Indonesia’s Womangrove collective reclaims the coast from shrimp farms

  • A women’s collective in Indonesia’s Tanakeke Islands has restored dozens of hectares of mangroves since its founding six years ago.
  • The Womangrove collective focuses on replanting abandoned shrimp and fish farms that were originally established in cleared mangrove areas, and have to date planted more than 110,000 seedlings.
  • Indonesia has more mangrove area than any other country in the world, but has lost half of it in the past 30 years, mostly to shrimp and fish farms.

TANAKEKE ISLANDS, Indonesia — Wading through a mangrove swamp in the coastal waters of Indonesia’s Tanakeke Islands, Hayati wiped the sweat from her brow and tried her best to keep dry the writing implements she held in her hands.

“They’re more than a year old, they were planted early last year,” she said, referring to the knee-high saplings growing around her.

On that day in 2015, Hayati and several other women from Tanakeke, a small archipelago off the southeast coast of the island of Sulawesi that’s home to about 7,000 people, were surveying a clutch of mangroves they had planted in a former aquaculture pond as part of a newly founded ecological restoration program.

Six years later, Hayati’s group, a collective of women known as Womangrove, is still going strong.

“The ponds that were planted with mangroves and as research sites are in very good condition,” Hayati told Mongabay in October, during another visit to the area. “Their owners are able to get more and more fish and crabs.”

Womangrove members tend to their saplings. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Indonesia has more mangroves — gnarled trees found only around saltwater — than any other country in the world. They play an important ecological role, forming an arboreal buffer between the sea and coastal lands that mitigates the effects of extreme weather and acts as a powerful carbon sink.

Indonesia’s mangroves, however, are threatened by rampant development. Over the past 30 years, the country has lost nearly half of its mangroves, according to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), a global nonprofit with headquarters outside Jakarta. The trees are cleared for timber and to make room for shrimp and fish farms.

Last year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo set an ambitious goal of replanting mangroves on 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of degraded coastline by 2024. While some are skeptical the goal can be achieved — Indonesia already slashed its 2021 restoration target, citing budget constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic ​​— local groups and concerned citizens across the archipelago nation have been working for years to restore mangrove ecosystems in their communities.

One of those groups is Womangrove. A collective of women who protect and revitalize the mangroves of the Tanakeke Islands, the group was founded in 2015 with the support of Oxfam, the global charity, CIDA, the Canadian development agency, and the Blue Forest Foundation (YHB), an Indonesian nonprofit.

There are about 20 members in Womangrove, mainly housewives. They started in part as a business collective that would work on farming sustainable aquaculture produce from mangroves, such as seaweed. They are also involved in various village programs and attend seminars on mangrove agricultural developments.

Womangrove women of various ages and educations. They got together with a shared goal to re-green Tanakeke, Mappakasunggu, Takalar, South Sulawesi, as it was before it was damaged. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay-Indonesia.

In the years since it was formed, the business aspect of the collective has proved hard to sustain, with members citing the difficulty of getting goods from their remote islands to the right markets. But the women of Womangrove say they have benefited in other significant ways.

“In the long term, these women are developing critical skills,” Hayati said. “We are heavily involved in various village programs but now we’re working to improve them too, something that didn’t happen before.”

Some of the women who have been involved in the program have even become village officials thanks to the administrative and speaking skills they learned through their involvement in the various workshops conducted by Oxfam’s Restoring Coastal Livelihoods (RCL) program.

Hayati said people in Tanakeke often see mangroves as just a source of firewood or building materials. She said one of Womangrove’s biggest achievements has been changing this mindset.

“There is an emerging awareness of how important it is to protect mangroves because they protect the islands from erosion and the brunt of big tidal waves,” she said. “Women play a very important role in this because it is closely related to everyday life. It’s also about equality.”

Oxfam’s RCL program wound down several years ago, but the group still receives support from the Blue Forest Foundation and has maintained its activities. Although Womangrove’s members no longer meet as often as before, they are still very active in mangrove planting, having replanted dozens of hectares.

Womangrove activists previously attended the Mangrove Field School conducted by Blue Forests through Oxfam’s RCL program. Once the mangroves are grown, they also carry out monitoring and evaluation. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay-Indonesia.

“In 2020, together with BPDAS” — the local watershed management authority — “we planted around 110,000 mangrove seedlings. Most of the people involved in planting activities were women, particularly Womangrove members,” Hayati said. Womangrove activists know the best areas and techniques for planting mangroves and are involved in maintenance and supervision as well, she added.

Many of these mangroves are planted in old tambak areas, which are manmade ponds of brackish water often used for farming shrimp and fish, and other forms of aquaculture. Tanakeke has lost most of its mangrove coverage over the past three decades, largely due to clearing for aquafarms, but many of these ponds are no longer in use.

“In the past, we didn’t use the tambak that our parents abandoned, but that changed after we got involved with Womangrove and participated in Oxfam’s RCL and the YHB program showing us how to use the former tambak for planting mangroves,” said Marwanti, a member of Womangrove from Minasa Baji village. “We also learned that marine life will return if the mangroves are healthy.”

Oxfam’s RCL program involves residents allowing their land to be planted with mangroves and giving them the necessary time to grow. The program has seen dozens of hectares of former tambak become filled with dense mangrove growth. Marwanti herself planted mangroves on 2 hectares (5 acres) of her own land and said she had no intention of turning them back into traditional tambak. She said she could now make good money by gathering bucketfuls of kerang biri-biri, a type of mollusk that she used to have to travel far to find, right from her own mangroves.

A former shrimp pond in the the Tanakeke Islands that has been restored to a mangrove area. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Although the members of Womangrove have worked hard to maintain the mangroves in Tanakeke, they know they will continue to face major challenges, among them the poor economic conditions that cause people to cut down mangroves and build tambak. There are concerns that some of the tambak that have been restored by mangrove planting will eventually be converted back into unsustainable farms.

“If there is no program for them, it is likely that in the next one to two years, the former tambak will come back, especially if someone is able to finance them. The only reason this condition persists is because of the lack of capital,” said Awal Nompo, a local youth leader. Part of the reason for that is that the shrimp that can be farmed in traditional tambak are relatively lucrative compared to other forms of aquaculture.

Hayati said local governments needed to improve their monitoring of mangrove areas and enact severe legal sanctions on residents who carry out illegal logging in order to negate those economic incentives.

“There is already a prohibition on taking coral from the sea and police can arrest those perpetrators,” Hayati said. “There should be similar laws regarding illegal and irresponsible logging of mangroves.”

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team here on our Indonesian site on Nov. 15, 2021.