Finance fishing boats

Indonesia’s dilapidated villages turn to nature to restore mangroves

A pilot restoration project on the island of Java is helping villagers protect their communities as climate change worsens flooding

  • Java island communities threatened by worsening floods

  • The program sought to regrow mangroves naturally as a defense

  • The Indonesian government has an ambitious restoration target

By Michael Taylor

SEMARANG, Indonesia, September 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In a coastal community on Indonesia’s Java Island, villagers must constantly bring dirt and stones to local cemeteries to secure resting places for their friends and deceased relatives – fearing that frequent floods will sweep away the deceased.

Like other flood-prone villages in northern Demak Regency, Timbulsloko’s problems are three-fold: over-extraction of groundwater causing sinking, aquaculture contributing to one of the worst coastal erosions in the archipelago, and sea ​​level rise due to climate change.

The more than 3,000 residents of Timbulsloko, who refuse to give up their homes, often pay trucks to haul earth and stones from nearby mountainous areas to protect graves and raise their homes above the rising rocks. waters.

“Since 2008, there have been more floods due to coastal erosion,” said fisherman Suratno, who like many Indonesians has only one name, sitting on the floor of his home in one story, whose front door was ankle-deep in floodwaters. .

“Every day there is flooding – morning, afternoon or night,” the 51-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last month.

Located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is made up of more than 17,000 islands and faces many natural threats, from earthquakes and tsunamis to volcanic eruptions.

And the effects of climate change, such as worsening flooding, pose ever greater risks to the Southeast Asian nation.

In an effort to protect Timbulsloko, Suratno and other locals took part in a pilot project that aimed to reintroduce previously removed mangroves in several villages to rejuvenate and protect at-risk fishing communities and their livelihoods.

Unlike many mangrove restoration initiatives, the Dutch-based environmental group Wetlands International’s seven-year program has not replanted the trees – which are seen as a key defense against flooding and coastal erosion.

Instead, the project – which ended in October 2021 – used expert, local knowledge and labor to convert degraded aquaculture ponds into green belts and sedimentation ponds to helping mangroves to regenerate naturally and increase fish stocks.

Indonesia is home to the largest area of ​​mangroves in the world – which plays an outsized role in absorbing carbon emissions – and the country is engaged in an ambitious restoration campaign. It is a priority for President Joko Widodo, who is to present these efforts to leaders at a G20 summit in Bali later this year.


Around 30 million people are suffering from the impacts of coastal flooding in North Java, with communities displaced and livelihoods destroyed, according to Wetlands International.

In Demak, where villagers are building bamboo bridges to access their flood-hit homes, sea levels are expected to cause flooding up to 6 km (3.7 miles) inland from here 2100.

Flooding in Timbulsloko is largely due to the clearing of mangroves over several decades to make way for aquaculture ponds.

Government-built concrete flood barriers are collapsing and have had limited impact, as over-extraction of groundwater by industry and households in Java is also causing widespread sinking.

So, in 2015, Wetlands International partnered with nine villages along a 20 km coastal strip in Demak.

Instead of replanting – which can focus on the wrong species or areas and has a 10-15% success rate, according to mangrove experts – the program has brought in Dutch and Indonesian experts to map the best places where trees would grow back naturally.

Then, with the participation and knowledge of local communities, the €5 million ($5 million) project built permeable bamboo structures in the sea to trap sediment and create the best conditions for the mangroves to grow. regenerate.

Wetlands International advocacy officer Susanna Tol said the project had a success rate of up to 75%, based on increased sediment and regrowth of mangroves, although heavily subsided areas hampered progress.

From a cost perspective, it is difficult to compare this nature-based approach with efforts that merely replant mangroves or if villages merely reinforce flood defenses, as Wetlands International’s project also involved funding to strengthen livelihoods, she added.

The methods have been replicated in 13 other districts, led by the Indonesian Ministry of Fisheries, and the group is helping the national mangrove restoration agency write a best practice document.

“We integrate the mangroves and the economy as much as possible because that’s the only way to get local support,” Tol said.

The project also trained community groups that are still active and have established green belts, taught mangrove conservation, promoted sustainable fishing and aquaculture practices, and gained access to small restoration-related loans.

Suratno said he installed “bamboo dykes” to protect the village from future flooding, and used a loan to buy nets and an extra boat that he rents out to other fishermen.

“Mangroves have many benefits,” he said, adding that bird and fish numbers have increased locally.

“The (flooded) coastal areas will come back and we can still live here.”


There are about 80 different species of mangroves, most of which are found in the equatorial region.

They support a whole range of wildlife and provide nutrients to the wider ecosystem, which are vital for fishing.

Although mangroves represent less than 1% of the world’s tropical forests, they store a significant amount of carbon underground, prevent coastal erosion and reduce the power of strong waves.

However, they are in decline, with the global area of ​​mangroves shrinking by around 1 million hectares between 1990 and 2020, although the rate of loss has slowed in recent years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Drivers of this loss include timber and charcoal harvesting, land clearing for fish farms and urbanization in coastal areas, said Chris Mcowen, senior marine scientist at the World Conservation Monitoring Center of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. United Nations Environment (UNEP).

Recognizing their value, Indonesia launched a program last year to restore 600,000 hectares of degraded mangroves by 2024, though that momentum has been hampered by the pandemic.

Such goals provide a sense of urgency and are good for publicity and engagement with donors, Mcowen said.

However, local people are too often not consulted in restoration efforts, Mcowen said, adding that without community buy-in, such projects can be doomed.

And in the face of rising seas and storm surges, mangroves should be grown where the survival rate will be highest rather than just where they were lost before, the scientist said.

“We will only see the benefits in 20 to 30 years and restoration must be forward-looking, not just backwards,” he added.


In the village of Tambakbulusan in Demak, where the sinking is not as bad as in the nearby town of Timbulsloko, many mangroves have returned – having benefited from the rehabilitation of old aquaculture ponds and the creation of green belts.

Flooding in the village is less frequent, while local fishermen sell their organic fish for exorbitant prices.

Abdul Ghofur, who catches prawns and milkfish using sustainable fishing methods, joined the Wetlands International project when it started and leads a community group.

The father-of-three said people in his village believe the mangroves provide cleaner air and keep them healthier.

“I see in my village that people now care about the mangroves – they don’t cut them anymore,” the 53-year-old added.

In Tambakbulusan, Ghofur recalls walking with his son around the family fish farms during school holidays many years ago – teaching the boy the importance of mangroves.

The increased quantity and quality of fish resulting from the project has paid for his son’s education and, more recently, allowed him to study aquaculture at university.

“I want my son to become a (aquaculture) teacher,” Ghofur said. “Mangroves have changed my life.”

Related stories:

Malaysian fishermen planting mangroves face obstacle to nature funding

Five trees or a latte? Coastal communities seek crowdfunding for mangroves

Landless Thais get homes in mangrove forest as part of conservation

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