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    Volume 5 Number 12, December 22, 2011

Fish from the land make a comeback in Aceh


Beleaguered by civil war, natural disasters and years of isolation from the world, small producers remain the backbone of the economy in Aceh, Indonesia. Co-operatives are bringing new prosperity to 2,000 marginalized entrepreneurs in two districts of this once embattled region. On the eve of the International Year of Co-operatives, this issue of Dispatch looks at how local fish farmers are using their co-operatives to meet Aceh's growing demands for fish from the land.

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CDF responds to tropical storm in the Philippines 

The Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada (CDF) is reaching out to co-operatives and credit unions across Canada to solicit financial support in aid of families affected by a tropical storm that struck the Philippines last weekend. At last count, more than 927 people were dead, many were still missing, and tens of thousands displaced.  This is an area well known to CDF and its development partner, the Canadian Co-operative Association, who have worked with a local organization in the Philippines for many years.

To support the affected co-ops in the Philippines through CDF's Philippines Relief Fund, CDF is now accepting donations via cheque, credit card, or mail. Donate online at www.cdfcanada.coop or by mail to Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada, 275 Bank Street, Suite 400, Ottawa, Ontario, K2P 2L6.

Please indicate that your donation is designated for the CDF Philippines Relief Fund. The money raised will be directed to an emergency fund and distributed to those in greatest need.


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Muhammad Amin harvests a bounty of tilapia fish from a demonstration pond he helps manage on behalf of a new marketing co-operative in Aceh. (photo: M. Hasan)

Neighours were naturally skeptical when Muhammad Amin chose to pursue a career in aquaculture after high school. Fellows his age usually go to work in the rice fields that carpet his region of Aceh called Nagan Raya. Muhammad eventually found work at a fish pond owned by one of his school teachers and gradually learned the trade.


In 1998, civil war swept into his corner of Aceh, forcing Muhammad and his teacher to abandon their business. Undeterred, Muhammad built his own pond in swamplands owned by his family. He was teased for trying to grow fish in waters believed to be filled with "bad spirits."


Aceh's lengthy civil war killed and injured many thousands. It took the combined devastation of the mammoth 2004 earthquake and tsunami to finally end the conflict.


The world reached out on a scale that many in Aceh refer to as "the second tsunami." And while much good was achieved, the flood of aid altered Aceh's way of life, doing little to tackle poverty in a lasting way.


The war and tsunami left a legacy of fear and deep mistrust in Aceh. Even towards the sea itself. With reports of human remains found in marine fish, more and more Acehnese turned to freshwater fish for nourishment. Isolated and without proper training, small fish farmers in Aceh produced disappointing yields. Many gave up on aquaculture altogether.


But there were others, like Muhammad and his friend Adbul Rani, who decided to move their businesses to a new level. They and other fish farmers formed small co-operatives with the help of the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) and a local grassroots organization called PASKA. They pooled their resources and then their harvests to command better prices for their fish. Still, yields were small and they were selling only in their local markets.

A growing number of Acehnese are adding farm raised tilapia fish to their diet because of its freshness and nutritional value. (photo: M. Hasan)

Business is booming along Aceh's new roads and in its bustling markets. The promise of prosperity is palpable in this new era of peace.


The demand for fresh fish remains high, particularly among health conscious consumers who are wary of the chemical preservatives some vendors use to make marine fish look fresher than they are.


"You don't get tired selling tilapia fish," says Bustami Ibrahim, a middleman at Banda Aceh's Peunayong market. "Begin at six in the morning and you sell out straight away."


Bustami sells his tilapia to retail traders who then sell to consumers and restaurants, like this small café in Banda Aceh where some regulars order tilapia 3 to 4 times a day. The manager says customers prefer farmed fish because they order them fresh and alive.


In 2010, Muhammad and Abdul caught wind of ways to take their business to another level. CCA, PASKA and the Multi-donor Fund managed by the World Bank had joined with local governments to help those left behind Aceh's growth move higher up the value chain.


Muhammad and Abdul joined forces with other co-operatives of fish farmers, marine fishers, rice farmers and snack food producers to create the KOPEMAS Aceh marketing Co-op - their own specialized marketing business. Muhammad lent a portion of his land to help KOPEMAS establish a demonstration pond for growing hardier brood fish to sell to members. Member fish farmers learned new water management techniques, and benefited from savings earned by buying feed, fertilizer and medicines in bulk through KOPEMAS. This approach went beyond providing seed capital and technical training to marginalized entrepreneurs. It put Muhammad, Abdul and others in the driver's seat of their co-operative business, rekindling the spirit of trust and self-reliance so needed in this post-conflict region of the world.


It is harvest time now. Muhammad and Abdul scoop up some 600 kilograms of healthy tilapia fish from the muddy floor of the KOPEMAS demonstration pond. They net their catch and prepare a celebratory dinner of fresh fish.


Abdul says the methods they adopted from ponds they visited in other parts of Indonesia are bearing fruit in Nagan Raya. His fish are selling in Banda Aceh, 200 kilometres away. The co-op will soon buy cooler trucks to help transport fish to markets even farther afield.


Co-op revenue is growing, and with it, Muhammad's prospects for the future.


People no longer laugh when he talks about growing fish from the land.


Wiping mud and sweat from his brow, Muhammad says with a smile, "thanks be to God, I can now cultivate fish."

This publication is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Cette publication est réalisée avec l'appui financier du gouvernement du Canada accordé par l'entremise de l'Agence canadienne de développement international (ACDI).