The sun was just about to emerge from its slumber when the women from Oeseli Village, in the Southwest Rote District of East Nusa Tenggara set off towards their seaweed plantations. From a distance, you could see them carrying a roll of rope, a net or a knife, used as a tool for tidying and cutting seaweed. The beach is located about 1-2 km from their houses, along a steep and rocky road. If their family members can’t give them a lift, they will usually walk. However, that morning Mama Metri arrived with the rising sun and was escorted by her son, Mengki, on a motorbike.

The water had already receded by the time Mama Metri arrived. As far as the eye could see, there was a stretch of rope and buoys floating. Mama Metri rushed to the fields, afraid that the water would soon rise again. At that time, even though it was in retreat, the water was still as high as an adult’s chest. The position of the field where Mama Metri was located was right in the middle of someone else’s buoy stretch, so she had to walk further to the centre. Arriving there, she immediately took out her tools to tidy up the now-almost-detached seaweed, while also harvesting some of it. In front of her, other women were joking while harvesting seaweed, or picking up broken seaweed that was carried by the waves to the shore to dry.

The sun continued to rise, and the bucket Mama Metri had brought steadily began to fill with seaweed. She decided to immediately take her harvest to the beach, pulling the bucket along using a rope. Arriving at the high waterline, with the help of Mengki, Mama Metri began to arrange the seaweed on wooden beds for drying in the sun.

“The seaweed is now su No’e (meaning ‘mushy’),” explains Mam Metri. “It’s not like it used to be, when you could get 2 tonnes of seaweed at once,” she said, wiping away the saltwater that dripped down her face. “It’s because there is a lot of mud that settles in the seaweed, which means the seaweed can’t grow anymore.” According to her, in the early 2000s, women used to plant seaweed out at sea using canoes. However, an oil spill incident made some locations unsuitable for planting. This is because there is too much mud and black water that stops seaweed from growing. Since then, farmers have moved their fields to less polluted coastal areas. However, in these new locations they have to wait for the tide to recede before they can plant their seaweed.

The flagship seaweed species for Rote Ndao farmers is Eucheuma cottonii, which can grow in intertidal and subtidal areas. This species is highly suited to planting in the sea conditions of Rote, because the temperature and tides are very reliable, which means drought is uncommon. Based on the results of a 2005 research project conducted by the Kupang branch of Bank Indonesia, before the oil spill tragedy the average production of seaweed from 48 villages spread across Rote Ndao Regency was around 5,086 tonnes. However, the oil spill was not the only problem. Now, seaweed farmers have to face another threat: “I don’t understand, from 2017 to 2021, storms have been coming more and more often and destroying my crops,” says another local woman, named Mama Ice, when we met on another occasion.

Furthermore, the seaweed cultivation techniques used by Rote Ndao farmers are the floating raft technique and the long line technique, because these methods are relatively cheap and simple compared to other options. However, the floating and long line methods are especially vulnerable to waves and high winds, so when a storm hits, these ropes are easily broken. In October alone, Mama Ice’s seaweed was racked by two storms that devastated her crop. “Fifteen ropes attached, only nine left. All broke up in the storm,” she explains.

The best time for planting seaweed occurs from March to September, because during this season there are not so many rains and storms. The seaweed planting period for the export market is about 45 days, while the seedling process only takes 15 days. Later, before being sold, this seaweed will be dried in the sun for approximately two to three days. However, if the rainy season arrives the seaweed takes longer to dry. People often experience crop failure because seaweed is exposed to rain.

 If this is the case, the seaweed becomes unfit for sale. “In the past we could live only on seaweed,” said Mama Metri, while looking at the sea in the distance. “We could provide schooling for the children until they graduated, and finding food to eat was no problem; now it is difficult,” she added.

Rote Ndao is one of the areas where marine pollution is the main threat, including oil, gas, ghost nets and other fishing activities. This reduces water quality and sedimentation, thus affecting the surrounding habitat and the community’s economy.

In response, the ATSEA-2 Programme has conducted field surveys to identify core locations of marine pollution and areas of vulnerability to climate change. Going forward, the ATSEA-2 Programme, working through Integrated Coastal Management (ICM), will focus on ecosystem-based adaptation. Meanwhile, the flagship programmes that will be implemented include planning, adaptation to climate change, adaptation of alternative livelihoods and local coastal and marine conservation. Women will be included in every decision-making process, in relation to increasing market potential and improving access to raise the quality of seaweed.

(Vivekananda Gitandjali)