Text by Jacopo Pasotti, photos by Elisabetta Zavoli
MANGUNHARJO, Indonesia – A mangrove forest once surrounded this village on Java’s northern coast. That was before the woods were clear-cut to make way for shrimp and fish farms. The new industry improved the local economy; residents could finally afford the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The bounty days were soon to vanish. The mangroves’ decline exposed Mangunharjo to massive erosion. In less than a decade, it wiped away the fishponds and almost sank the village.
Local resident Sururi, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, remembers when the sea invaded the land, turning the aquafarms into a muddy lagoon. The shoreline, once 1,500 meters from their homes, the mosque, the school, advanced to within a third of that.
In a desperate fight against the march of the sea, Sururi planted mangroves, hoping to stop the erosion and save the village. Step by step, with the support of volunteers and the entire village pitching in, they reclaimed 200 meters (656 feet).
“The birds came back and built nests in the forest,” said Sururi, 58. “So did the fish and shrimp.”
Sururi poses in his mangrove nursery in Mangunharjo: “I hope that future generations won’t forget the value of mangrove ecosystems.”
Volunteers at Sururi’s mangrove nursery, where seedlings grow until they are ready to be planted.
Flooded aquafarms west of Mangunharjo. Without the protection of mangroves, coastal areas are more vulnerable to erosion and rising seas.
In Indonesia and beyond, mangrove deforestation is proceeding quickly. Many tropical coastal settlements are in danger. “Mangrove areas disappear at the rate of approximately 1 percent per year globally, with estimates as high as 2-8 percent per year in Indonesia,” said Daniel Murdiyarso, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), a thinktank headquartered outside Jakarta. In less than 50 years, the planet has lost more than a quarter of its mangroves, and at this rate they could all but disappear in 80 years.
Nowhere are mangroves vanishing faster than Indonesia. A century ago, they covered 4.2 million hectares (16,200 square miles) of the archipelago country’s coastline. Today that figure stands at 3 million hectares. Most of the deforestation has occurred in the last half century; Java alone has lost at least 70 percent of its mangroves during that period. CIFOR reports that 40 percent of that loss is due to the “blue revolution” – the explosion of aquaculture, especially shrimp farming, in the last three decades. Seafood from fish farms has surged from the 13 million tons produced globally in 1990 to today’s production of 74 million tons. That’s projected to hit 92 million by 2022.
The coastal valley of Sawah Luhur in western Java, where shrimp ponds have been established since the late 1980s. Almost all the coastal mangrove forests of Java and much of Sumatra have been cleared to make room for brackish shrimp and fish farms.
Timan, 51, dredges a canal by hand to make a new bank in his Sawah Luhur shrimp pond. Since the valley was reclaimed for an extensive aquafarm network, the land has been deeply modified by people’s handiwork.
An industrial shrimp farm on Java’s west coast. Intensive aquaculture consists of several ponds of 1 hectare or less, with constant mechanical airing and the use of feeding, antibiotics and other chemicals to keep shrimp growing fast.
Mangroves are crucial in the fight against climate change. Champions of carbon sequestration, they retain up to five times more carbon than rainforests. The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes mangrove-specific goals and targets; Indonesia too has committed to halting their loss.
There are strong international campaigns to increase protein intake; the problem is how to keep production sustainable. Certifications such as GlobalGap and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council take sustainability into account. Unfortunately these are voluntary schemes, market-driven and only affordable to large operations. Most of Asia’s producers are small, often family-owned and unable to afford certification that could help to stop mangrove loss amid the rise of the blue revolution.
Muhyasir, 62, is a fisherman in Mangunharjo. In the early 1990s, he and his neighbors cleared all the mangroves in front of the village in order to expand their aquafarms. In the late 1990s, sea currents swept away 150 hectares of coastline and Muhyasir lost all his wealth.
Pictures of a 1996 flood in Manguharjo, worsened by erosion from sea currents.
Land subsidence, saltwater intrusion, loss of marine ecosystem diversity – these are real dangers. Not all communities are ready to stop erosion and rehabilitate mangroves. Mangunharjo succeded, but Bedono, a village not far from the Javan port city of Semarang, did not make it. In less than 10 years the ocean erased Bedono from maps and satellite images. The soft sediments subsided under excessive groundwater extraction, clear-cutting of mangroves and rising seas.
As fishpond expansion and urban development have encroached on Bedono’s mangroves during the past three decades, almost 700 hectares of land have been lost to the sea. Thousands of aquafarms, roads and houses have been submerged. Rice fields and towns inland are now prone to floods. Saltwater intrusion threatens crops and what fish farms remain.
The ruins of a warehouse in Bedono. About a decade ago, the village was flooded by the sea and abandoned by its residents.
Pasijah still lives in this partly submerged land. She is one of just two residents who did not abandon the doomed village. The ground sinks, the sea rises, but she refuses to move. She raised her home half a meter to keep up with rising waters.
“I hope I don’t have to move somewhere,” she said. “I want to stay here.” Pasijah built a business as fish collector. Fishermen bring their catches, which she collects and brings by boat to sell in a nearby village’s market. It’s a life of solitude, but business is going well. Fishermen depend on her to sell their daily catch.
Pasijah, the last inhabitant of the flooded village of Bedono.
In some areas around her home mangroves are growing again. Where once were streets and houses, a mosque and a well, now grows a lush forest. The question is if the plants will keep up with the pace of sea level rise and land subsidence.
Mangroves are beginning to colonize Bedono again, nearly a decade after the village was inundated by seawater. Decomposed wooden houses form the substrate on which the mangroves are rising again.
Banner image: A flooded portico of a former mosque is one of the few ruins remaining in the coastal village of Bedono.
This story was supported with a grant from the European Journalism Center.