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The cousins from Indonesia who revived an ancient spring

  • A major reforestation effort is underway in the eastern part of Indonesia’s Flores island.
  • It began when residents Markus Hayon and Damianus Pelada set out to restore an area around an ancestral spring that had all but dried up after an earthquake in the 1980s.
  • The cousins proceeded to plant thousands of trees — though not without some challenges along the way.

On the eastern Indonesian island of Flores, verdant bamboo groves and thickets of tall mahogany and teak trees today carpet once bare hills. The young forest is the handiwork of two cousins. Over the last 18 years, they have planted near 6,000 teak trees and 3,000 candlenut trees and more banana trees than they could keep track of.

Their driving force? The fate of their ancestral spring — the Wai Keloba.

The story of 38-year-old Markus Hayon and his cousin Damianus Pelada begins with an earthquake in 1985. After the tremor, the spring at the base of the Kewali Kelewo mountains shriveled. Once a glorious 100-liter-a-second gusher, the Wai Keloba became a two-liter-a-second dribble. This new reality deeply affected the lives of the 2,000 residents of the three surrounding villages of Tana Tukan, Wotan Ulumado and Samasoge.

The water crisis arrived when the duo were children. Later, as a young man, Pelada moved to Kupang on the neighboring island of Timor. Here he noticed that the locals did not neglect their abandoned and wilderness lands as they did in eastern Flores. Instead, they planted the areas and even used them as grazing lands for livestock.

“When I returned to Wotan Ulumado, I tried planting our area,” Pelada explained of his initial, modest home-based nursery and reforestation efforts. It was a basic operation. They bought seedlings from the local district forestry office at 500 rupiah a plant. They made planters by filling polybags with dirt. When plants grew to 50 centimeters, they transplanted them to 30-centimeter holes.

“Our annual goal was to plant a minimum of 500 trees,” Hoyan said of the cousins’ effort to plant the three-kilometer stretch from the Wai Keloba spring to the beach. “Many years, we hit 1,000 teak trees, plus 1,000 mahogany trees near the spring.”

Markus Hoyan (left) and Damianus Pelada walk among their bamboo trees. Photo by Ebed de Rosary

Burned equipment and goat-nibbled plants

Their efforts over the first three years were in vain though.

For generations, the barren land between Samasoge and Tukan had been considered an arid region to be burned and maintained as meadows known in the local language as nepa.

The two cousins planted the trees but other residents continued to clear the nepa with annual burns. The new trees near the spring were considered common property free for the chopping. Livestock grazed freely. Local goats were especially keen on the leaves of the young teak trees. Local perception of Hoyan and Pelada’s efforts was also rather dim. Why expend gas and time transporting polybags for tree planting?

In 2003, fires burned 16 of the drums that Hoyan had bought to harvest rainwater to irrigate his trees. At the price of 175,000 rupiah ($13) each, the loss of the drums meant millions of rupiah in damages. And it seemed that the cousins’ efforts were for naught.

Damianus Pelada (left) and Markus Hoyan. Photo by Ebed de Rosary

The embrace of the elders

The duo overcame the loss of the drums by collecting discarded plastic water bottles in the regional town center of Larantuka. They overcame the problem of hungry livestock by changing the saplings they were planting from the forestry office cultivar to a local teak variety that goats didn’t like the taste of. Another good trait of the local teak variety was that it grew back after a fire.

A major turn in the project’s fortunes came in 2013 when Hoyan was elected village head. In his new position, he rallied to his greening efforts not just the support of community elders but also the force of local customary law. Hoyan expanded the extent of the local customary forest past its narrow circumference around the Wai Keloba spring. He instituted a ban on felling trees within three kilometers of the spring. Those who violated the ban could be punished according to traditional law. “This way people wouldn’t dare fell trees in the area.”

Thus, thanks to the hard work of Hoyan — a  local middle school dropout turned village chief — and his cousin, the Wai Keloba flows again.

Teak planted by the duo. Photo by Ebed de Rosary

Today, many locals build water tanks and run pipes from the water source to their vegetable plots. Still the spring waters flow steady and stable.

Hoyan is very pleased with his tree planting work. He plans to build a water tank in every sub-village. The wood from the trees, he boasts, fill many important purposes, including the building of public facilities like the village office and ritual ceremonial houses. Locals cut branches from four to five-year-old trees for firewood.

In spite of his busy schedule as village head, Hoyan maintains his commitment to tree planting. He continues to plant trees in abandoned lands and wilderness areas, as close to the neighboring village limits as he is permitted.

“The important thing is that we never again have a water shortage,” Hoyan affirmed. “Our children and grandchildren must never feel the anguish of a water crisis.”

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on October 14, 2016.

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