Mango Rains

Melody Kemp
Mar 31st, 2014


Climate change devastates fishing fleets, forces fishermen to become people-traffickers, and disorientates the mango trees.



Cuaca derus kacau ‘bu.’

We were seesawing on a slightly wild sea hoping to get to the Bugis fisherman’s home island before the waves got even bigger. What he’d said was, ‘The weather is a mess.’ It was 2002 and I was all at sea.

The horizon line was chasing us as the sea grew dark and dandruffed by tumbling waves. The occasional fish leapt madly from the depths.

Pak Abu, as he was known, cast anxious looks at me. He was an experienced fisherman with 26 years of trawling the seas for an ever-diminishing catch. He was more worried about me, I knew. I feigned rakish insouciance, despite the fact that Wiranti and I were quite perturbed and just a little seasick.

We had been at sea for the whole day. Our skin was puckered and painful. He had picked us up from another small island where my Javanese colleague Wiranti and I had been teaching safety and survival at sea. We had been hitchhiking – or seahiking – from Riau province in Indonesia’s west to Papua, teaching along the way.

Everywhere we went the fishermen said that same thing: Cuaca derus kacau. They recalled being able to read the clouds (the maxim ‘red skies at night’ applies to the tropical seas as well, I learned). The sweeping movement of sea birds was a language all its own, and they could navigate by feeling the water. Forget compass or GPS, these guys were sea craftsmen who just knew. They had to be, as they were rat’s-arse poor. We had taught them that a five-litre cooking oil container was a good substitute for an unaffordable life jacket.

Climate change changed all that. Now fishing is ranked as one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.  Catches were diminishing even then, vacuumed off the ocean floor by Chinese, Thai, Taiwanese and Korean boats. Artisanal fishers, in their home-made two-man canoes, had little hope. They had to range further, and were eaten and spat out by bad weather. Without horsepower they could not outrun the sudden squalls or vomiting seas. Very often the bodies were never recovered.

As their families suffered, kids died and wives looked for a better offer, some fishers took to slightly illegal activities like transporting refugees. Even now, when I read breathless stories of people smugglers taking illegals into Australian waters I wonder if any of those arrested are simply the poor fishers who saw the weather and made calculations about survival.

While in the West experts and sceptics are shooting each other with data at fifty paces, those in our part of the world have long acknowledged that the weather is changing; climate is adjusting like atmospheric giants scratching hard-to-get-at places. Heaves, wrenches, and then relax a little until the next one.

My journalist colleagues in the US keep asking scientists for more and more data, thinking that if only they were to inject more tabulations, sine curves, frequency distributions and modelling data into their reporting, their audience might rouse from its collective torpor and shake their fists at the men and women in politics whose attitudes and actions have been kidnapped by capital. Instead we in the West roam the stores in search of more stuff to prop up growth and share prices, while the global greenhouse gas levels burp and fart ever higher.

But unless one lives by the weather, is captured or befriended by it, it remains ineffable and is dismissed as merely eccentric rather than systematic. As long as one buys food that smells of shrink wrap and is devoid of guts, roots, the odd feather, or a fetid stink and snails, most give little thought to climate and its relationship to our food, to our lives. And we keep doing it.

But my neighbour’s mango tree knows. This year it bloomed profusely in early January and February. Like a can-can dancer it waved its blossoms, all flounce and pout. But this time the mango rains did not come... The tree was confused, misreading the signs like the victim of date rape. The tree’s blossoms hung on vainly before finally dropping like bullets on the cement below. This tree, which normally bullies me into pickles, chutneys, sorbets and tartines, now stands dissolute, with just twelve mangoes where I used to count them in their hundreds.


Melody Kemp
Last blog date: Oct 10th, 2015


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