Rehabilitating mangroves

Down to Earth No 64  March 2005

Coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and peatlands, if maintained in a healthy state, reduce the severity of tsunami impacts. Several reports have highlighted the fact that mangroves and coral reefs, where they still remained, helped save lives on December 26th by acting as a buffer and absorbing the impact of the giant waves. Where they were absent, more lives were lost. As the chief of Aceh's environment agency Hasballah Daud put it; "If there had been mangroves, there would have been fewer victims." (Chicago Tribune 15/Jan/05).

In Indonesia, and globally, this natural protection is under severe pressure. The US-based NGO, Mangrove Action Project, estimates that over half of world's mangroves, which once covered up to three quarters of tropical and subtropical coastlines, have been lost, and that less than 16 million hectares remain. More than half of what's left is degraded. The mangroves have been felled to make way for industrial shrimp farming, tourism and other coastal development projects. In addition, over 70% of world's coral reefs have already been destroyed (WRMGuardian 6/Jan/05).

Indonesia once hosted a third of the world's mangroves, but vast tracts have been destroyed - much of it for shrimp farming. By the Indonesian forestry department's own admission, almost 80% of the country's mangroves have been destroyed, especially due to "conversion into shrimp and fish farms, which after use, become barren and are abandoned" (Forestry Information Centre Press Release S 32/II/PIK-1/2004, 13/Jan/05).

Industrial scale shrimp farming projects in Indonesia have been associated with human rights abuses, land seizures and poor working conditions for shrimp farm workers (see DTE 58).

The tsunami has drawn global attention to the value of these coastal biodiversity-rich and protective resources, which also provide nurseries for fish and shrimp. Indonesia's forestry ministry has announced it will spend Rp800 billion (around US$85 million) on a project to rehabilitate 150-200,000 hectares of mangroves and coastal forests (including pine and almond trees) along Sumatra's western coast. A Forestry Information Centre press release quoting data from 2000, said there were 30,000 hectares of mangroves in good condition in Aceh, including on Simeulue island; along with 25,000 hectares of damaged mangroves and 286,000 ha in medium condition. According to the Bappenas preliminary damage assessment, the 25,000 hectares of degraded mangroves were destroyed in the tsunami.

Forestry ministry secretary-general Wahjudi Wardojo said the rehabilitation would start in two or three months and cost Rp5 million per hectare, with total funding for Aceh alone at Rp200 billion. It is part of a five-year programme targeting 600,000 hectares. A $30,000 grant from the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) will be used to hire consultants to draft a proposal for the project. (Jakarta Post 19/Jan/05)

Again, the indications are that this project is being planned top-down, with little or no decision-making role played by local people. It invites questions over future land ownership and access to coastal resources, including traditional fishing grounds. The plans involve relocating people away from coasts onto forestry department land (see second box separate article) with their involvement limited to being the target of information campaigns.

Mangrove Action Project's Alfredo Quarto has warned against using plantation-style approaches to mangroves rehabilitation. A scheme in Thailand tore out existing mangroves in order to plant uniform seedlings and planted mangroves where they didn't grow. "It was a terrible job and had very low success," he told Reuters (Jakarta Post 14/Jan/05).


Before the tsunami....

This is an edited version of an article, which first appeared in the Acehnese daily newspaper Serambi 2/Feb/2000. We present this as a tribute to Mohammad Ibrahim, director of WALHI Aceh, and his wife and child, who lost their lives in the quake-tsunami disaster.

The felling and destruction of mangroves which is taking place along the coasts of Aceh Besar and Banda Aceh districts has reached critical levels. People's homes all along the coastal strip are at risk of flooding from the sea. "The effects of mangrove destruction are very worrying", said Mohammad Ibrahim. The coast is at risk from erosion and there will also be a loss of marine life.

Chairul Azmi of the local NGO PASe, a member of WALHI Aceh, explained that several factors were behind the mangrove destruction but the main one was shrimp farming. He said there had been a marked reduction in the extent of mangroves in Aceh Besar district from Peukan Bada to Krueng Raya as people were clearing the coastal forest to create shrimp ponds. Most of these entrepreneurs were outsiders, not local people, and were much more interested in a quick profit than environmental protection. It was common practice for them to bribe the authorities to get the required permits.

"The government should not just sit back and watch this happen. It must be proactive in protecting the environment", urged Mohammad. The local environmental activist appealed to local people to take action themselves, instead of just waiting for the government - especially in view of the authorities' slow response. "At the very least, don't destroy what's left", he said.

If the community programme is to succeed, it is vital to revive traditional management agencies like the village leader (mukim gampong) and fisheries controller (panglima laot). WALHI Aceh will be monitoring developments and carrying out activities throughout Aceh, through its members, which include PASe (Aceh Besar), Papan (West Aceh and South Aceh), Simeulue Lestari (Simeulue), Pugar (East Aceh) and Ekowisata Aceh (Sabang).