The Panglima Laot of Aceh

At a time of industry advancement, as demands and prices of fishery resources increase in the global market, fishermen in Aceh still use a low-tech fishing tradition inherited 500 years ago.

An over-night bus and a ferry brought us from the jungle to a seaside hotel on Weh Island of Aceh, which is to the northwest of Sumatra Island. It is a beautiful island with fabulous coral reefs, plenty of colorful fishes, golden beaches and light green shining water. After snorkeling and swimming in the sea, we could hardly believe that a horrible tsunami, which took a lot of lives and badly damaged the coral reefs, occurred 9 years ago. The recovery is related to the efforts of the Panglima Laot, which has protected this beautiful sea since 17th century.

Panglima Laot is a local community-based fishery management system. Panglima Laot means “sea commander,” which is the leader whose duty is to manage community fishermen in marine fisheries. The Panglima Laot system is one of provincial customary laws that help resolve the problem of fishery resource over-exploitation. They have strict regulations regarding fishing allowances and methods in order to protect marine resources.

This afternoon, our classroom was beside the beautiful beach. Two fishermen from the Panglima Laot of Aceh joined us in discussion and brought their stories. They were Saiful Bahri, a leader of Panglima Laot and Ridwan, the vice Panglima Laot. Ridwan used vivid body languages to help him communicate with us. With the help of a translator and Ridwan’s son, we started our conversation across languages and cultures, sharing the same concern about nature and the sea.

There are 3 villages controlled by the Panglima Laot we met with. Currently, there are 193 Panglima Laots in Aceh. Saiful Bahri and Ridwan, were selected by a senior boat captain in the community. He has the highest authority among his community. The authorities include: determining fishing ground, granting or restricting access by outsider fishermen to fish in their territory, settling disputes and conflicts among fishermen, rapidly responding to any sea accident, assisting local government and academic institutions, practicing tradition and protecting the coastal environment. When facing violations inside the community, the power of Panglima Laot can be realized in 3 different ways — warnings, fines and sanctions. Although the Panglima Laot has the highest power in community, they still discuss punishments with the community before coming to a decision. The core purpose of the Panglima Laot is to serve the community.

As an integral part of customs and tradition, Panglima Laot have a lot of taboos and special traditions. We can find their roots in religious belief. A faithful heart to God is also an important criterion for electing a Panglima Laot. This form of stable, firm networking provides every member a connection with each other. Outside community members of each different Panglima Laot hold gatherings and discuss with other Panglima Laot. Sometimes an outside Panglima Laot is invited to help resolve conflicts.

Through the years, the regulations of Panglima Laot system have been updated to adapt to a more complicated external environment. The laws are not written and are loosely influenced by Islamic law. Fishermen are exploring options to write down their customary laws. However, this process still requires time and discussion with the central government. The combination of folk tradition and legislation is a challenge for both government and fishermen. Additional challenges face the fishermen. One of the most pressing issues is the monsoons. They cause high waves and disrupt the livelihoods of fishermen. It makes their jobs more dangerous and difficult. Working hard doesn’t guarantee a steady income. Most fishermen still live in poverty. Ridwan’s first son is working for hotel and does not want to become a fisherman.

Nowadays, Panglima Laot are endowed with new functions. They are beginning to cooperate with the Ministry of Tourism. They also assist the government in protecting against illegal fishing from outside the community by altering military authorities when they see violations beyond their own territory. They bring numerous positive externalities to the local society in the short and long term.

The tsunami and global warming have negatively affected coral reefs. However, Panglima Laot have developed created solutions to help keep coral reefs healthy. After realizing the decrease of the coral reefs, three years ago, Ridwan began remove parts of living coral reefs to the places where no coral reefs exist. Surprisingly, the coral reefs survived and grew bigger!

Panglima Laot remain committed to tradition and loyal to their beliefs. This living history reveals the importance of respecting nature and the balance between humans, nature and religion. The Panglima Laot demonstrates the great wisdom to be learned from tradition.

-Jing Li

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