Leaving an imprint: Rebuilding the shrimp sector in Aceh, Indonesia

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In my 12 years at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), I've been involved with a lot of different projects. Many of them were successful, some were not. But none of them were as satisfying as the Aceh Shrimp Project, which closed last month. If you've ever hit a bull's eye when playing darts, imagine that feeling multiplied by 100. That's what this project felt like.

Aceh is an autonomous province on the northern tip of Sumatra, in Indonesia, with a population of 4.2 million. It has a colorful history of resistance: they gave the Dutch colonists major headaches, and fought against the Indonesian government for three decades. In December 2004 the Tsunami struck, leaving 165,000 people dead or missing in the space of 30 minutes. This led to the biggest reconstruction effort in history, including IFC's work to build up the private sector, funded by AusAID (pdf) through its Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development (AIPRD).

Shrimp is a key sector in Aceh, a livelihood for 100,000 people. In the 1990s, Aceh's shrimp sector was slammed by white spot disease, which devastated shrimp harvests.{C} White spot disease spreads through contaminated water, and the primitive canal systems used by Aceh's shrimp farmers spread the disease everywhere. Shrimp mortality rates grew to over 90 percent. The conflict made trade more difficult, and the Tsunami destroyed thousands of hectares of ponds. Shrimp processors stopped providing the farmers with credit for inputs.  It looked like the end of shrimp farming in Aceh. With such high risks, many farmers switched to white fish, which generates a much smaller income, but one which farmers can count on.

IFC was one of many organizations which tackled this problem after the Tsunami. Our project was designed by Richard Banks, a consultant from Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Ltd., and executed by a shrimp expert, Arun Padiyar, in cooperation with the Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific (NACA).  We also employed around 20 people as on-site field facilitators.
To my amazement, the various organizations involved in the sector coordinated effectively together. Some focused on hatcheries, others focused in specific regions. IFC's project focused on shrimp-producing villages in Bireuen district, teaching farmers how to manage disease through better pond management practices. In January 2007, we kicked off the project with Shrimp Day, when we brought 40 farmers to Banda Aceh for intensive training. After that, we worked with the farmers in their villages. Farmers learned how to manage water flow to control disease, how to use disease-free shrimp seed, and how to test shrimp for disease throughout the growing cycle. Pond management was a critical part of the program. We had our farmers remove decades of smelly, toxic sludge from their ponds, manage acidity and maintain minimum water depth. We also introduced the idea of growing seaweed and milkfish as part of a triple culture program, thereby reducing the risk to farmers. This also created a better environment for the shrimp.  

Because we were working with only a small number of farmers, program success meant demonstrating conclusively that better management practices lead to better yields. Our predictions proved correct. Disease was significantly reduced, farmer income increased by 64 percent in spite of a 12 percent drop in shrimp prices, and pesticide use dropped to zero.

Our initial success snowballed. After every harvest, new farmers asked to join our program. We expanded our program to include nearly 400 farmers. We also worked with other organizations, mainly the Indonesian Government Research Centre, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research, Asian Development Bank and World Wildlife Fund to develop a shrimp manual and video. This effort included a radio program and a Shrimp Van, which traveled from village to village showing the video to farmers. We played to a packed audience in many villages, including over 5,700 women.

But for me, the real sign of success was that nearly 5,000 non-participating farmers copied our practices. And those are just the farmers we know about. A farmer will not adopt a practice by choice unless it benefits him, so this says quite a lot about our approach.

There were other good signs. USAID pinched off a wad of cash to improve canal systems in our district, a critical local infrastructure need that will have a major demonstration effect. GtZ copied the idea of growing seaweed in ponds. The Aceh Department of Ocean and Fisheries enthusiastically endorsed our model. The Project was recognized by an independent AIPRD evaluation as the best of our projects in Aceh, and scored as highly efficient, effective and sustainable, with a recommendation to continue for a further year since the activities were being replicated. It satisfied many of the Millennium Development Goals criteria that the World Bank and other donors subscribe to.

Unfortunately, IFC pulled the plug a year early because it did not fit its new advisory services strategy, which emphasizes work with processors and IFC investment clients. Fortunately, however, the Food and Agriculture Organization was happy to pick up the ball. They hired our field facilitators and snapped up our best staff. Even more telling, a local Acehnese shrimp processor decided to replicate our work in different parts of Aceh, using some of our field facilitators. So it looks like the work we started will continue.
My two years in Aceh were among the happiest in my life. I'm very proud of our accomplishments there. But nothing makes me more proud than this project. Many years from now, IFC will be remembered for its work there. We left a lasting imprint.


David Lawrence

International Development Consultant

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