Sudibyo Wiradji, Jakarta – Indonesia is scrambling to restore its sizeable mangrove forest loss, with the national Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM) tasked with accelerating the process over the next four years, as the consequences of mangrove deforestation have been increasingly alarming.
Mangrove deforestation in the North Java Sea and the Riau coastal area in North Sumatra, as well as other coastal areas in Indonesia, has made some segments of shoreline highly susceptible to coastal erosion.
Hartono Prawiraatmadja, head of the BRGM, said the loss of mangrove forest on the coastline of Riau had left the peatland behind the damaged mangrove forests vulnerable to collapse and that this has caused some segments of the coastline to recede 15 meters.
Unless the damaged mangrove forest is restored, more severe abrasion will occur, which will reduce the country's borders and, at the same time, destroy settlement around coastal areas, reduce fisheries products, including shrimp, crabs and fish, and increase the risk of tsunamis and cause a decline in the level of carbon absorbance, according to Hartono.
Quoting 2019 data from the Environment and Forestry Ministry, Hartono said the country's mangrove forests covered an area of 3.31 million hectares spread across 34 provinces and represented 24 percent of the global total mangrove area.
Of the area, 637,624 hectares are severely damaged and must be restored, and 79 percent of the damaged mangrove forests are found in nine provinces, namely North Sumatra, Riau, the Riau Islands, Bangka Belitung, West Kalimantan, East Kalimantan, North Kalimantan, Papua and West Papua.
That is why President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo tasked the BRGM with taking part in the acceleration of mangrove forest rehabilitation projects in the nine provinces, he said.
The BRGM, in collaboration with the Environment and Forestry Ministry, the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, provincial administrations, NGOs and other stakeholders, is targeting the restoration of about 600,000 hectares of mangrove forests over the next four years. The mangrove restoration project is being carried out in stages, with the BRGM and its partners embarking on the project in May of this year.
"By July, we had managed to rehabilitate 10,500 hectares of mangrove forests of the targeted 83,000 hectares of mangrove forests for 2021," he said.
A shift in function
Hartono explained how massive mangrove deforestation could occur in Indonesia, with a shift in land function as a primary cause. He said many mangrove forests had been converted into shrimp ponds, agricultural land and infrastructure.
In North Kalimantan, significant portions of mangrove forest have been turned into shrimp ponds to supply the lucrative shrimp business. "The shrimp ponds that illegally utilize mangrove forest land have lasted for many years, making it difficult for [the farmers] to change their mindset to find alternative livelihoods."
According to Hartono, massive land conversion occurred in North Kalimantan in 1998 as many wealthy people from other areas, including Pontianak and Balikpapan, came to the region to illegally develop shrimp ponds by converting mangrove forests into shrimp ponds, with the day-to-day work left to local villagers.
With sizeable swaths of mangrove forest having been converted into shrimp ponds, North Kalimantan is categorized as "heavy" in terms of its mangrove damage, like the mangrove forests of Riau. These places require more intensive approaches.
Hartono said mangrove ecosystems did more than just prevent erosion or coastline abrasion. Other functions included forming a barrier against high surf, offering a nursery and breeding ground for marine species, filtering pollutants and providing safe haven for biotics and accumulated mud, which could form new land.
The country's mangrove ecosystems store large amounts of carbon and can therefore play a significant role in national and global climate change mitigation strategies, he said.
But when it comes to implementation, the restoration of damaged mangrove forests has many challenges to address. For example, strong waves at high tide in Riau hit and swept away newly planted mangrove trees.
That is why it is necessary to build concrete star-shaped pillars several meters away from the mangrove coastline. "The pillars can break the waves or weaken the power of the waves, and this way, at high tide, the waves won't directly hit the newly planted trees," he said.
"Building wave-breaking pillars is very costly. Of the required 125 kilometers of infrastructure, 5 km have been built," he said.
Another tough challenge is how to raise awareness of the importance of conserving mangrove forests in local communities that have illegally transformed mangrove forest land into shrimp ponds for their livelihoods.
"That is why we continue to educate and empower them. Our approach to them, through Desa Mandiri Peduli Mangrove (DMPM), is to accommodate local community groups engaged in the mangrove rehabilitation program," he said.
DMPM engage local community groups in managing the restored mangrove forests, including collecting seeds, growing nursery seedlings, planting them, caring for them and utilizing them.
"We're using the pattern of national economic recovery for the mangrove rehabilitation program in 2021. All forest restoration activities are carried out by local communities to ensure sustainable mangrove forest management," he said.
Targeted community groups are invited to attend an education and training session on mangrove management on site in each province, and they are expected to become an embryo of managing the restored mangrove forests effectively.
"We've already started with counseling on the mangrove rehabilitation programs in local communities in nine provinces in June of this year, after which people in charge accompanied each member of the community group intensively to ensure that the program worked well."
"We're copying and replicating the success of the five-year peatland restoration project," Hartono added.
The DMPM is aligned with mangrove ecosystems in the socioeconomic context, which highlights the livelihoods of local villagers.
Well-protected mangrove forests are a safe haven for shrimp, crabs, fish and other species, which can be a source of income for local villagers while safeguarding the conservation of the mangrove forest, Hartono said.
But the utilization of the mangrove trees is varied, depending on the creativity of local villagers and the characteristics of the location.
In Riau, for example, local forest people utilize mangrove timbers, which they process into charcoal. "The charcoal is exported to other countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Japan," Hartono said.
Other forest people in other provinces utilize the tips of mangrove leaves for coloring fabric, while mangrove seeds in other provinces can be used as material to make syrup and dodol, a fudge-like sweet.
Mangrove forests in North and East Kalimantan have been developed into ecotourism destinations and offer breathtaking mangrove landscapes with their unique animals.
According to Hartono, business organizations including PELINDO, GAPKI, APHI, KADIN, APKASINDO, DMSI, ASPEKPIR and APROBI have expressed their commitment to bolstering mangrove rehabilitation activities.
Hartono said that BRGM also coordinated, facilitated and drove efforts by community groups, NGOs and companies that had previous experience in planting mangrove trees.
"We have the same goal of conserving mangrove forests," he added.
Funding is also another challenge that the government urgently needs to address to make the 600,000 ha mangrove rehabilitation project a success. This explains why the Office of the Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister is exploring the possibility of accepting financial support from corporations.
Because of their role in reducing CO2 emissions, mangrove forests always draw the attention of international experts and stakeholders with an interest in climate change issues. Talks involving experts from the FAO, foreign academics and consultants from the World Bank are underway as Indonesia is eager to learn lessons on mangrove ecosystem management.
Hartono noted that mangrove forests were part of the country's natural resource treasures and should be utilized carefully and wisely as they had a local and global impact.
Well-protected mangrove forests will not only stop erosion, which means serving as coastal defense, but will also raise the level of prosperity of communities living around the forests.
"With their ability to store CO2 emissions, mangrove forests are definitely good for mitigating climate change, the impacts of which are real but frequently unimaginable before," he said.
"So, it is high time to give mangrove forests the protection they deserve," he concluded.