In a coastal village in Langkat regency, a three-hour drive north from North Sumatra’s capital of Medan, locals have started to reap the benefits from the hundreds of hectares of rejuvenated mangrove forests that had previously been illegally converted by companies into oil palm plantations.
After securing a forest management permit in March 2017, Lubuk Kertang farmers and fishermen have constructed 20 ecofriendly ponds to farm shrimps, crabs and several local varieties of fish, as well as to produce snacks and syrups made from mangrove leaves and mangrove apples. They also plan to construct an ecotourism site.
As part of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo administration’s social forestry program, a permit was issued by the Environment and Forestry Ministry to Kelompok Lestari Mangrove, a group of 108 Lubuk Kertang farmers and fishermen, to manage 410 hectares of mangrove forests for a period of 35 years.
The Jokowi administration aims to grant permits to forestdependent Indonesians to manage 12.7 million ha of state forests across the country. Yet it was an arduous journey for the locals before obtaining the permit.
Prior to the government’s initiative, residents fought for nearly eight years to restore the area’s mangrove forests, during which they faced a number of bloody encounters with palm oil companies. Several local leaders were apprehended for allegedly destroying oil palm plantations, which were planted on a massive scale in 2006.
“We stood up to the companies, and the thugs and security officers on the companies’ payroll who protected the plantations,” said Rohman, chairman of Kelompok Tani Lestari Mangrove, which translates to Mangrove Conservation Farmers’ Group, as he stood beside one of the group’s eco-friendly shrimp ponds.
The massive 2009 flash floods in Langkat, including in Lubuk Kertang, provided momentum for local activists to muster the support of fellow citizens to deal with the issues caused by the area’s depleted mangrove forests. In October 2010, locals from seven villages surrounding the mangrove forests began a rehabilitation crusade, gaining support from civil society organizations like the North Sumatra branch of the Indonesian Forum for Environment (Walhi), the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen’s Association (KNTI) and the People’s Coalition for Fisheries Justice Indonesia (Kiara).
The mangrove forests in Langkat have suffered from numerous kinds of land conversion in the past, but none have inflicted more severe economic losses than oil palm plantations, locals and activists interviewed by The Jakarta Post said.
“The reason we got involved was the real economic value of the mangrove ecosystem for locals compared to how things were after the forests were converted into oil palm plantations,” said Doni Latuperisa, program manager of Walhi North Sumatra.
In the 1990s, around 100,000 ha of mangrove forests could be found in North Sumatra. Nearly half, however, have been converted, mostly for oil palm plantations or illegal fish ponds. Some 20,000 ha of mangrove forests have also been cut down by the charcoal industry, which flourishes in Langkat.
Nationwide, there are around 3.49 million ha of mangrove forests, equal to 21 percent of the Earth’s total mangrove forests. However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Indonesia has lost around 40 percent of its mangrove forests in the last three decades, with scientists calling it the fastest rate of destruction on the planet.
Lubuk Kertang fishermen had been the worst affected by the disappearance of mangrove forests, said Tajrudin Hasibuan, chairman of KNTI Langkat and social leader of Lubuk Kertang mangrove defenders. Embankments built by companies on the mangrove mud flats to protect their plantations drastically reduced the flow of freshwater into the area, preventing the process of fish spawning from occurring in the area.
Under the permit they obtained in 2017, the locals are protected from outsiders seeking to destroy the mangrove forests or claim unilateral ownership over the land. They were also given the responsibility to look after and protect the forests from destruction.
Lubuk Kertang women have also been involved in harnessing the economic value of their rejuvenated mangrove forests. Some 14 women in the village have established their own group, called Kelompok Tani Abadi Mangrove, to produce snacks from acanthus leaves, or jeruju in the local language, and syrup from mangrove apples, known locally as pidada.