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On an island scarred by tin mining, mangrove planting preserves shrimp tradition

Belacan shrimp paste made from rebon shrimp in Bangka. Image by Nopri Ismi for Mongabay.

  • Mining, aquaculture, plantations and other commercial activities have taken a toll on mangroves in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest extent of these important ecosystems.
  • On the Bangka-Belitung islands off Sumatra, residents of one village are doing their part to maintain the mangroves through replanting.
  • For the Batu Betumpang villagers, the mangroves are the source of the shrimp they use to make their belacan shrimp paste, a key source of livelihood here.
  • The villagers say there’s a growing awareness of the importance of mangroves, without which “our income will definitely decline because shrimp will run out.”

BANGKA, Indonesia — For more than two decades Ardianto has walked to the coastal mangrove trees from his village in Indonesia’s Bangka Island at sunrise with a triangular net, searching for rebon shrimp.

On returning home around 9 a.m. to his village of Batu Betumpang, Ardianto, commonly known as Lai Tin, and his wife begin pounding the catch of the day into a thick shrimp paste called belacan.

“After this is crushed, it dries again tomorrow,” Ardianto told Mongabay. “Then it’s pulverized again — and that’s how we get belacan.”

For centuries the mangrove trees around Bangka-Belitung province have provided food, medicine and more for the islands’ inhabitants.

But the once-teeming ecosystem fringed around the two main islands, about halfway between Singapore and Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, is today at risk of extinction.

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelagic country, has more mangrove forests than anywhere else on Earth.

But vast areas of these valuable forests have been uprooted to make way for aquaculture farms, oil palm plantations and other uses along the archipelago’s coasts.

Bangka Island is also the source of about 90% of all the tin mined in Indonesia, the world’s second-largest producer of the metal, which is used mainly as solder in electronic devices.

This has added to the pressure on Bangka’s endangered mangroves as people migrate to the islands to mine tin around coastal areas. There are an estimated 20,000 tin miners on the island and about 700 mining concessions.

Data from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), a prominent national pressure group, shows the province’s mangroves have been decimated.

Only 20 years ago the province was home to around 240,000 hectares (593,000 acres) of mangrove trees.

But today there are just over 33,000 hectares (82,000 acres) of mangroves in Bangka-Belitung.

Many rural communities in Bangka-Belitung have traditionally relied on these mangroves to earn an income from fishing and from making belacan shrimp paste.

Bangka-Belitung province is circled above. In the lower map, Bangka is the island on the left.

Men like Lai Tin walk down to the coast at dawn with their triangular nets to bring in shrimp, which is then prepared and sold by many of the village’s women.

But in recent years, dwindling stocks of shrimp have forced hundreds of fisherfolk to confront an escalating threat to their livelihoods.

Shrinking stocks of rebon shrimp mean many here are resorting to the inferior kampat shrimp.

Lai Tin’s village of Batu Betumpang in the south of Bangka Island is one of the few areas where the tradition survives, according to Rendi, a researcher at Bangka-Belitung University.

“Rebon shrimp can still be found by the shrimp paste makers because in that area some of the mangroves are still preserved,” Rendi told Mongabay in April. “The sea is free from marine tin mining.”

Lai Tin and his wife can usually dry the shrimp in a day — two days if it rains.

Sun, Lai Tin’s wife, dries rebon shrimp in the sun near a mosque in their village. Image by Nopri Ismi for Mongabay.

Catching shrimp is seasonal in Bangka-Belitung, with sufficient stocks available from around December to June.

“During those seven months about 500 kilograms [1,100 pounds] of rebon shrimp are collected,” Lai Tin said.

That’s enough raw material for 400 kilos (880 lb) of shrimp paste, the father of two said.

With a kilo of processed shrimp paste fetching 60,000 rupiah ($4) at market, that generates 24 million rupiah ($1,700) per year. That’s equivalent to almost eight times the province’s minimum monthly wage.

In addition to making shrimp paste, Lai Tin also cultivates vegetables and rice.

“I also look for fish if it is not shrimp season,” he said.

Lai Tin pounds shrimp with traditional tools. Image by Nopri Ismi for Mongabay.

Batu Betumpang village covers an area of 9,462 hectares (23,381 acres) with a population of almost 9,000 people.

The village dates back hundreds of years, with evidence suggesting Batu Betumpang was a prominent trading hub.

Dutch-era bunkers and wells lie near the beach among large granite boulders.

Across the strait separating Bangka from the mainland of Sumatra stands a 74-meter (243-foot) lighthouse built by the colonial Dutch East Indies government in 1888 to guide sailors crossing the water.

The lighthouse on Bangka’s Batu Betumpang Beach. Image by Nopri Ismi for Mongabay.

The mangroves here also offer the village protection from storm surges.

Last year, Indonesia announced an ambitious plan to plant mangrove trees in 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of damaged forests by 2024.

In Batu Betumpang, work has begun, planting 50,000 seedlings in a 25-hectare (62-acre) area.

“We plan to also plant the api-api and perpat mangroves,” said Ali Akbar, representing the Batu Betumpang Village Lighthouse Tourism Awareness Group. “But we had trouble getting the perpat seeds.”

The government has allocated funds to pay local people to help plant the mangroves, offering some income to those who have lost work due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The activity also builds public awareness — especially among the younger generation — of the importance of mangroves,” Ali said.

For Lai Tin and many other traditional farmers, the preservation of the local mangroves carries high importance.

“We are very happy with the planting — there are still many fish and shrimp,” he said. “If the mangroves are gone, yes, our income will definitely decline because shrimp will run out, like other areas in Bangka.”

This article was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on April 20, 2021.

Banner: Belacan shrimp paste made from rebon shrimp in Bangka. Image by Nopri Ismi for Mongabay.

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