Walking over Water: Piers, Docks, and Coastal Infrastructure

By Barbara Quimby, San Diego State & UC Santa Barbara §

The coral reefs and islands of Pulau Banyak Barat (West Pulau Banyak). Photo by author.

To enter the village of Haloban, a fishing community of about 1,500 people in the islands of Pulau Banyak in Aceh, Indonesia, you must step from your swaying boat onto the stable wooden planks of the docks. Most days, you will also need to navigate through a tight, bustling space in order to reach dry land: fishers dump their catch on the narrow docks to be sorted and sold, merchants unload cargo and passengers from mainland Sumatra, children swim and play, women negotiate a price for a fish for dinner. Here where the edge of the village reaches out and meets the sea, the infrastructure of the docks creates a unique space of social, political, and economic interactions embedded in a marine environment, one in which every visitor and resident participates.

Stepping onto the dock is probably the last time you will give it any thought; once you disembark, the planks and pilings become naturalized pieces of the environment. Its mundane character quickly obscures the political processes and “invisible work” of this infrastructure (Star 1999). Piers and docks are technically different types of infrastructure—piers are built for marine fishing without need for a boat, while docks provide safe connection between shore and sea without need to surf a boat onto a beach—but these terms are frequently used interchangeably. The fuzzy nomenclature suggests their shared purpose: like other types of coastal infrastructure, they facilitate shifting human use and engagement with the marine world, and the transformation of objects of nature into commodities. Fish, octopus, crabs, and other sea-life are unloaded onto the dock and priced, and occasionally packed in ice for export. This commodification is situated within the practices of socio-nature production (Peluso 2012) that are part of the dock’s “work.”

A fisher receives help unloading his catch. Photo by author.
The day’s catch is sorted before it is weighed and sold. Photo by author.

This infrastructure does not only facilitate economic processes, but other types of human engagement, including recreation. The dock environment is pleasantly cooler than the village in this tropical climate, as you stand over seawater in a good position to receive the onshore breeze. Just as piers on the California coast attract visitors seeking respite on hot summer days, people here take in the view of the horizon, chat, and socialize in an environment uniquely created by the dock.

Docks and piers are a material manifestation of social and political processes, and the political ecology of scale (Swyngedouw 2004). When I arrived in Haloban to conduct fieldwork in 2011, there were two improvement projects underway. The first was a modest upgrade to the wooden docks that served as the essential point of articulation for all of Haloban’s interactions with the surrounding coral reefs, and the people and markets that lay beyond them. Beautiful new planks of wood were clustered near the small fish market, and within a few days, a local crew replaced the rotting dock with a new surface that would quickly weather and fade. The dock was small and low, and while crowded in the evening, it was easily accessible from the local perahu boats or smaller cargo vessels. As boats moved in from the coral reefs toward the dock to land their catch, they navigated around the second project: a dozen large cement pillars broke through the surface of the water in a cluster, just at the end of the only paved road in the village. A post-tsunami relief and development organization was in the process of raising a new, modern dock funded by national and international agencies. Construction would continue on it throughout the summer over several months. The decay of the docks, the destructive tsunami—slow or sudden, natural processes create opportunities for negotiations of power between communities, governments, and the sea, manifested in new structures meant to seem solid and everlasting.

The new wooden planks of the fish dock. Photo by author.

While these two docks lay side by side, similar in purpose and form, they were incredibly disparate in the political processes and scales of their construction. The wooden dock represents “fine scale” infrastructure, developed and constructed locally; however the capital, labor, and political will that created the cement dock project were far removed from the village, and part of a much larger political and economic scale (Doyle and Havlick 2009). Following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2005 that devastated the coastal communities of Aceh, there was immediate pressure from the global community for “visible evidence” of recovery efforts, and building new coastal infrastructure became a priority of the Indonesian BRR (Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency) (Leahy 2005). Foreign aid funding created an “upward accountability”, in which project goals and measures of success were dictated from outside, sometimes to the exclusion of local people (Dixon and McGregor 2011). As in Haloban, the construction of new piers and other marine structures were emphasized for their role in economic development, while also serving to provide a material signal of progress, reshaping the coastline. The high cement docks may not be well suited for small local boats, but they would potentially enable international markets and tourism to connect with the natural resources of Pulau Banyak—rescaling the social and political processes that shape valuation and access to nature, as well as the “trajectories of environmental change” (Swyngedouw 2004:132).

Fishers return from the coral reefs in the evening, bringing their boats around the new cement dock construction. Photo by author.

Piers and docks are individual forms of infrastructure at the local scale, but regardless of their size or quality, they are simultaneously nodes within a much larger, multi-scale national and international network. Both the built and natural environments constitute this network of marine transportation and shipping. A dock is an “onramp” onto the ocean highway, enabling travel and exchange between villages, provinces, or nations. As Carse notes (2012), in this way the dock transforms the ocean itself into infrastructure, manifested through the intersection of environmental politics, global commerce, and situated experiences. Coastal infrastructure and the physical environment are also co-constitutive, shaping each other in both form and function: salt water rots the wood, while the pilings attract different sea-life communities and alter water flows (Bulleri and Chapman 2010). This is one illustration of the infrastructure’s agency (Latour 2005; Peluso 2012): the pier or dock defines the space, shapes its characteristics through time, and even creates new biological communities.

Children play on the new cement pilings. Photo by author.

Piers and docks act as productive entry-points in my research on fisheries and coastal resource management. As Star (1999) suggests, it is important to look at how infrastructure, particularly its forms, locations, and use reveal power asymmetries, informal social networks, and perceptions (and fantasies) of nature. Studying their use, decay, and construction both at local points and as a broad network enables us to examine environmental connections, political processes, and expressions of human agency and resistance in a material way. As fishing is often addressed at multiple scales and spaces, perhaps we can also investigate how piers, docks, and other points in the coastal infrastructure are active agents in a multi-level process of social and environmental relationships. However, their embeddedness in a marine environment may require a different perspective than land-based ethnography. The best vantage point to reveal the work of this infrastructure may be from the sea: in a boat, piers and docks become essential, and more visible, than from the shore. The dock brings you home.

Perahu tied up along the dock. Photo by author.

Works Cited

Bulleri, Fabio, and Maura Chapman. 2010. The Introduction of Coastal Infrastructure as a Driver of Change in Marine Environments. Journal of Applied Ecology 47(1): 26–35.
Carse, Ashley. 2012. Nature as Infrastructure: Making and Managing the Panama Canal Watershed. Social Studies of Science 42: 539–563.
Dixon, Rowan, and Andrew McGregor. 2011. Grassroots Development and Upwards Accountabilities: Tensions in the Reconstruction of Aceh’s Fishing Industry. Development and Change 42(6): 1349–1377.
Doyle, Martin, and David Havlick. 2009. Infrastructure and the Environment. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34: 349–73.
Keil, Roger, and Anne-Marie Debbané. 2005. Scaling Discourse Analysis: Experiences from Hermanus, South Africa and Walvis Bay, Namibia. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning 7(3): 257–276.
Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social- An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Leahy, Joe. 2005. Indonesia Unveils First Post-Tsunami Project. Financial Times, June 23. http://on.ft.com/1V1sWo5, accessed March 29, 2016.
Peluso, Nancy Lee. 2012. What’s Nature Got To Do With It? A Situated Historical Perspective on Socio-Natural Commodities. Development and Change 43(1): 79–104.
Star, Susan Leigh. 1999. The Ethnography of Infrastructure. The American Behavioral Scientist 43(3): 377–391.
Swyngedouw, Erik. 2004. Scaled Geographies: Nature, Place, and the Politics of Scale. In Scale and Geographic Inquiry: Nature, Society, and Method. E. Sheppard and R.B. McMaster, eds. Pp. 129–152. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Barbara Quimby is a PhD student in Geography in the San Diego State University-UC Santa Barbara joint doctoral program. She is the co-PI of a research group within the UCSB Geography Department Human-Environment Dynamics Lab examining pier-fishing practices in Southern California. Her dissertation research focuses on community-based marine resource management in Samoa.

This post is part of our thematic series: The Nature of Infrastructure.