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The making of Sharing Paradise: An anthropologist’s footnote
By Gene Ammarell

During the 1990s, the reef surrounding the island of Balobaloang experienced an accelerated growth in the numbers of outside fishers who were using explosives and cyanide to capture far larger quantities of fish more quickly than was possible using traditional fishing methods. Over this same period, villagers increasingly voiced their concerns to anthropologist Gene Ammarell about depleted fish stocks due to the destruction of the local fishery. Put simply, local fishers had to travel increasing distances at greater expense to catch fewer and fewer fish, while villagers complained that for the first time in their memory they were not getting enough fish – their protein staple – to eat. As a result, Ammarell decided to refocus his research on this growing problem. So it was that Ammarell recruited several graduate students, including Amelia Hapsari, a master’s candidate in Telecommunications at Ohio University and native of Indonesia, to join him in a project to explore, among other things, the problem of destructive fishing practices and help to enable community members to maintain sustainable livelihoods by empowering themselves as managers of their own marine resources.

In late 2003, Ammarell carried out interviews on the island and joined local fishers on their boats to study their indigenous knowledge of the reef and its resources as well as the technologies they have traditionally used to harvest fish as well as lobsters, shell fish, and sea cucumbers. He also paved the way for Hapsari by letting them know that soon they would have the opportunity to join in the production of a video about life on the island and eliciting their concerns and opinions. Overwhelmingly, conversations turned to the blast and cyanide fishing that was threatening their livelihoods.

Working closely with the principle of the village school, Supriady Daeng Matutu, Ammarell was able to gain the trust of a number of fishers and others as they shared their stories with him. As discussed above, social harmony was highly valued in the community, and many people were initially reluctant to speak out in ways that might disrupt that harmony. By the time Amelia Hapsari arrived in early 2004 to make a participatory video, however, a number of people were becoming ready to speak out about the problem on film. However, when Amelia Hapsari finally arrived, villagers’ initial excitement to meet her quickly turned to consternation about her ethnicity as a Chinese-Indonesian.

Overcoming ethnocentrism with compassion

A nation with well over 300 ethnic groups and as many indigenous languages spoken, perhaps the most ubiquitous history of prejudice and conflict has been between the majority of ethnic groups, including the Bugis, who share a common prehistory and language family – Austronesian – and the ethnic Chinese who have migrated to the region in large numbers beginning in the 15th century. The common ethnic stereotype of the Chinese-Indonesians held by many other Indonesians is that of a highly communal and business-oriented people who are primarily concerned with accumulating wealth through the exploitation of non-Chinese. Among the people of Balobaloang, it has usually been ship owners and captains who have had contacts with ethnic Chinese wealthier money lenders and business owners with whom they are forced to deal when purchasing engines for their ships and obtaining consigned cargos. This and the culture of fear and prejudice that had grown up over centuries made it difficult for local Bugis to trust and be open to any ethnic Chinese.

Thus, within hours of Hapsari’s arrival on the island, people were approaching me with serious questions about Amelia. “Didn’t you say she was from Indonesia?” I was asked. “Yes, Indonesia,” I assured them. “Where in Indonesia?” people wanted to know. “Semarang on the island of Java,” I replied. “Are you sure she isn’t from Japan?” someone asked, perhaps hoping that Gene’s student, how they wanted to trust, was not ethnically Chinese. “No, she is from Indonesia,” I confirmed. That evening when Amelia returned from a walk around the island, she was visibly shaken, sharing with us that she was already experiencing not-so-subtle prejudice in the conversations she had struck up with villagers, and over the next few days, she began to seriously doubt her ability to carry on the film project in the face of people’s prejudice toward her.

It didn’t take long, however, for Amelia to replace her own apprehensions with a renewed determination to gain the trust of villagers and with a faith that, in the end, the film might serve to empower them in their struggle for environmental justice. Perhaps the pivotal moment came when Amelia was called by a local fisherman to film a blast fishing incident that was about to take place. She had already begun filming aboard a local fishing boat and had survived an unanticipated bout of seasickness. This time the fisherman aroused her from her sleep well before dawn and she responded without hesitation. In a flash she had packed her camera and was off on her bicycle to the other side of the island where the fisherman and boat were waiting. Unaware that they were being photographed, the blast fishers submerged their ordinance and, when the plume of water rose above the reef, Amelia captured it on film. Finally, villagers proclaimed, there was solid evidence that could be taken to the authorities who would then be compelled to arrest the perpetrators and halt the destruction of the fishery. And while this did go a long way to overcome initial prejudice and confirm Hapsari’s compassionate intent, it fell short of initial expectations regarding the power of evidence to bring justice to the village.

A matter of harmony

From the outset, Amelia elicited villager’s opinions and involvement in choosing the subject matter of the video. Although she was the filmmaker, they were to be its producers. Soon, however, it became evident that villagers’ ideas of documentary film had been shaped by the many they had viewed on their satellite televisions and that they expected to be the subjects of the film, leaving the production process to Hapsari. There were, however, a number of times in its production where Amelia called meetings of all those interested to discuss the subject of the film and view the footage she had shot. Although she filmed many aspects of daily life on the island, from coconut picking and gathering shellfish along the reef to ship building and weddings, the consensus emerged among those most interested that the video focus on the problem of destructive fishing practiced by outsiders and the struggle by locals to stop it.

The second meeting was called to decide what the subject of the film should be, and while the village head chose not to attend, a large cross section of the population joined the conversation, including some other village officials. While most agreed that traditional fishing practices would be a good subject for a documentary, some ship owners brought up the problem of destructive fishing and the apparent unwillingness of local authorities, including the village head, to try to stop it. This appeared to be perhaps the first public meeting in which people openly suggested bribery and corruption were part of the problem. Taken in a broader context, this was a part of a call for transparency in government that had spread across Indonesia after the fall of the Suharto government in 1999, ending over three centuries of colonial and postcolonial authoritarianism. Not everyone at the meeting, however, was comfortable with this challenge with some defending the village head while others called for outside intervention.

One of those who felt that the problem could not and, indeed, should not be solved locally came by to discuss it with Hapsari and Ammarell the day after the meeting. Speaking with great respect and diplomacy, he suggested that what we were up to represented a real risk for the social harmony of the village. He explained that whereas in other such conflicts, local people were able to unite to challenge outside authorities, here the authorities and even the perpetrators themselves were “insiders,” sharing family ties and social networks. Most at risk, he continued, were not the ship owners who spoke out, but the fishers. In such cases, he concluded, a “top-down” approach was needed to halt destructive fishing practices.

In the words of the young man, “last night the discussion changed direction from traditional fishing practices (assumed point of meeting) to illegal practices and corruption. If the conversation isn’t guided properly, there can be bad fallout for those who criticize. If meeting was about traditional fishing, then only fishermen should attend and that would be enough for one meeting. Don’t use traditional fishing as an excuse to discuss politics with opinion leaders.” He saw meeting being taken over by two ship owners. “They aren’t affected by bad fallout if they criticize authority.” The implication here is that fishers depend on the patronage and good will of the rich, including the village head, and they should not be drawn into the conversation.

The young man, it should be pointed out, was well respected by fishers and other villagers and probably represented the point of view of many others. He originally thought the video was to be a non-political account of how people fish traditionally, like in a regular documentary, but the meeting changed direction to the concrete problem of blast fishing. Dodo did not understand that Hapsari’s and Ammarell’s intention that the meeting was to be open to all ideas that individuals wished to put forth, while it was no surprise to Ammarell and Hapsari that destructive fishing would be an issue given Ammarell’s previous conversations with local fishermen and others.

At first Amelia attributed this attitude to the deference to authority that was the norm under Suharto’s fallen New Order government. Later, she came to believe that the Bugis villagers were very concerned about upsetting local harmony, expecting that she would be like a reporter, taking the responsibility herself and locals would not be expected to speak out themselves and make themselves vulnerable: “go ahead and make a video, but not with my voice and picture.” On the other hand, several fishermen did speak out about blast and cyanide fishing at that meeting, and later on, at the first meeting with just fishermen, one of them said that he was concerned because by speaking out maybe they would loose, while another countered, saying that they were “already wet” implying that they could not now turn back.

Thus, although some saw the project as dangerous, village fishers increasingly came on board. While Ammarell saw project as a catalyst to get people to speak out, he initially missed what that first young man was trying to say. In the end, however, there seems to have been a paradigm shift, with more people willing to criticize the authorities. According to Amelia, the turning point may have been when she first showed the five-minute video of the bombing, mentioned above, at the home of the vice-head of the village. Although the boat used for the bombing was owned by a close relative of one of the ship owners, at another meeting, he made it clear that he supported showing the video as evidence to higher and geographically remote government leaders and police officials as long as no one was named. This concrete evidence did probably emboldened people even as it nurtured their trust of Hapsari.

Again, the young man thought the video was meant to bring people together, detaching personality. He was very aware that life in the village depends on sharing and community, something that became increasingly clear to Hapsari after filming the launch of a ship, something that simply couldn’t take place without the participation of a large percentage of the community. Here it was also made clear that patron ship owners understand quite well that they need clients as much as clients need patrons to get anything done. So, they, too, don’t want to attack others and disrupt the status quo, even though everyone is keenly aware of injustices - like blast and cyanide fishing - occurring in their midst.

© 2011 Gene Ammarell

In this section :
The making of Sharing Paradise

What is a participatory video?

Getting the fishermen involved
Sharing Paradise: Living in a tangled web of relationships

Ethnic and religious dimensions:
America, the evil empire
Chinese, the emperor of the market

Patron-client relationships and the participatory process

Language dimension

Reflections by the filmmaker




Sharing Paradise
Sharing Paradise Study Guide