In the west Sumatran highlands, a place where roads disappear in clouds and forest, lies Lake Maninjau reflecting the sky within jagged ruins of an old volcano. Fifty-two thousand years ago a massive eruption created the 20km long caldera lake; today it sustains the Minang people who have for centuries made their home on the volcano’s watery roof.
Though devout Muslims, the Minang people eschew many patriarchal traditions and are the world’s largest matrilineal society with their lands, houses, and properties passed down mother to daughter.
Minang women working the caldera’s terraced paddies.
As for boys, traditionally they leave home as young as age 7 to live in community prayer houses and taught Minang cultural and religious beliefs. As teenagers, they frequently work and study away from their hometowns, returning as adults with skills and learning to benefit their communities.
The Minang people work the caldera’s paddies as they have always done, but it is a life promising hard work and meager rewards.
A farmer takes a break from his labors
This traditional economy was challenged in 1992 when karamba floating net cages were introduced to Lake Maninjau and now, three decades later, these shore-ringing fish farms supply 30 tons of fish every day to markets in the surrounding provinces of Jambi, Riau, and South Sumatra.
Aquaculture has brought prosperity to Lake Maninjau but overproduction for distant markets threatens the lake’s fragile ecology and the future economy. Massive amounts of minerals found in fish pellets can produce a toxic environment for aquatic life and now fish die-offs of up to 100 tons occur as frequently as twice a year.
With the dangling promise of prosperity comes increased aquaculture and the lake’s ecosystem will be further degraded so that if this trend continues Lake Maninjau will lose its ability to support local communities.
Fish are bred and grown in artificial ponds until they are large enough to be transferred to the floating net cages.
Fewer economic opportunities at home mean fewer men will return from their time in the cities of lowland Sumatra and leave unanswered the question if the caldera’s people will, like the roads, disappear into the mountain clouds.
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In the highlands of western Sumatra the matrilineal Minang people of Lake Maninjau have for centuries made a volcano’s watery roof their home. Though devout Muslims, the Minang people eschew many patriarchal traditions with land and property being passed from mother to daughter; boys traditionally leave home at age 7 to live in community prayer houses before leaving for a time to work and study far from home. In the last thirty years, new aquaculture techniques have significantly enriched the Minang communities that share the shore of Lake Maninjau, but hard use and over breeding has resulted in massive fish die-offs which further damage the lake’s fragile ecology and threaten the communities’ future. Fewer economic opportunities at home mean fewer men will return from their time in the cities of lowland Sumatra and question whether the caldera’s people will survive.
Nathan William Meyer is an internationally published photographer and writer who has worked, lived, and traveled in over thirty countries on six continents. As a photojournalist he has covered government crackdowns, riots, natural disasters, ethnic/tribal issues, and human rights by adhering to the National Press Photographers Association’s strict code of ethics. To view more of his work, visit: www.nathanwilliammeyer.com
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