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How mangroves got their roots back in East Java

by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Wednesday, 26 July 2017 14:12 GMT

Rustima (centre) and her women's group make fish crackers © MFF Indonesia

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In a village called Gelung in East Java, Indonesia, 43-year-old Rustima looks out from the small kiosk she maintains with her husband overlooking the sea and a new mangrove rehabilitation site.

Here, as in other low-lying island areas, each time the tide goes out it comes in just a bit further, and the waves hide an insidious secret: a rising ocean is swallowing the beaches, driving away tourists and fisherfolk alike, eroding the earth and the livelihoods of people like Rustima.

Rustima's kiosk

By the time she opens for business at 9 AM, Rustima has already returned from the market with goods and supplies to sell, fed her family’s livestock and cooked the day’s meals. During the fishing season, the kiosk – located near Gelung’s Pathek beach – stays open throughout the night, so that people fishing along the shore can gather for periodic coffee breaks.

When it’s not the fishing season, Rustima and her husband work in the corn fields.  Her afternoons are spent gathering grass as fodder for her livestock, and in the evenings, there is time for Koran recitations and social activities.

Livelihoods swept out to sea

At Pathek Beach, the effects of climate change and rising sea levels have been profoundly felt. In the 1990s, mangrove forests were cleared to make way for more intensive aquaculture. The economic benefit of those measures was quickly lost when about 13 km of fully-exposed coast fell into the sea, causing flash floods that swept through the sub-district, taking with it chunks of East Java’s main east-west artery. The crumbled road left 80% of the population, all fisherfolk, with little choice but to raise the prices of their goods to account for the extra time spent getting from fishing site to market and back.

Some were forced to change professions entirely – leaving behind the beaches, and Rustima’s kiosk.

Returning mangroves to Gelung

Mangroves for the Future (MFF), a joint coastal ecosystem initiative of IUCN and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that spans 11 countries across Asia and the Indian Ocean, has been supporting Rustima and her village to build their resilience to rising sea levels by helping to restore mangroves, and by helping women diversify family income. So far, 74,000 saplings have been planted in and around the village, and women’s community groups have begun selling homemade snacks to generate revenue.

“I have picked up some new skills,” Rustima says, arms buried up to her elbows in fish cracker dough. “I use fish that I get from the local market to make crackers and fish floss that I sell at my kiosk. My family now makes about IDR 1,302,000 (US $100) per month. This is 14% more than what we made before the project started.”

Once the mangroves grow large enough for young fish to shelter among them, fisheries yields are likely to rise. This helps the women generate more income. Rustima’s kiosk business will also benefit – more fish means more fishermen, which in turn means more snack orders.

Nature’s coastal purifier

Mangroves protect both humans and wildlife, providing nurseries for fish, molluscs, crabs, shrimp and even sharks. In Southeast Asia, home to 41% of the world’s mangroves, they have been estimated to support 30% of the fish catch and almost 100% of the shrimp catch.

Mangroves also act as a natural barrier between land and water. The tangled roots of mangrove trees keep coastal sediment from slipping out to sea, and the trunks absorb the force of waves - from ripples to Tsunamis.

Mangroves are hard to rival when it comes to carbon storage as they can extract large amounts of carbon from the air, which is then sequestered in the soil. When mangrove forests are cut down – to make room for fish ponds, for example – the impact is twofold: stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, and the trees are no longer there to absorb it.  

As we figure out how to curb climate change and reverse the trend of biodiversity degradation on a global scale, many people’s lives will continue to be affected.  Programmes like MFF help people like Rustima and her community – at the frontlines of the battle for nature – by rehabilitating mangroves, restoring the integrity of coastal ecosystems and expanding opportunities to sustainably generate income from coastal resources.