Sinking villages look to nature to help Indonesia restore mangroves – Environment

Michael Taylor (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Demak, Central Java ●
Sun, September 18, 2022

11:30 a.m

Indonesia, Climate Change, Demak Regency, Central Java, Village

In a coastal community in central Java, villagers are constantly having to haul dirt and rocks to local cemeteries to secure the resting places of their dead friends and relatives — for fear frequent flooding will wash away the deceased.

Like other flood-prone villages in the northern Demak Regency, Timbulsloko faces three problems: excessive groundwater extraction is causing subsidence, aquaculture contributes to some of the worst coastal erosion in the entire archipelago, and sea levels are rising due to climate change.

Refusing to leave their homes, the more than 3,000 people of Timbulsloko often pay for trucks to haul earth and stones from nearby mountainous areas to protect graves and raise their homes above the rising water.

“Since 2008 there has been more flooding because of coastal erosion,” said fisherman Suratno, sitting on the floor of his one-story home where the front door was blocked by ankle-deep flood water.

“Every day there is flooding — morning, afternoon or night,” the 51-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last month.

Located on the Pacific Rim of Fire, Indonesia is made up of more than 17,000 islands and faces many natural threats, from earthquakes and tsunamis to volcanic eruptions.

And the effects of climate change, such as worsening flooding, pose ever greater risks for the Southeast Asian nation.

To protect Timbulsloko, Suratno and other locals participated in a pilot project aimed at reintroducing previously removed mangroves in several villages to rejuvenate and protect vulnerable fishing communities and their livelihoods.

Unlike many mangrove restoration initiatives, Dutch-based environmental group Wetlands International’s seven-year program hasn’t replanted the trees — thought to be important defenses against flooding and coastal erosion.

Instead, the project, which ended in October 2021, used expert and local knowledge and labor to transform degraded aquaculture ponds into green belts and sedimentation basins to support natural mangrove regrowth and increase fish stocks.

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Indonesia is home to the world’s largest mangrove area – which plays a paramount role in absorbing carbon emissions – and the nation is on an ambitious recovery program. This is a priority for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who will present these efforts to leaders at a G20 summit in Bali later this year.

Bamboo Dike Walls

About 30 million people are suffering from the effects of coastal flooding in northern Java, according to Wetlands International, with communities displaced and livelihoods destroyed.

In Demak, where villagers are building bamboo bridges to gain access to their flood-affected homes, sea levels are expected to cause flooding up to 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) inland by 2100.

The flooding in Timbulsloko is largely due to decades of clearing of mangroves to make way for aquaculture ponds.

Government-built concrete flood barriers are crumbling and have had limited impact, as industrial and domestic over-abstraction of groundwater on Java is also causing widespread subsidence.

That’s why, in 2015, Wetlands International teamed up with nine villages along a 20-kilometer coastline in Demak.

Instead of replanting — which can focus on the wrong species or areas and has a 10–15 percent success rate, mangrove experts say — the program has recruited Dutch and Indonesian experts to map the best places for the trees to grow naturally would grow back.

Then, with the participation and knowledge of local communities, the €5 million (US$5 million) project built permeable bamboo structures in the sea to trap sediment and create the best conditions for mangrove regeneration.

Wetlands International advocacy officer Susanna Tol said the project has had a success rate of up to 75 percent based on increased sediment and mangrove regrowth, although areas of severe subsidence have hampered progress.

From a cost perspective, it’s difficult to compare this nature-based approach to efforts to replant mangroves or when villages have done nothing but strengthen flood defenses, as Wetlands International’s project also included livelihood improvement funds, she added .

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The methods have been replicated in 13 other districts under the guidance of the Indonesian Ministry of Fisheries, and the group is helping the national agency for mangrove restoration to develop a best practice document.

“We integrate mangroves and the economy as much as possible, because that’s the only way to get support on the ground,” says Tol.

The project also formed community groups that are still active and have established green belt areas, taught mangrove conservation, promoted sustainable fishing and aquaculture practices, and had access to small loans related to restoration.

Suratno said he installed “bamboo walls” to protect the village from future floods and used a loan to buy nets and an extra boat, which he rents out to other fishermen.

“Mangroves have many, many benefits,” he said, adding that bird and fish numbers have increased locally.

“The (flooded) coastal areas will come back and we will still be able to live here.”

Global Decline

There are about 80 different mangrove species, mostly found in the equatorial region.

They support a range of wildlife and provide the wider ecosystem with nutrients vital to fisheries.

Although mangroves make up less than 1 percent of the world’s tropical forests, they store a significant amount of subsurface carbon, prevent coastal erosion and reduce the power of strong waves.

However, they are in decline, with the global mangrove area decreasing by about 1 million hectares between 1990 and 2020, although the rate of loss has slowed in recent years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Drivers of this loss include harvesting for wood and charcoal, deforestation for fish farms and urbanization in coastal areas, said Chris Mcowen, senior marine scientist at the United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

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Recognizing their value, Indonesia last year launched a program to restore 600,000 hectares of degraded mangroves by 2024, though that plan has been hampered by the pandemic.

Such goals provide a sense of urgency and are good for outreach and working with donors, Mcowen said.

But all too often, local people are not involved in restoration efforts, Mcowen said, adding that without community approval, such projects are doomed to fail.

And with rising seas and storm surges, mangroves should be grown where survival rates are highest, rather than simply where they were previously lost, the scientist said.

“We won’t see the benefits for 20 to 30 years, and the restoration should be forward-looking, not just backwards,” he added.

Life Benefits

In Tambakbulusan village in Demak, where sinking is not as severe as nearby Timbulsloko, many mangroves have returned – having benefited from the reclamation of old aquaculture ponds and the creation of green belts.

Floods in the village are less common while local fishermen sell their organic fish at an extra cost.

Abdul Ghofur, who catches shrimp and milkfish using sustainable fishing methods, joined the Wetlands International project when it started and is a community group leader.

The father-of-three said people in his village believed mangroves provide cleaner air and keep it healthier.

“I see in my village that people are now taking care of mangroves – they are no longer being cut down,” added the 53-year-old.

In Tambakbulusan, Ghofur recalls walking his son through the family fish farms during school holidays many years ago, teaching the boy the importance of mangroves.

The resulting increase in fish quantity and quality on the project helped fund his son’s education and, more recently, aquaculture studies at university.

“I want my son to be a teacher[of aquaculture],” Ghofur said. “Mangroves have changed my life.”

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