A hidden culprit in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was degraded shorelines. Now Indonesia’s moving to protect its coasts by restoring thousands of miles of mangrove swamps. Ari Daniel Shapiro has the story.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. You see them growing in thickets and forests around tropical coasts. Their intertwined roots become visible when the tide is low. They’re called mangroves. They’re a crucial ecosystem and the trees protect the land from erosion but they are disappearing. Only in the past few years has there been a growing recognition of the importance of mangroves and renewed efforts to restore and preserve them. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro visited a mangrove restoration project in Indonesia.
ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: The Celebes Sea laps at a narrow, gravely beach on the northern arm of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Not long ago this stretch of coastline in the village of Minahasa was thick with a web of mangrove trees. And if the efforts of local residents are successful it will be again.
[SOUND CLIP OF SHOVELS DIGGING]
Under the warming tropical sunshine dozens of community members dig grapefruit-sized holes every few feet along the beach to prepare the way for mangrove seedlings. Others stand by to do the planting – local residents, government officials, and even the president of one of Indonesia’s largest banks. Thirty years ago the shores of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands boasted more than 42 million acres of mangroves. That’s an area the size of Wisconsin. By the 1990s half the mangroves had been destroyed for firewood, charcoal, and timber and to clear the way for fish and shrimp farms. But attitudes towards mangroves have started to change here. Fifteen year-old Susi Mashanafi is one of several hundred school children helping with the replanting. She’s got a warning for people who’d cut down mangroves.
SUSI MASHANAFI: I think we must give them a hard punishment to them because it can be a big problem for us in our future if they’re cutting down the mangrove in the beach.
SHAPIRO: The problem is that when mangrove stands are destroyed coastal areas become far more vulnerable to the ravages of the sea. A few years ago Mashanafi and other Indonesians learned this the hard way.
MASHANAFI: Tsunami of course. It was happening our country many years ago in Aceh.
SHAPIRO: The Tsunami of 2004 devastated parts of Indonesia. Entire communities were washed away. Over 240,000 Indonesians died. The massive wave made it clear just how valuable intact mangroves are. Janot Mendler de Suarez is a project coordinator with the Global Environment Facility, a group that supports the replanting efforts.
JANOT MENDLER DE SUAREZ: We can see from the satellite data that those communities where the mangroves were intact, where the coastal ecosystems had not been degraded, suffered much less damage. They were protected. So we don’t need to do studies and wait to find out if this is going to work. We know it’s going to work.
SHAPIRO: The Indonesian government seems to share that certainty. They’ve moved to safeguard mangroves throughout the country by designating a protected greenbelt along the coast. They are promoting rehabilitation programs like the community planting in Minahasa and encouraging the use of fast growing trees instead of mangroves for firewood and charcoal. The government’s also trying to raise awareness of the mangrove’s broader and ecological and economic importance. John Tasirin, a professor of ecology and conservation at Sam Ratulangi University, says mangroves provide vital habitat for fish and countless other animals.
JOHN TASIRIN: So the government, the university, has been for the last years here, has been intensified to tell people how important the mangrove is to support the life of the organism in the sea therefore it also supports the life of the people in a coastal community. So almost 90% of the villagers along coast of North Sulawesi here they want to restore the mangroves, bring it back as what they see long time ago.
SHAPIRO: Some of the local restoration programs begin here, at the mangrove seedling plantation of Madgid Blongkot, in a village to the north. Blongkot is a gentle man with leathery sun-baked skin. On a humid afternoon he shows off a few hundred seedlings growing in little bags of earth under a thatched roof. Local children play nearby. Blongkot started the plantation 10 years ago on a former mangrove swamp that had been converted to shrimp farming and then abandoned.
MADGID BLONGKOT: [SPEAKING INDONESIAN]
TRANSLATOR: The businessmen who cultivated shrimps here, they just left the land unused. He realized that this area must be cultivated so after rehabilitating this area it can become the home of creatures such as birds and other things and then it can increase the income of the people.
[SOUND CLIP OF BLONGKOT’S EMPLOYEES CHATTERING]
SHAPIRO: Blongkot employs 15 people fulltime and sells about 600,000 seedlings a year including the ones now growing on that gravely beach in Minahasa. Blongkot and his group are a real success story says Nola Femmy Rondonuwu, the head of the watershed management office in Minahasa. But Rondonuwu admits that other Indonesian communities still have a ways to go.
NOLA FEMMY RONDONUWU: [SPEAKING INDONESIAN]
TRANSLATOR: Some of them are not well educated and still don’t realize about the importance of protecting the area and the importance of rehabilitating the area. It’s a matter of human resource skill and the awareness of the people living around that area.
SHAPIRO: Some here say it’s also a matter of an even stronger government commitment. Their concerns include lax protection of the greenbelt and inadequate monitoring of replanted areas. But the government does seem quite serious about education. That’s one of the reasons so many school children came to the mangrove planting. There’s a national effort to teach students about the importance of conserving the environment, including mangroves. Public high school number 5 in the nearby city of Manado is part of that effort. Its classrooms encircle a sun-drenched courtyard where 16 year-old Yoann Ayuwa is just getting out of biology class. The conservation message is certainly grabbing her.
YOANN AYUWA: [SPEAKING INDONESIAN]
TRANSLATOR: We are going to start first from ourselves and then we go on to our families and then we go on to the community, the society, and the whole nation.
SHAPIRO: Are adults listening to you?
YOANN AYUWA: Uh yeah. [SPEAKING INDONESIAN]
TRANSLATOR: We have to be committed to keeping our environment and we have to convince them by doing that ourselves.
SHAPIRO: For The World I’m Ari Daniel Shapiro, Manado, Indonesia.
WERMAN: You can see some of Ari’s photos from Indonesia at The World dot org.
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