Sofice Littik smiled kindly when we met at her home in Oeseli Village of Rote Ndao Regency, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). The 49-year-old seaweed farmer invited us to sit in the courtyard of her house, which had just been repaired following damage caused by hurricane Seroja. “In the front yard of the house there was a Siwalan tree and banyan tree,” she explained, pointing to the garden, now virtually empty. “But when the storm hit, the trees fell and landed in the living room”. Thousands of houses in Rote Ndao Regency suffered a similar fate when the tropical cyclone Seroja hit Indonesia’s southern shores in early April.

Known locally as ‘Mama Ice’, Sofice Littik is one of several seaweed farmers and small-scale fisherwomen in the village. Every day, this mother of two heads out to sea to take care of the seaweed at low tide and then, when the tide turns, she joins her husband fishing with nets on the open ocean. When she finally comes home, her work is just beginning; as she returns to her household duties of cleaning, preparing the meals and looking after the children. Like many women in the village, she must juggle multiple roles and carry a heavy burden to support her family.

“I use a small fishing net with five heads,” explains Mama Ice, pointing to a pile of nets, each varying in size. “If you leave in the afternoon, then you will still be fishing late at night,” she added. She and her husband sometimes take a canoe to the open ocean, where they cast nets and catch melo; a small fish that’s transported and sold per basket.

“I usually paddle the canoe and my husband takes the net, because he has lost one of his arms and is not so strong anymore,” said Mama Ice with a wry smile. In the past, fishermen in Rote Ndao Regency were known to use explosives when fishing. However, since the early 2000s, the local community has abandoned this habit, because it has claimed many lives and caused physical disabilities. Mama Ice’s husband is one of many whose lives have been altered in this way. After he was injured, she stepped forward to help him carry the working load, taking on physical work that is usually reserved for men.

In the early 2000s, seaweed production could cover all household needs. However, after an oil spill, sedimentation has caused the plants to stunt and die.  “Before the oil spill, we [seaweed farmers] used to float seaweed in the deep sea,” explains Mama Ice. “But since 2009 and until now we can’t do this anymore,” she lamented. Currently, healthy areas for seaweed farming are dwindling, due to increased pollution in the area. It’s little wonder then, that seaweed farmers like Mama Ice are racking their brains to find solutions for survival.

In Rote Ndao, women play multiple roles, yet are often overlooked and unsupported by society. Mama Ice is one of many who is a housewife, a fisherwoman and a seaweed farmer all rolled into one. Since 2003, the provincial government of NTT has been promoting seaweed farming in the Rote Ndao area. However, assistance from the government – in the form of ropes, seeds, buoys and anchors that were distributed to the local community – is usually handed over to the husbands, while capacity building training is generally aimed at men.

The absence of women’s voices in decision making makes it increasingly difficult for them to get access and assistance from the government.  This was because the government calculated aid based on the head of the family, who was invariably the husband or a ‘man of the house’. Decision-makers rarely take wives into consideration, even though they are usually the backbone of the family. To make matters worse, climate change and the degradation of ecosystems have affected the condition of women and caused them to be increasingly marginalised.

In response to these emerging challenges, the ATSEA-2 Project has conducted field surveys to identify core locations of marine pollution and areas of vulnerability to climate change. Moving forward, the ATSEA-2 Project will focus on ecosystem-based adaptation through Integrated Coastal Management (ICM). Programmes such as planning, adaptation to climate change, adaptation to alternative livelihoods, and local coastal and marine conservation will involve women in every decision-making process, including increasing market potential and facilitating access. The Project is also supporting the establishment of a seaweed farmers group at the village level, providing a forum through which the women fishers and farmers of Rote Ndao can share their experiences, pool their knowledge and make their voices heard.

(by Vivekananda Gitandjali)

This article was published on GEF IW Learn.