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How ‘jobless men managing the sea’ restored a mangrove forest in Java

A mud crab is one of the creatures that lives in a mangrove ecosystem. The crabs have economic value to the people of Brebes. Photo by Donny Iqbal for Mongabay

  • In the 1980s and early 90s, fish farming thrived in Brebes, on the north coast of Indonesia’s main central island of Java.
  • The industry’s steady growth saw local residents chop down mangrove stands to make way for aquaculture ponds. But the development brought unintended consequences.
  • In response, a group of local residents embarked on an ambitious tree-planting campaign.

On a cloudless September morning in the Central Javan hamlet of Pandansari, the coastal air drips with mist and the clamor of cawing seagulls.

Forty-five-year-old Mashadi, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, is starting his day in a yard carpeted in mangrove seedlings. The plants, mostly of the species Avicennia marina and Rhizopora mucronata, were gleaned within a one-kilometer radius of his house. These local varieties became rare during the rush to build aquaculture facilities here in Brebes district between 1980 and 1995.

Those 15 years were the golden age of tiger shrimp. Local residents chopped down mangrove forest to build aquaculture ponds to rear fish, crab and shrimp. The mud dikes surrounding the farms were not maintained and became vulnerable to local erosion.

“The use of artificial feed, generators and factory-made equipment,” Mashadi recalled. “Everything the community did was for aquaculture. This was the new way of doing things. It did not consider the environment.”

Mashadi, a resident of Pandansari hamlet, Kaliwlingi village, Brebes district, Central Java province. Photo by Donny Iqbal for Mongabay

The Birth of Mangari

For the last decade Mashadi has been the major local force behind environmental efforts, particularly mangrove restoration. Unwilling to quietly settle for a situation with no solutions, Mashadi approached village elders and an ex-village headman, Rusjan. In 2005, he and Rusjan formed a local group, Mangari, with an initial membership of 25 people. The group focused on replanting areas of the coastline that had been damaged and degraded.

Initially local villagers thought Mangari’s activities odd, crazy even. Members were locally referred to as “jobless men managing the sea.”

“They didn’t see the economic value of mangroves to aquaculture ponds,” Mashadi related. “It’s true that there was no immediate value. You couldn’t eat mangroves, for example.”

A boat plies the waters of Brebes, as the volcanic Mount Slamet looms behind. Photo by Donny Iqbal for Mongabay

Societal scorn and a dearth of seedlings discouraged members of the small outfit. The initial group of 25 people dwindled to 11, which made it difficult for the team to check the success of their saplings.

Mashadi admitted that his initial lack of knowledge on mangrove cultivation also stymied his efforts. At first, he paid scant attention to timing or weather when planting. He did not regard location much either. “We planted right at the brine water line.”

Waves wiped out all their seedlings. Then Mashadi searched for references. He learned that October to December was the best period to plant mangrove. He reduced planting parties to once a year and set an annual goal to plant a hectare’s worth of 1,000 seedlings. Today, the Mangari team concentrates on planting riverbanks and abandoned aquaculture ponds.

“The best teacher is experience,” team leader Mashadi said. By 2008, Mangari had planted 3,000 mangrove seedlings over a three-hectare area. Today, he said, the group has planted many times that over hundreds of hectares, and protected dozens of ponds from erosion.

A Pandansari resident tends mangroves plants. Photo by Donny Iqbal

Free Fishing for Free Publicity

Mashadi decided to get a documentary film made about Mangari’s efforts, primarily to demonstrate to the villagers of Pandansari the importance of the replanting. He asked for help from a wedding videographer.

He invited the man to Pandansari to fish. “We told him we would compensate him with free fishing and a meal.” The result was a one-hour, 12-minute video. The film gets played at every village Independence Day celebration. Mashadi also had a chance to air it at an agricultural event in the nearby city of Yogyakarta, which linked Mangari up with a Java-based conservation outfit, the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation (Kehati).

Today, coastal areas near Pandansari that were once degraded are growing back. Animals that left are returning. Mashadi claims that local fishers are getting more harvest. Those with motors on their boats don’t need to go so far. Those with rowboats have doubled their catch.

Years of planting and persuasion have also brought Pandansari residents around to a viewpoint closer to Mashadi’s. There are now village rules prohibiting the felling of mangrove trees. Last year, the regency government named the village an ecotourism destination and allocated $180,000 to build a network of boardwalks and gazebos through the forest.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on October 9, 2016.

Banner image: A mud crab is one of the creatures that lives in a mangrove ecosystem. The crabs have economic value to the people of Brebes. Photo by Donny Iqbal for Mongabay