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Aziil Anwar, Indonesian coral-based mangrove grower, dies at 64

Aziil Anwar.

Aziil Anwar. Image by Agus Mawan for Mongabay.

  • Aziil Anwar, a civil servant turned award-winning mangrove restorer, has died from diabetes-related complications.
  • Aziil gained prominence in the 1990s by pioneering a way to boost the success of mangrove planting in coral damaged by blast fishing on the island of Baluno in Indonesia’s West Sulawesi province.
  • With the help of local children, he managed to plant some 100 hectares (nearly 250 acres), fully covering the island and extending the mangrove forest out toward the mainland.

Aziil Anwar, a prolific planter of mangroves on coral damaged by blast fishing in Indonesia’s West Sulawesi province, rallying many children to his cause, died in hospital on May 6. He was 64.

Azill had suffered a leg injury from scraping through a coral reef, which failed to heal due to his diabetes. The injury eventually led to his death at Majene General Hospital in Majene, a town on the southern coast of West Sulawesi.

Born in 1958 in the town of Ternate in eastern Indonesia’s Maluku Islands, Aziil moved to the island of Sulawesi and started his career in forestry in 1983. Several years later, he and several colleagues were transferred from their posts at the forestry department in Enrekang district, South Sulawesi province, to the farther-flung town of Majene for refusing to participate in what he claimed was a corrupt scheme run by his superiors.

Data Beach in Majene. Aziil Anwar was transferred to take care of a barren coral island in Majene. Image by Renato Renato via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

As a forest extension officer in Majene, one of Aziil’s jobs was to take care of Baluno, a barren, 20-hectare (49-acre) coral island facing the Makassar Strait and linked to the Sulawesi mainland by a wood-plank bridge.

At the time, Baluno was strewn with dead coral. Only a few mangrove trees grew naturally. The only use the island had for nearby inhabitants was that it was a graveyard revered by the locals.

Upon his arrival, Aziil was surprised to find mangroves growing in the coral. He got the itch to cultivate such mangroves in a coral base. He got the local youth to collect mangrove propagules — stem-shaped, germinated mangrove fruit — brought by sea currents off the Baluno coast.

Planting was done independently, with no external funding. At first only one-third of the plants grew. The rest were either eaten by goats or swept away by the sea.

Knowing that mangroves of the Rhizophora genus were more adapted to sandy, muddy soil, he changed his planting practice. In a methodology he devised and called his “activator” method, Aziil would bore a hole in the coral with a crowbar, then fill it with soil from the coastline in which he planted a propagule.

This planting procedure became standard. Soon, Aziil caught the attention of researchers. He no longer was just a civil servant; he became a mangrove guardian. Every year, he and his group were able to plant hundreds of mangroves in what is now an impressive coastal ecosystem.

The government honored Aziil in 2003 with the Kalpataru Prize, a national environmental award. In 2015, the Jakarta-based Biodiversity Foundation recognized him for being an initiator in sustainability. Aziil’s Baluno Mangrove Forest has also been a declared a biodiversity park, a type of state-sanctioned nature reserve geared toward ecotourism.

A champion of public education, Aziil opened his Mangrove Learning Center near Baluno. He lived in a wooden house at the edge of the forest, where the mangroves he planted and nurtured over the course of three decades now cover some 100 hectares (nearly 250 acres). After the island was fully planted, the mangroves began to extend along the coast on the mainland.

The Mangrove Learning Center nursery in Majene. Image by Agus Mawan for Mongabay.

Aziil had the help of youths in the foundation he set up, Yayasan Pemuda Mitra Masyarakat Desa, whose name in Indonesia translates roughly to “Youths partnering with rural communities.” Aziil’s endearing engagement with youths extended to playing afternoon volleyball.

High-arching Rhizophora mangroves grow here, making a thick canopy. Baluno has no human settlement but is home to thousands of migratory birds and bats. The forest’s underwater roots are a haven for fish life.

Every week, schoolchildren come to visit the park and education center, joining in planting and learning about mangroves and the coastal environment.

For residents, the forest is more than just the fulfillment of Aziil’s ambitions. From the Baluno Mangrove Forest, the local community benefits from the increased presence of shellfish, crabs, and leaf foliage as animal fodder. The mangrove line also protects the population from coastal abrasion and floods.

Locals are also able to make mangrove-based products that they can then sell: tea, meatballs, coffee, flour. Together with selling mangrove propagule stems, these items have brought in additional income.

Aziil Anwar walks down a wood-plank bridge in the Baluno mangrove forest. Image by Agus Mawan for Mongabay.

On his Facebook page, Aziil would share his Baluno activities and remember his own children who had passed away before him. He had three boys from his first wife, who also died, and two girls after he remarried.

With foresight, Aziil had prepared his surviving son, his eldest, Firhan Rimbawan, to continue his work.

“Papa gave me the name ‘Rimbawan’” — meaning “Forester” — “for me to continue his cause,” Firhan said.

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Banner image of Aziil Anwar by Agus Mawan for Mongabay.

A version of this story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on June 27, 2022.