Stronger than we thought - A drone’s eye view of Tanjung Panjang – Memories of a fisherman
(8 minute read)
Back to the “Long Peninsula” of Gorontalo for a full week of data gathering. As the biophysical survey team boat off into the nature reserve, a team of social scientists review their instruments for what would prove to be a challenging but revealing week of interviews with the transmigrant Bugis fish farmers from South Sulawesi, who are contentiously converting mangroves in the Tanjung Panjang Nature Reserve. The fish farmers were justifiably reluctant to talk. Last November, a government operation had disassembled five of their elevated houses within the nature reserve. This operation was coordinated by the Ministry of Forestry and Environment’s newly formed enforcement agency known as GAKUM, in partnership with the BKSDA agency who manages the reserve, along with local police and armed forces. The operation was well within the rights of the government as a response to the conversion of mangroves to aquaculture ponds, yet, although the operation ran without incidence of violence, local activists regret the absence of conflict mediation.
One such activist (SS) speaks of an alternate approach.
“We have met with the leaders of the fish farmers, and held numerous discussions. We told them ‘you are solely being blamed for this issue. No one is on your side. If you do not take some action to gain favour of others, no one will help you. Your houses will be taken down and you to will have to leave.’”
As a response, Japesda, a strong local NGO, together with a small group of five fish farmers have begun planting mangroves along dike walls in an effort to promote “silvafisheries.” Although neither the economic nor the ecological value of a few rows of seedlings planted along a dike wall adds up to much, Japesda feels the action is importantly symbolic. Formally, planting mangroves in a nature reserve is illegal. Up until 2012, any attempt at restoration in a nature reserve was deemed illegal, but the paradox of degraded nature reserves brought about change in the law which now allows for ecological restoration. Fish farmers planting mangroves in the nature reserve is meant to serve a dual purpose says SS; first as a symbol that the fish farmers are interested in some form of compromise, and secondly to provoke a response from the management authority in order to bring about dialogue.
At the beginning of the week, the research team found that the Southerners were slow to come out of their shells. There were rumours circulating that environmental consultants from Jakarta were coming to make recommendations regarding their eviction and restoration of the nature reserve. The fish farmers were told to gather money to influence the alleged consultants’ findings. At night, camped out in a village on the periphery of the Nature Reserve, the team recounted the day’s challenges, being questioned if they were indeed the rumoured bribe-seeking consultants, or perhaps agents of local government. It was time to revise the research strategy.
The ice was finally broken after several days when a series focus group discussions were set up with the KKSS (Kerukunan Keluarga Sulawesi Selatan), a large community based organization (CBO) comprised nearly entirely of fish farming families from South Sulawesi. The KKSS exists throughout Indonesia and maintain prominent members such as former Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla.
In Tanjung Panjang, KKSS stands at over 8000 members strong, and they are well organized. During discussions members share stories and opinions, including a few fictions to help justify their occupation of the nature reserve. Some state that the ponds were in the area before they came, or were only Semak (weeds) and not mangroves, however the satellite record is against them. Regardless of when the ponds were converted, or what was there before, a clear story-line emerges from the dialogue, the fish farmers did not work alone. Social-anthropologist Jajang Sonjaya explains;
“There was a form of mutualism at work here. Local villagers and leaders encouraged land conversion. Mangrove areas could be “purchased” for $25 -$100 per hectare, while cleared ponds with pre-constructed dike walls could be purchased for upwards of $3000 per hectare. Several government agencies had also begun to provide services to the fish farmers; the Department of Public Works (PU) has built roads, the Department of Villages have provided solar panels for fish farmer houses, land taxes in the village of Patuhu are being collected for pond areas in the nature reserve.”
Pak HA, a lead member of the KKSS offers this insight.
“Only two things are important to me, my livelihood and my family. If these are threatened, I am prepared to die. There are 8000 of us. We are strong. But there is a better way. We want to meet with real decision makers from local government. Not their representatives. Not lower officials. We want a place to have an open dialogue. A safe place where we can find a solution. We will be happy to come and talk in such a place.”
Indeed, such a space is being prepared in good faith. An upcoming opportunity mapping workshop is the next step of the IUCN sponsored Restoration Opportunity Assessment Method (ROAM), and it will serve as an important meeting where stakeholders can examine issues of conflict and hopefully come to some agreements about a way forward in which mangrove forests and fish farmers can co-exists. For the time being, however, the forests of Tanjung Panjang remain under-siege.
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It was both hot and humid walking along a hardened mud dike wall outside in the Pohuwato District Protected Forest adjacent to the Tanjung Panjang Nature Reserve. A friend and I strolled towards a dying forest during our lunch break between survey work, intent upon getting a picture of a stand of smouldering trees. A myriad of large woody debris, the brown tepid water underneath a layer of green pond scum, a recent crocodile sighting and my friend’s blistered toe delayed our entrance by several hundred meters and to good fortune. A few minutes later, a 30 meter tall flaming mangrove smashed down in a thunderous tumult of sparks and smoke. Had the Lorax been hanging about he would have met a fiery end. Minutes later a second burning tree crashed down through the canopy. The revelation dawned on us that would be the last human witnesses to this particular section of old mangroves.
Field surveys continued after lunch, led by Yusran and Accank of Blue Forests along with Nurain, a master’s student at the University of Gorontalo and member of the local NGO Japesda.
A set of 6 large yellow foam squares called AeroPoints had been placed along the dike wall encircling the mangroves where milkfish are now cultured. The AeroPoints are a form of digital ground control points, which communicate with satellites and establish highly accurate surface elevation markers. Elevation data is vital to a mangrove researcher, as mangrove growth is confined within the intertidal zone, approximately between mean sea level and high spring tide. The AeroPoints work in combination with a Phantom III drone which surveys the area on a fixed path taking photographs at regular intervals. The data is uploaded to the https://www.propelleraero.com/ website, which can create 3-dimensional maps of the landscape, including both ground and tree canopy.
It is our intent to colour-code these maps, clearly depicting areas where different species of mangroves can grow, and of equal importance, where mangroves cannot grow. These maps will be produced to inform the upcoming opportunity mapping workshop in order to help local stakeholders better understand where restoration can take place from a biophysical point of view (cognizant all the while, that the difficult part of restoration is usually not biophysical, but reaching agreements between different stakeholders).
Lunch break is over (and we have avoided injury by falling-flaming tree) and the team has broken out the ground survey equipment. At this stage, we use a laser level and telescoping staff to establish the elevations of different mangroves species growing near the AeroPoints, and also measure the elevation in the ponds, both the raised central plateau as the deeper channels (like moats) which had been excavated when making the dike walls.
Knowing the depths of the ponds helps us understand if mangroves can again grow inside the ponds once re-connected to the river. If the elevations are too low, we can also calculate the amount of fill material (hydraulically dredged marine sediment) needed to raise the substrate to an adequate level to once again support mangrove growth. This final piece of information helps us calculate the overall cost of restoration, which is also an important consideration for the opportunity mapping workshop.
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The final day of our trip finds us in Bulili, situated along a river mouth emptying out to a sandy beach. We have come to speak with capture fishers who have traditionally plied the waters in front of Tanjung Panjang Nature Reserve 30 km to the East.
Ihksan Abay is a Bulili elder, and recounts a tale of fishing off of Tanjung Panjang in the years and decades before the mangroves were converted to fish ponds.
“The waters off of Tanjung Panjang used to be very productive. We could catch Tuna and many other species just off shore. Fishermen came from far away to fish there, like the Bajo of Torsiaje to the West. But now there are much less fish, since the mangroves are gone. The fishermen have gone too. Our Tuna fishermen have moved to North Sulawesi, to Sanggihe Taluad.”
“Bulili is known for its mud crabs as well. Men and women could catch these everyday. These began to disappear when our own mangroves were turned into fish ponds. We still have some fish ponds here, but we also restored about 25 hectares of mangroves, where we go to catch crabs and gather clams and periwinkles.”
Umar Passandre, is a Bajo fisherman who lives in the above mentioned Torsiaje. He became is now known as a local mangrove expert, who developed his knowledge during the five year IUCN Tomini bay Sustainable Coastal Livelihoods and Management (SUSCLAM) project which ran from 2007 – 2012.
“If you live along the coast, if you fish, if you own a house, if you have children, you need the mangroves. Some already know this. Some do not know it yet. It is a shame that the mangroves of Tanjung Panjang have been removed. But it is not too late to bring them back. Not yet.”
The story of Tanjung Panjang is not one of conflict between traditional fishers versus “Southern” fish farmers. At the heart of the issue lies the contention between management of common resources and privatization. Failure to adequately value and manage mangroves as important common resources allowed for their exploitation, conversion and pseudo-ownership. The way forward, towards landscape restoration, can only be reached through shared understanding, dialogue, and compromise. An attempt at reaching such agreement will take place this August, when we learn if there is genuine opportunity for mangrove recovery or if last of these coastal guardians will burn and fall into the sea without making a sound.
Special thanks to: Yusran Nurdin, Laila Adila, Akhzan Nur Iman, Rahman Dako, Sugeng Sutrisno, Nur Ain Lapolo and Ismail from Blue Forests and Japesda. Special thanks to Li Jia from IUCN, and last but not least, many thousands of thanks to Leah Glass whose pictures are worth that many and more words.