Green Watch: Company protects mangrove forests: Lungs of the seas

Living life on the edge is tough. As if straddling both land and sea, exposed to unremitting tides and currents, scorching temperatures, choking mud and high salt concentrations isn’t enough.

Mangrove forests are facing far more perilous manmade threats from clearance for shrimp farming, conversion to agriculture and illegal logging activity.

A recent study commissioned by the UN Environmental Program reports that as much as 20 percent of the world’s mangroves have disappeared since 1980.

Indonesia harbors by far the largest mangrove cover in the world, accounting for over a fifth of these magical forests. Experts fear that any further loss will cause untold financial and economic havoc to the nation’s coastal communities and beyond.

Yes. Mangroves are magical places where forests rise above the ocean, representing among the most productive and biologically complex ecosystems on our planet. These botanical amphibians are home to a plethora of nature that survives under the most extraordinary conditions.

Some of the most fascinating creatures can be found, including the mangrove Rivulus, which lives in the foul water of crab burrows and putrid mangrove pools. When the tide is low, the Rivulus can be seen jumping along the mud beds. It can apparently survive outside of water for months, bringing a whole new meaning to the expression, “fish out of water”.

The shoreline forests, with their protruding root structures, provide nursery grounds for fish, a food source for monkeys and many other mammals, as well as a nectar source for bats and insects. Birds roost in the canopy, shellfish attach themselves to the roots, and snakes can be seen swimming between tree trunks.

Indonesia’s mangrove forest cover is a “coast guard” against natural threats including littoral erosion, tsunamis and the impacts of rising sea levels caused by climate change.

With the alarming rate of attrition of the mangroves of East Java, I was delighted to discover that some encouraging remedial action is underway.

H.M. Sampoerna, one of Indonesia’s largest tobacco companies, has teamed up with the Nature and Conservation and Education Foundation, Yayasan Pendidikan dan Konservasi Alam (YAPEKA) and the local government, to protect and restore a large swathe of endangered mangrove on the east coast of Surabaya.

Started in December 2009, the initiative is helping the local community to develop sustainable activities that will enable the 30,000 inhabitants to prosper without compromising the ecological integrity of Surabaya’s precious mangrove oceanfront.

Key to the success of this work will be to educate those living in the area to respect their surrounding nature, understand its value and importance to their future, while benefiting without destroying this ecological gem.

This ambitious private-public partnership encourages mangrove conservation and includes replanting activity with the goal of expanding forest cover by six percent.

The project is targeting some 870 hectares of the area known as Pamurbaya, which is on the eastern outskirts of the country’s second most populated city. It is focusing on three villages, Gunung Anyar, Medokan Ayu, and Wonorejo, where the community is dependent on fishing and other mangrove-related sources of income.

Local people are being taught how to live with and not against the mangroves.

Also known as Purbaya, this massive area of mangrove stretches across more than 25 square kilometers along the Javanese side of the Madura Strait. Satellite mapping has revealed an astonishing loss of approximately one third of this oceanic forest expanse over the past 40 years.

As if the mangroves were not facing enough threats, mud dumped into the sea from the infamous Lapindo mudflow is likely to have adverse impacts on coastal ecosystems along the eastern Surabaya coastline.

YAPEKA is currently undertaking a study to gauge the true effects of this catastrophe, the site of which is less than 30 kilometers away.

As one of the largest employers in Surabaya, Sampoerna has a vested interest in helping the community where it operates. Its production facilities in the area include a factory where hundreds of skilled staff hand-roll Indonesia’s famous Kretek Tangan cigarettes.

A subsidiary of the global tobacco giant Philip Morris, the company supports a range of sustainability initiatives designed to help people to enhance their own livelihoods while conserving the environment. It collaborates with local NGOs including Bina Swadaya, Mitra Indonesia Sempurna and Primakelola in running an agricultural training center for around 1,000 people each year.

And it has recently completed a reforestation project with local inhabitants on nearby Mount Arjuno to prevent soil erosion with the aim of protecting the source of the Brantas River on which some 20 million people in the region depend for their water supply.

While cigarettes may be harmful to human health, it is pleasing to see a tobacco business helping the protect the health of Planet Earth.

YAPEKA is now developing a detailed conservation plan with the cigarette company, which it plans to deliver to the Surabaya government next February. It is expected that the area will be designated as a so-called Management Information Center, with the local authorities using the plan as a blueprint for long-term conservation.

This project provides a world-class example of an effective collaboration between a company and not-for-profit organizations. With limited public resources, it is essential that business plays a role protecting Indonesia’s invaluable environmental resources.

The Municipality of Surabaya has been supportive of this important project to date. Now we must wait and see whether they can execute the plan and curb the depletion of our invaluable mangrove forests.

Jonathan Wootliff leads the Corporate Accountability practice at the consulting firm, Reputation Partners. He specializes in sustainable development and in building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be followed on Twitter and contacted at jonathan@reputationpartners.com

Jonathan Wootliff | Tue, 10/05/2010 11:43 AM | The Jakarta Post