SOCIETY / 09:00,

Soaring Bill for A Fistful of Shrimp

Where mangroves have been cleared to make room for shrimp farms, the sea breaks in. Not only villages in Indonesia are badly affected, but the whole planet

The boat glides slowly along a channel fringed by leafy mangrove trees. Their roots sink down into the brackish water, penetrating the soft sediment below. It’s hard to believe that until recently, only 10 years ago, a village stood here. Now, amid the silence of the lagoon, broken only by the noise of the boat's engine, you catch occasional glimpses of ruins or fragments. An old light pole, or suddenly, past a dense stand of trees, the walls of a mosque, now flooded and abandoned. On this spot, there was once a fishing village, Bedono. Then it sank, and a mangrove swamp grew over it. 

For millions of people living along the coasts of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands (nobody agrees on the exact count), erosion, subsidence, salt-water intrusion and the loss of marine ecosystems are real dangers. Over the past three decades, space has been carved out of the coastline for fishponds and urban development by sacrificing vast mangrove forests. 

This modification of the natural environment left both the coastline and its villages at the mercy of ocean currents, tides, storm surges, subsidence and natural erosion. Seawater has inundated thousands of fishponds, roads and settlements. After the mangroves were clear-cut to make space for fish ponds, the coast could no longer cope with the sea’s natural hazards. That’s how Bedono, a village not far from Semarang on Java’s north coast, came to disappear.

It took the ocean less than 10 years to wipe Bedono off the map. Almost 700 hectares of land were lost to the sea. The rice fields and towns farther inland, stripped of their protective mangrove belts, are more prone to flooding. Salt water ruins crops and the surviving fish farms.

Half a meter

Pasijah still lives in this partly submerged land. She’s one of only two Bedono residents who refused to abandon their village. The ground is collapsing and the sea level is rising, but Pasijah won’t budge. If resilience can be measured, in Bedono it’s 50 centimeters tall. That’s how much Pasijah has raised her home to keep it above the rising water. 

“I hope I won’t have to move somewhere. I want to stay,” she says. 

Pasijah is as deeply rooted as the mangroves encroaching on her home. She makes a living as a fish dealer. Fishermen bring her their catch of fish and shrimp, which she sells at the nearest village market. It's a solitary life, but she claims business is going well. The fishermen don’t have time to sell their daily catch without her help.

Around her home, the damaged ecosystem is reverting to its original state. Streets and houses have been reclaimed by lush mangrove thickets. It’s questionable whether the vegetation will continue to flourish as the sea level keeps rising and the land subsides.

Indonesia at a crossroads

Java’s entire coastline, and long stretches elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, are at risk. The consequences of 30 years of aquaculture expansion are pitiless. At least of 70 percent of Java’s original mangrove forest acreage has been destroyed.

Now Indonesia is at a crossroads: it can keep chopping down mangroves to grow the economy, or it can put a stop to deforestation. Continuing current practices will destroy the rest of a natural safety belt that protects coastal economies, renews fishery stocks and captures 190 million tons of potential carbon emissions per year, according to Daniel Murdiyarso, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). 

Halting deforestation would vastly improve Indonesia’s chances of meeting its obligations under the international climate agreement on CO2 emissions reduction. The country’s existing mangrove forests and wetlands seal into the ground the equivalent of 40 million passenger cars’ worth of carbon dioxide, or about 26 percent of Indonesia’s emissions reduction target. “Avoiding mangrove deforestation could generate $6 billion to $24 billion in carbon storage worldwide. In Indonesia alone, the annual benefit would be around $2 billion,” Murdiyarso says.

Reforestation efforts

Official recognition of the problem has come slowly. Indonesia first adopted regulatory policies to protect its coastal green belt in 1990, with Presidential Decree no. 32. A national strategy to reduce the loss of mangrove ecosystems was adopted in 2012, and reforestation programs are underway. Even so, the combined effects of economic self-interest and official corruption have allowed the destruction of mangrove wetlands to continue unabated. 

“In some areas, we can’t control the fish farmers; they cut the mangroves illegally and there’s nothing we can do,” said Tachrir Fathoni, an official at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s environmental protection directorate. 

This view is echoed by Nyoman Suryadiputra, head of the Wetlands International Indonesia Program. “Municipalities are often unaware of national regulatory policies,” he said. “The government needs to both enforce laws and engage in campaigns to increase awareness at the local level and in private companies.” Corporate involvement is especially important, since large-scale agribusiness is behind the rapid expansion of aquaculture and palm-oil plantations. 

Yet the government itself is working at cross-purposes, as shown by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries’ recent decision to deregulate licensing and land permits for shrimp farming.

To Europeans, this might seem like a distant problem. Yet most aquaculture produces for export to Europe, the United States and Japan. These rich markets drive the burgeoning appetite for cheap seafood, and countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Ecuador are stepping in to meet the demand.

Europe cares about Europeans

The European Union is the world’s largest importer of farmed fish and shellfish. It’s a privileged market. Companies seeking to export to the EU must meet strict, verifiable standards for food quality. But while Europe cares deeply about the safety of its own citizens, it cares much less about conditions in the countries of origin.

There are certification systems in place for environmentally sustainable aquaculture, including standards set by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and GlobalGAP (Good Agricultural Practices). Unfortunately, such certification is optional for companies exporting to Europe and incurs a cost. Since the Asian and North American markets have shown little interest, only a few large companies have bothered to apply.

On Indonesia’s domestic market, sustainability is an even looser concept. “There’s big potential here,” says Arianto Yohan, the director of food processing at CP Prime, one of the biggest seafood factories in Indonesia. CP Prime’s fish ponds alone cover an area the size of Las Vegas, excluding housing and processing cites. 

“Economic growth has given more people access to a protein-rich diet, and there’s plenty of coast line to expand our operations – on Sumatra and Kalimantan [the Indonesian part of Borneo], even in Java there are stretches of coastline still available,” Yohan says. “As for the mangrove ecosystems on the coast, they could soon disappear.” 

Meeting the EU’s increasing quality controls is a challenge, but also a competitive edge for companies like CP Prime that can offer pond-to-plate accountability. “We produce more for markets that require high standards,” Yohan says.

Global issue

In the race of mangrove deforestation, Indonesia is not alone. The depletion of green belts in 118 tropical countries is a worldwide disaster. Globally, the destruction of mangrove forests is occurring three to five times faster than general deforestation.

Mangrove forests cover only 137,000 square kilometers of the Earth’s surface. The scarcity and value of these oceanic rainforests is made quite clear by comparing them with the world’s 40 million square kilometres of terrestrial forests. In less than 50 years, the planet is estimated to have lost more than a quarter of its mangrove wetlands. Unfortunately, only 6.9 percent fall under protected areas, and their loss often goes unreported in the media. 

“Because they grow in marshy areas, and due to their peculiar biology – particularly their ability to generate a large amount of biomass in the form of coastal sludge – mangroves are effective in the sequestration of atmospheric CO2. They retain up to five times more carbon dioxide per hectare than rainforests,” Murdiyarso said. 

Despite accounting for less than 1 percent of global forests, mangroves account for 10 percent of the increase in global carbon emissions caused by deforestation. Their loss would release between 4 and 20 billion tons of additional CO2 into the atmosphere. “At the current rate of deforestation, at 1-2 percent per year, mangroves will disappear entirely by the end of this century,” Murdiyarso said. 

The fate of mangrove forests depends on whether governments set mangrove-specific targets as part of the broader Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in 2015. Scientists are calling for stricter rule to protect the surviving mangroves, along with restoration programs as a cheap, natural way to lock carbon into the ground.

For the birds

How such restoration might look can be seen in some Indonesia villages that have answered the call to protect their coastlines and their economies. 

“When I was a kid, this was a peaceful village. It was a beautiful place – the beaches were beautiful, too. But now they’ve been destroyed and taken our livelihoods with them,” says Lailli Fitriyanti, a schoolteacher in the village of Mangunharjo, on the northern coast of Java.

Clear-cutting for aquaculture around the village began around 1980. In just a few years, hundreds of ponds were built. Some fish farmers became so rich, they could finally afford a pilgrimage to Mecca. Around 1990, however, production started to decline as the coast was slowly devoured by the sea. 

“The coastal erosion started around that time,” recalls Pak Sururi, Fitriyanti’s father. “The fishponds stopped producing and our livelihood became uncertain. Between 1990 and 1995 there were massive erosion. A whole village sank. Before the 1980s, the shore was almost a mile away – after 1997, it was only 500 meters.” 

In a desperate fight to stop the ocean currents from scouring away the rest of the village, Sururi starting planting mangroves. For a decade and a half now, he’s been caring for a mangrove seedling nursery and planting new mangroves. Step by step, with the support of volunteers and the village, he has reclaimed 200 meters from the eroded coast. Like many experts and a growing number of fishermen, he’s convinced that protecting mangroves will preserve their community in the years to come.

 “Since 2007, the birds started to come back and build nests in the forest; the fish and shrimp also reappeared. We felt the effect of restoration,” Sururi said.

Other villages on Java are now looking to Sururi’s example as a viable compromise between production and conservation of resources. The mangroves have returned, along with the birds and a feeling of being safe. Fish farming may be less productive in terms of volume, but the quality of fish grown in their natural ecosystem is better. Sururi’s hope is that other fishing villages can make the right choice without experiencing the losses he and his family went through. 

This lesson should resonate far beyond the boundary of a tiny Javanese village.