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A nation in search of democracy
By Amelia Hapsari

At the heydays of student demonstration in 1998, the whole nation was intoxicated by the promise of democracy. When the authoritarian leader Suharto finally stepped down, Indonesia was eagerly waiting for a democratic change, with all the imagined goodies, like justice, transparency, and freedom of speech. For the first time in 32 years, the press could publish critical stories without fear of state censorship and people could form political parties. But years after, Indonesian citizens are still waiting. The magic pill of democracy has turned to be a long journey of not-always-pleasant discovery.

"Sharing Paradise" as a participatory process mirrors the democratization process of Indonesia. It has brought an enormous enthusiasm in Balobaloang community. For the first time, fishermen of Balobaloang could express their concerns to the local authority. For the first time, they could voice their frustration against the neighboring dynamite fishing community. For the first time, people in Balobaloang could see their lives and celebrated their culture and nature on their television sets. The project has enabled them to feel proud and valued. The project has reversed the top-down communication approach that was traditionally conducted by the authorities. In the past, people could only become a passive listeners to formal speeches or commands from their leaders. But through the video production process, they made local authorities listen to what they had to say.

However, the villagers and the filmmaker was not able to use this momentum to push for further change. The tangled web of relationship between the fishermen, the ship owners, the local leaders, and the blast fishers had prevented further actions regarding environmental protection.

Balobaloang was very far from anywhere else. It took almost 20 hours to get there from the capital of the province by a regular cargo ship. Newer boats can make the single trip in 12-15 hours. No single Regent of Pangkep has ever visited Balobaloang because of the tracherous journey to the island. It was too far away for the police to do regular patrols in the area. The Indonesian police only stationed one officer to oversee Balobaloang Village, which consisted of three islands; Balobaloang, Lesser Balobaloang, and Sumanga. The officer lived in Sumanga, possibly under financial subsidy of blast fishers. The people in Balobaloang had never witnessed him arresting any blast fishers, despite the daily occurrence of underwater dynamite explosions.

The isolation of Balobaloang is worsened by the non-existence of public facilities. To get access to medical clinics, high schools, and banks, people have to cross the vast Makassar Strait to the mainland of Sulawesi. Because there is no regular public transportation, people in Balobaloang have to rely on their neighbors almost in everything; from mundane activities of crossing the ocean to emergency cases of having a sick family member.

On one stormy day, a blast fisher offered a ride to the video team to get to the mainland Sulawesi. No boat was scheduled to leave Balobaloang on that day, but the audio person had to reach to Makassar to catch a plane to the U.S. Rewa, the vice village head of Balobaloang went to Sumanga and found someone who had to go to Makassar. He agreed to take the video team even when his small boat has been full with passangers and fish. That night, three ships including one from Balobaloang were reportedly damaged by the storm. But the dynamite fishing boat with the video team arrived safely in Makassar.

It is not unusual that Balobaloang people need help from their neighboring blast fishing community. When a dynamite fisher came to Balobaloang, he often gave some fish to fishermen who fish nearby his boat. Both communities inevitably meet in various social gatherings, wedding ceremonies, and sport competitions. They keep a resentment against each other and they have different values on environmental conservation. But both communities have to co-exist because there is a more pressing need to maintain a good relationship.

This relationship is maintained out of necessity of living in such a remote area without any public facilities. This necessity to maintain harmony prevents social conflicts, but it has also prevented actions to address injustice. When the filmmaker asked fishermen whether they were afraid of blast fishers, they would say no. They said, "We wanted them to stop using dynamite. But only the authorities could do something about it. We could not stop them."

What the fishermen do is what they have learned all their life. They try to fish further away to find coral reefs that have not been affected by destructive fishing practices. This way, they do not stop trying to sustain their lives without destroying the environment, and without confronting their neighbors directly. The environmental damage continues, so does life in Balobaloang.

Stories like this is abundant in various settings in a democratic Indonesia. People overwhelmingly welcome elections, the chance to vote brought by democracy, but this chance has not been able to address the need for a real change. Law enforcement system is still very weak, corruption is still high, and public facilities are non-existent in many areas like Balobaloang. Many cannot escape poverty because affordable education, health care service, and low-interest loans are not accessible to them. Balobaloang people embraced the participatory video project as their chance to speak to the authorities, but the problem did not stop when the project did. In this way, the project reflects the democratization process in Indonesia.

Ikrar Nusa Bakti succinctly puts it, this way "... Indonesians still face many challenges, both from within and outside the country. These include a lack of capacity among political elites, terrorism, problems at the political level, and a culture and society that is mostly still paternalistic, patrimonial and emotional. Last but not least, Indonesia still has problems with law enforcement, and there can be no democracy without the supremacy of the law." (The Transition to Democracy in Indonesia, Some Outstanding Problems, in Asia Pacific: Region in Transition, 2004).

In a situation where the authorities were either incapable or unwilling to uproot corruption and where law enforcement agents do not have the necessary means to uphold the law, traditional fishermen of Balobaloang could only choose to co-exist with their neighboring dynamite fishers, while fishing further away. Democracy in their context only brought the chance to vote and the chance to express their opinions, without any real solutions to their problems.  

Sources:

The transition to democracy in Indonesia: Some outstanding problems
By Ikrar Nusa Bhakti in Asia Pacific: Region in Transition, 2004

Lifting the veil on Indonesian 'democracy'

By Ivan Abelard Laksmana, The Jakarta Post, April 3rd, 2009

Indonesia Democracy and the Promise of Good Governance
Edited by Ross H. McLeod and Andrew J. MacIntyre, 2007

Indonesia: Democracy First, Good Governance Later
By Douglas E. Ramage in In Southeast Asian Affairs 2007, edited by Daljit Singh and Lorraine C. Salazar, pp. 135- 157. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007

 

Also in this section:
A Nation in Search of Democracy
Destructive Fishing Practices and Indonesian Law
Corruption
Local Autonomy and the Dilemma
Global Trade and the Impact on Developing Countries
Problems in Indonesian Marine Security

 

 

 

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