Minahasa’s green assassin Duncan Graham
Eceng gondok is the Houdini of the weed world.
If it could talk, like the revolutionaries of 1945 it would be forever shouting Merdeka! (Freedom). In North Sulawesi it’s happy beyond measure – particularly in Lake Tondano.
From the Lambean Mountains, studded with tall clove trees in fire-red finery, the 14 kilometer long lake looks tourist-brochure perfect.
Smoke from smouldering rice straw drifts slowly across still waters, shimmering in the sunlight, blue-gray as the heavens. A lone fisher in a flat-bottom canoe carved from hinterland timber rhythmically hauls in his net, hand over hand. His grandfather showed him how and his grandfather learned the same way.
Closer and the scene changes. No water laps the foreshore boulders. They’ve disappeared under a carpet of lush wide-leaf plants so thick maybe a child could run across to the lake, hundreds of meters away.
The village kids know better, so use bamboo walkways. Eceng gondok (water hyacinth), one of the world’s worst waterway pests, is dense but gives no support. And if it’s not controlled soon the lake will no longer support the 300,000 people who depend on it being fresh, full and hearty for their living.
“Lake Tondano has many functions and it’s the responsibility of everyone to provide care,” said engineer Jefry Karlos, boss of water quality in Minahasa Regency.
“Unfortunately many communities won’t cooperate because they think the health of the lake isn’t their responsibility. The Regent is very disappointed,
“The lake water creates electricity from two hydro stations. (The lake is 600 meters above sea level.) We reticulate the water to the towns and villages.
“The flatland paddy that surround the lake provides rice. Millions of fish are farmed in netted ponds in the lake. There’s huge tourism potential but this hasn’t been realised.
“In 1935 the lake was 40 meters deep. Now it’s only 15.”
Lake Tondano, just above the equator, is the center of a resource-rich rural region with landscapes that define rugged beauty. Unlike Java there are few people and a lot of wilderness, some of it little touched. Agriculture is the biggest income earner. This is an area where political candidates promote themselves wearing cowboy hats and on horseback.
Despite its critical economic and lifestyle importance the 4,600 hectare lake, formed by a huge volcanic explosion millions of years ago, has for too long been used as a sewer and garbage pit. Unexploded munitions from the Japanese occupation in the 1940s are believed to lie under a concrete jetty once used by flying boats.
Lavatories and drains empty straight into the lake. Women scrub clothes on the shoreline then toss dirty, phosphate-rich suds into the water. Fertilisers run-off from the surrounding 20,000 hectares of rice fields and market gardens, lifting nitrogen levels.
These effects are invisible. The water hyacinth is not. The weed creates a mosquito paradise. Apart from being an eyesore it starves the water of oxygen and kills fish.
Karlos said his office hadn’t heard of marine life dying, but Irwan Hartonio who has 34 ponds each with 2,000 fish near the village of Kakas has different tales. He also remembers when the water lapped halfway up the stone foundations of his home.
Now it’s far away, under the thick green smothering sward with its deceptive pretty pink flowers. The lower water levels are blamed for regular daily power cuts. Low rainfall has also been a factor. Many businesses and homes have standby generators.
“In 2008 we had a budget of Rp 1 billion (US $ 100,000) to get rid of the weed,” said Karlos. “We can’t spray because it will kill the fish. So every Friday for six or seven months government workers pulled heavy clumps of water hyacinth to shore where it rotted in piles.
“Then the money was finished.” But the free-floating vengeful weed was not, and like a Biblical plague it’s returning in force, seven times seven.
To try and convince the villagers that the lake had to be saved the government put up a huge sign explaining the need for action and distributed pamphlets.
Could The Jakarta Post see these? Sorry, said Karlos, the sign has gone and there have been no reprints. So what are the plans? Hopes that an investor will arrive and build a biogas plant to generate methane. Or maybe a factory to turn the weed into cattle feed or fertiliser.
Have such white knights galloped in to save damsel Tondano in distress, their saddlebags stuffed with greenbacks? Well, not yet, and it seems none are on the horizon.
A proven use for water hyacinth is furniture manufacture. The weed is pulled and sun-dried. The strong brown stalks are plaited to form ropes. These are then woven around wicker and wood frames to make tables, chairs and sofas.
These are particularly attractive to overseas buyers concerned about conservation. Here’s a sustainable product, which improves the environment when it’s harvested.
A small cooperative called Kerajinan Eceng Gondok (water hyacinth handicrafts) at the lakeside village of Watumea employs up to 30 to make the furniture – but only after orders have been received. The government has given some training, but the community says it has no money for marketing, so its products are little known and work intermittent.
“We can’t borrow money from the banks because the government won’t help with a guarantee,” said Sintje Supit, the co-op coordinator. “Without capital we can’t pay the workers.” Her complaint is familiar among small businesses across the Republic.
And still the water hyacinth multiplies, like a horror movie featuring alien slime. When one area is cleared the wind whips across the water bringing mother clumps from afar, moving like bilious squid, eager to colonise empty shores with their fecund daughters.
“We’ve controlled waste from restaurants and hotels getting into the lake,” said Karlos, counting one victory in one minor skirmish in a major war. His agency doesn’t employ anyone to monitor water quality.
“I don’t know how it got here and when it started. Ten years ago. Maybe more. (One report suggested the mid 90s.)
“We’re motivated to save the lake, even though we don’t have any money. The important thing is to get rid of the weed and bring the benefits to the people.
“How can we look after our lake? This is a very serious problem but many communities just want the government to do the job. Yet we lack the funds.”
Eceng gondok lacks neither the resources nor the will. Here’s a tip: If you’ve ever planned to visit this lovely lake, don’t hesitate. It may not be here in the future. .
Water hyacinth can look lovely in a garden pond surrounded by concrete frogs. But once it escapes into the wild it goes wild. The seeds are tough as cockroaches and can survive for 30 years.
Originally from tropical South America, sales of Eichhornia crassipes from garden shops are now banned in many Western countries.
The weed got into Florida in the 19th century but is now reported to be under control. In Africa is has done huge damage to Lake Victoria. Tondano isn’t the only Sulawesi victim. There are reports of rivers getting blocked near Makassar.
Despite its reputation for blanketing waterways and clogging power station turbine blades, the weed gets a good press with its ability to absorb heavy metals. So it can be used to clean up rivers polluted by factory discharges.
Though only if guarded 24 / 7.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 7 December 2009)