Assessing Mangrove Forest Landscape Restoration Opportunity - From the Field in Gorontalo, Sulawesi

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Assessing Mangrove Forest Landscape Restoration Opportunity - From the Field in Gorontalo, Sulawesi

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Assessing Mangrove Forest Landscape Restoration Opportunity

From the Field in  Gorontalo, Sulawesi: Blog #1

We arrived in Siduwonge Village several hours before the Friday Muslim prayer of Jumaah after a short drive from Marissa, the district capital of Pohuwato, Gorontalo on the northern arm of the island of Sulawesi. 

Situated in in the Tanjung Panjang National Nature Reserve, in the heart of Wallacea, one would expect an abundance and diversity of flora and fauna, but driving into Siduwonge, it becomes apparent that is not the case. Although lush green forested mountains keep guard in the background, the immediate landscape has that desolate lunar quality conjured up by a constellation of flat and tepid fish ponds many of which give rise to graveyard of dead and leafless mangrove trees.Fish Farmer Home - in Tanjung Panjang Nature Reserve

At the end of a dirt track, the village of Siduwonge is comprised of timber and cinder block houses, roofed with corrugated sheet metal or in some cases the fronds of Nypah – the only mangrove which is a member of the palms.  Li Jia (of IUCN) and myself were warmly invited into the nearest house, and straightaway were requested to pose for pictures with a month-old baby whose mother was busily dressing her in a new outfit.  We took turns holding the baby and smiling for the camera, a process which immediately humanized the plight of a people who were considered outlaws in this region for their role in transforming this strict nature reserve into the above mentioned aquaculture landscape over the past two decades.

Mother and Child

The baby’s mother and grandmother introduced themselves as coming from Pangkep District, in the Province of South Sulawesi, the origin of both Bugis and Makassarese ethnic groups.  Their families rice farms and fish farms in the South have long since turned unproductive, and amongst 8000 other coastal villagers from their region, they have come to Tanjung Panjang to make a new living.

Stepping into the backyard – we enter directly into a puzzle-piece landscape brackish water milkfish ponds which stretch to the horizon.  A moustached fish farmer serves as our guide along the way, first pointing out some small mangrove seedlings which were planted together with a local NGO called JAPESDA.  The seedlings are very small, and many are infested with bugs in their leaves.  The fish farmer states that since the planting of the seedlings, the farmers are able to raise shrimp in the ponds, but this response seems dubious, unlikely as it is that these scraggly seedlings have yet had any positive impact on the environment.  JAPESDA has successfully restored mangroves in abandoned shrimp ponds elsewhere in the province and is a strong advocate for healthy mangrove forest.  In this case planting mangroves in a silvi-fisheries experiment with the fish farmers is an entry point to engage with this group which has been marginalized over the years as calls for cessation of aquaculture in the nature reserve have grown louder.

dead mangrove seedling and mud crab

We continue through the puzzle, walking atop thick or thin walled dikes which separate the ponds, learning of their construction.  A certificate for an area of mangroves is purchased for a price of 1,000,000 rupiah (US$125) per hectare from a village head or other local authority.  A dike wall is constructed around the area and the forest is permanently flooded – killing the trees.  The mangrove trees are either removed for their wood or left standing. Our guide, Bo Dalle, mentions that the structure of the trees is good for algal growth which feed the fish).  The ponds are 1 meter deep adjacent to the dike walls, but much shallower in the large central plateau.  It has been noted that these shallow, extensive ponds have very limited productivity, but farmers in Tanjung Panjang state that they make a decent living raising milkfish (Chanos chanos) and occasional crops of shrimp.  The ponds are fertilized each season to grow a thick green algal mat on the bottom upon which the milkfish feed.  No other inputs are required, although their ponds in South Sulawesi require a variety of inorganic fertilizers and up to 16 types of pesticide.

We stayed for lunch in the village, a spread of shrimp, rice and vegetable soup laid upon the floor.  The three bowls of fried Ecuadorian white leg shrimp (Penaeus vanname) have arrived in Indonesia as the government’s latest attempt to introduce disease-resistant shrimp to Indonesia after mass die-offs of previous local target species Tiger prawns (Penaeus monodon) and Banana prawns (Fenneropenaeus merguiensi) due to a variety of viruses.  Unfortunately, Vannamei shrimp bring their own disease new to Indonesian waters in the form of Taura virus.

Mangroves inundated and killed to enable pond construction

Man and woman discuss future mgmt options

Notably absent from lunch are the crushed chilies which accompany every meal in Gorontalo. When asked about this the hosts apologetically comment that chillies are expensive and that markets for produce only exist once a week.  A few minutes later – a small bowl of chillies is produced from a neighbouring household.  Sincerely honouring guests is a common and wonderful trait Indonesia-wide, regardless of social or economic status.

As we depart Siduwonge village, village elder Abdul Waris gathers us around proudly to regale us the story of his migration from South Sulawesi to Gorontalo nearly 20 years ago. 

“When we arrived – the newly appointed Bupati (District Head) emanating from Bulukumba, South Sulawesi) became the head of the District here and told us to develop ponds and to make them productive.  If someone threatened us with arrest for building ponds in Tanjung Panjang, we were to tell them that the Bupati would have them arrested for interfering with development.  So we felt brave and assured to develop the ponds.”

Abdul Waris spoke most directly to Rahman Dako, our host in Gorontalo, and the head of the Provincial Multi-stakeholder Mangrove Management Working Group (locally called the KKMD). Rahman or “Aga” as he is affectionately known, is a major figure in both Gorontalo and Indonesia in mangrove conservation and coastal community development.  Aga was instrumental in developing the KKMD – during a prior IUCN managed project in the region known as SUSCLAM, and today coordinates between the many stakeholders who engage with the group; on friendly terms with  Governor, Mayor, Bupati, and University Rector alike.  Aga is also well known in rural coastal communities who are appreciative of his efforts to a person.

Aga listened patiently as Abdul Waris told his familiar tale, having his own thoughts on how to resolve the myriad of issues connected to this story which he will reserve for another time. 

Strong opinions however, are not in short supply in the region.  The following day, our group was invited to meet with the current Bupati, Syarif Mbuinga in his home in Limboto 20 mintues outside the provincial capital of Gorontalo.  With many technical government staff on hand, the Bupati confidently stated;

Restoration is the only option in Tanjung Panjang.  The mangroves must be restored and the people can no longer farm fish there.  Perhaps in adjacent landscapes fish farms and mangroves can co-exist, but not in the nature reserve.  I have 600 million rupiah this year to help with restoration.  We should start with a greenbelt. We can send in the Navy.  It will be an experiment, so we know how people will react and how to restore the area.  The fish farmers are my people.  They are not from Gorontalo, but they are living in Gorontalo so they are my people.  My government will take responsibility for them.  But some of them also need to take responsibility.”

Some of these statements are uncomfortable to hear, portending potential conflict and the prosecution of key figures behind aquaculture development.  It is this view that needs to be balanced with a more humanistic approach to natural resource management.

Meeting at Bupati's Office

A day later IUCN, Blue Forests and Charles Darwin University convened an initial meeting to introduce the Restoration Opportunities Assessment Method (ROAM) to members of the KKMD.  The meeting focused on sharing information on the prior management of Tanjung Panjang, discussing the need for restoration in the Tanjung Panjang landscape and ultimately developing the following problem statement.

Mangrove landscape conversion for aquaculture in Tanjung Panjang, has multiple drivers (social, tenurial, policy and economic) which caused the system to cross a threshold and become a new system of lesser value.  The longer these drivers persist and operate unchecked, the more difficult and costly it will be to restore the landscape.

2nd day of ROAM workshop with KKMD

At this point, it came to the group’s attention that indeed, efforts to resolve the problem were ramping up.  Murhammad Nur, the Director of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s newly formed Forestry Law Enforcement Agency (GAKUM) reported that he has received presidential instructions to initiate the removal of fish farmers from the reserve, including the arrest of especially “arrogant” figures as an example to others.  XCB, the head of the Agency for Natural Resource Conservation in charge of the nature reserve spoke of orders to then begin the process of ecological restoration.

On the final day of our visit, during a presentation on mangrove forest landscape restoration (MFLR) at the State University of Gorontalo (UNG), one student amidst a crowd of more than 100 young scientists addressed the elephant in the room, standing and asking, “What will happen to the fish farmers if Tanjung Panjang is restored?”