Before I left the United States, I spent a fair part of the summer e-mailing and skyping with various individuals in SE Asian aquaculture industries. At one point a contact wrote to me “Come with lots of questions, and be prepared that the industries here are as varied as the cultural and economic differences across Asia. There are few simple answers.” For a nervous, recently graduated college student it was exciting and reassuring to hear that I would be leaping into such an incredibly rich and diverse aqua“culture” (I can’t resist a pun as simple as that one). But I don’t think any amount of skyping and e-mailing could have prepared me for the reality and accuracy of this statement. Although Jakarta is only a 3-hour plane ride away from Bangkok (less time than it would take for me to travel from Chicago to the west coast of the United States), it felt like I had arrived on another planet when I stepped off the plane. It was one thing to think abstractly about the sociocultural and religious diversity distinguishing Thailand and Indonesia, but the very tangible, embodied culture shock I received upon arrival was a completely different story. And, as I had previously been informed, the stark differences I observed between Thailand and Indonesia also mapped onto each country’s respective aquaculture industry. Immediately I found that many of the ideas and questions I had been working with while in Thailand no longer made much sense in Indonesia, requiring some pretty rapid and dramatic shifts in my approaches.
Perhaps the most dramatic difference I encountered between aquaculture in Thailand and Indonesia was the different social structures that farmers in both countries inhabited. Take, for example, tilapia farming in both countries. In Thailand, most tilapia farming is managed by individual farmers who raise the fish from fingerling to market size. By contrast, tilapia culture in Indonesia seems to involve large farmer cooperatives/collectives that manage production on a single farm. At every farm I visited with the MMAF, there was a group of approx. 10 farmers each of whom managed a specific aspect of production (e.g. feeding, harvesting, marketing, etc.) The push for groups rather than individuals seems to be driven by the government, which provides greater financial and technical support for the former. Part of this preference seems to be economic: It is much easier to stretch limited financial resources over a greater number of farmers if they are sharing them as part of a group (e.g. purchasing one small-scale feed manufacturing machine for a group of ten farmers to share is more useful than purchasing a machine for a single farmer). As well, a fish farming collective has greater resources and buying power than a single farmer. The trend towards more group farming also seem to hold significant social networking potential. Although the technology for aquaculture has not changed much in the past 20 years, the number of famers has skyrocketed. If a select few well supported farms can serve as nodes of information and training dissemination, newly formed farmer groups can come to rely upon them for support and development. Thus the collective networks of group farming that are beginning to form in Indonesian aquaculture are targeted towards creating a more stable and self-sufficient aquaculture industry through collective responsibility.
The development of larger aquaculture networks in Indonesia is not only driven by the government, but also seems to driven by farmers themselves in response to local economic conditions. Growing tilapia from fingerling to market size takes around 8 months. In Thailand, this entire process is usually managed by a single farmer and results in around one large harvest per pond per year. This creates rather long periods of waiting as the fish grow, followed by a very rapid harvest and subsequent influx of cash. By contrast, I learned that in Indonesia it is normal for a tilapia to be bought and sold as many as five times between its infancy and when it is harvested for consumption. Many farmers will culture tilapia for a month or two and then sell them on to another farmer for further grow-out. A government official informed me that this inter-farmer trading occurs because farmers cannot afford to wait 8 months for fish to grow before receiving payment. By culturing fish for a month or two, each farmer is able to expect more frequent (if smaller) pay days. Tilapia farming is not limited to affluent farmers, but seems to have molded to fit the country’s economic conditions creating rather large inter-farmer trading networks that look completely different from inter-farmer networks in Thailand.
But as I continually learned while in Indonesia, the industry there is far from monolithic. During one of my “off days” in Yogjakarta I went on a bike ride with the host of my guesthouse and we stumbled upon bamboo cages for tilapia culture anchored in a small river. Fortunately, the man who owned them happened to be there so I was able to ask him about his operation. He built and managed the cages by himself, rather than as part of a collective and did very little maintenance on the fish since he didn’t have the clean the water and the fish could consume supplemental detritus in the river. Although I do not have any bulk data to say whether he represented a small or shrinking minority of individual farmers, it was incredibly cool to discover his operation. Once I’d begun to feel more solid in my understanding of Indonesian aquaculture, as if on cue I discovered a different kind of farm that forced me to refocus my understandings.
When thinking about my own experiences in Thailand and Indonesia, the former’s industry feels much more stable and mature than the latter’s which is still rapidly growing and developing. Indeed, if you look at the annual production data for both countries, Thailand’s productivity has more-or-less started to plateau while Indonesia’s production continues to rise. Encountering so much diversity and intricacy in Indonesian aquaculture suggested to me that the industry is still incredibly dynamic; growing into any interstitial spaces it can find, adapting with alacrity to its local conditions, and at all times diversifying into a variety of different forms. It has been both a blessing and an incredible challenge to encounter so much complexity. It reminds me of the importance to remain as open as possible to the things I might discover and it forces me to be patient as I wait (and will continue to wait) for understanding to come to me. It is an adventure, wonderful and frustrating at every turn, and (as always) I am so grateful that I get to learn in this way.