Drama Amid Indonesia's Disappearing Mangroves Indonesia has the largest share of the world's mangroves — coastal forests that have adapted to saltwater environments. They play important environmental and ecological roles. The challenge is convincing locals that they benefit more from protecting the trees rather than cutting them down.
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Drama Amid Indonesia's Disappearing Mangroves

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Drama Amid Indonesia's Disappearing Mangroves

Drama Amid Indonesia's Disappearing Mangroves

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And now let's report on an environmental issue facing the world's tropical regions. Many coastal communities in the tropics have just one line of defense against tsunamis and rising tides caused by climate change. That line of defense is a mangrove forest. Indonesia has about a quarter of the world's mangroves, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate. By some estimates, the world has lost half its mangrove forests in the past half century.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports that scientists and coastal Indonesians are gaining insight on what's happening and what to do.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The rising tide laps at the feet of local children and fishermen, and submerges all but the tops of the mangrove trees. This is the village of Tiwoho in Indonesia's North Sulawesi Province. At one degree of latitude north of the equator, the climate here is about the same all year round - hot, wet and perfect for mangroves to grow in.

But villagers use cut down the mangroves for firewood, timber and to make shrimp ponds. Two decades ago, farmer Kamal Amani and other villagers began to replant them.

KAMAL AMANI: (Through Translator) Looking at the mangroves now, I am very pleased. I am very proud of what we have achieved for future generations. And we are very proud of Professor Jamaluddin.

KUHN: Dr. Rignolda Jamaluddin is a marine scientist at a local university. He's devoted himself to rebuilding North Sulawesi's mangroves, one village at a time. He says he has tried to explain to the residents how the mangrove serve as a breeding ground for the tuna and grouper that teem in the local waters, protect coral reefs from sedimentation, and provide an abundance of useful materials that can be gathered without harming the forest.

DR. RIGNOLDA JAMALUDDIN: We can take benefits from the mangrove by not cutting the trees. For example, we make alcohol; we make sugar from mangrove trees.

KUHN: Dr. Jamaluddin walks over the sandy soil and into the thick underbrush of the mangrove forest. At first glance, all seems silent and deserted. But look and listen closely, and you'll find a microcosm of constant change, cycles of life and death, growth and decay.


KUHN: Some mangrove roots poke upwards through the soil to breathe, like an ocean full of snorkels. Other mangroves grip the mud with a lattice of roots, like the flying buttresses of a cluster of gothic cathedrals. All of them have developed filtration systems to survive in salt water that would kill other trees.

What's that snapping and popping we're hearing?

JAMALUDDIN: I guess that's from two sources. The first is a kind of crabs, and the second from mollusks in the mangroves.

KUHN: Those crabs are not just a tasty link in the local food chain, they're also helping to compost fallen leaves and organic matter, turning them into an underground layer of carbon-rich peat.

Daniel Murdiyarso, a climate change expert at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia, explains.

DR. DANIEL MURDIYARSO: Mangrove is very efficient living system in terms of sequestering carbon dioxide. They are stored in the leaves, and the leaves will be consumed by the feeders, including crabs and all those microorganisms below the ground.

KUHN: Murdiyarso says that mangroves store five to eight times more carbon underground than above ground. Mangroves account for less than one percent of the world's tropical forest area, Murdiyarso adds, but their destruction produces 10 percent of all carbon emissions from deforestation.

There's no doubt that Indonesia's mangroves provide a lot of valuable services: storing carbon, filtering water and nourishing wildlife. The question is: how much are the services worth, and how can paying for them help protect the mangroves?

In Jakarta, Forestry Ministry official Eko Warsito frames the issue this way.

EKO WARSITO: (Through Translator) More than 50 percent of Indonesia's population lives in coastal areas and most of them are poor. An ordinary plot of mangroves is worth $84 an acre. But if it's cleared and planted with oil palms, it can be worth more than $20,000 an acre.

KUHN: Eko Warsito notes that some developed countries, including Spain and the Netherlands, have already begun paying Indonesia to plant mangroves. In exchange, they get carbon credits which they can trade or use as a permit to emit carbon. And, he adds, Indonesia is set to issue a presidential decree outlining a strategy for the sustainable management of its mangroves.


KUHN: Then again, in Tiwoho village, the villagers have restored mangroves without government policies or foreign investment. The fact that the village is in a national park doesn't seem to have helped the mangroves much either.

Professor Jamaluddin argues that government management is less effective at protecting mangroves than community-based education.

JAMALUDDIN: If the local people have their own strategy, their own knowledge, and the ecosystem already functioning naturally, so then we don't need the regulation like a national park. So just let them manage the resources in their own way.

KUHN: This is not just the most cost-effective way to protect the mangroves, Jamaluddin says, more importantly, it's nature's way.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.

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