on the experience in Makassar, for example to put gender as a central point of the “Save Jakarta Bay Coalition”. Indeed, as we have seen, the gendered impacts of the Jakarta NCICD project are really similar to those observed in Makassar, and the experience of SP is crucial for the feminist element of the struggle to move forward. Just as feminism and the leadership of women, especially those small-scale fisherwomen fighting to defend their livelihoods and communities, are crucial to the construction of food sovereignty.

Solidaritas Perempuan (SP)

Solidaritas Perempuan, or Women’s Solidarity (SP) for Human Rights, is an Indonesian feminist organization founded on December 10, 1990. For more than 25 years, SP has worked with women to build democracy from the grassroots, based on the principles of justice, ecological awareness, respecting pluralism based on an equal gender relations where women and men can share access and control over natural, social, cultural, economic and political resources in an equitable way. Solidaritas Perempuan (SP) has 12 offices in 10 provinces throughout Indonesia, which channel the energy and activism of it’s 778 individual members. Together they engage directly with at least 5800 women SSFPs to support the fight against all forms of gender based oppression and build the movement to reclaim women’s sovereignty over their lives.

The Transnational Institute (TNI)

TNI is an international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable planet. For more than 40 years, TNI has served as a unique nexus between social movements, engaged scholars and policy makers.

1“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability. Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all peoples and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.” Nyeleni Declaration on Food Sovereignty, 2007

Johnny Langenheim, “Millions of Small Scale Fishers Facing Economic Exclusion,” The Guardian, July 28, 2017, sec. Environment,

The article is based on participant observation and interviews with fisherwomen from Tallo in South Sulawesi as well as with community organizers from Womens’ Solidarity Organization Solidaritas Perempuan. This work was carried out during 2018-19 in Indonesia in the context of women only workshops set up to support social change and womens’ empowerment in the face of patriarchal policies and cultural norms. The following sections explain how Solidaritas Perempuan is doing this work on the ground.

Fadhilah Trya Wulandari, “Gender Justice in Green Development: Women in Aquacultures and Coastal Defence Strategy in North Jakarta” (Master of Arts in Development Studies, The Hague, Netherlands, International Institute of Social Studies, 2018).

5  Kurniawaty, A. 2019, field notes.

Kurniawaty, A. 2019, field notes.

Kurniawaty, A. 2019, field notes.

Susan Buckingham-Hatfield, Gender and Environment, Routledge Introductions to Environment Series (Routledge, 2000), 114.

Kurniawaty, A. 2019, field notes.