Past and Present on Tanakeke Island

About an hour into the boat ride from Takalar City (population, 10,000) in South Sulawesi, we begin to see empty plastic bottles floating on the surface of the sea—thousands of them. These are not the younger kin of the great garbage flotilla purportedly washed together in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. These are floating in neat rows as if placed evenly at the intersections on a grid. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, and these empty plastic bottles, casually discarded after their contents had been drunk, serve as capital in the business of many villagers on the island of Tanakeke.

Thick plastic rope suspended just beneath the sea surface ties the bottles together, and as the intense tropical midday sun beats down, penetrating the few inches of water, seaweed grows along the ropes. Discarded plastic bottles and some strong rope are all the inputs needed to establish a thriving seaweed farm in this part of Indonesia. Every family has a small boat, and, though fuel prices have increased by about 40 percent after an easing of subsidies from Jakarta in 2013, the operational costs of a seaweed farm remain minimal. Wholesale seaweed buyers even visit Tanakeke’s villages about twice a week, so farmers need not shoulder the cost of fuel to deliver their bounty to Takalar City. Seaweed is harvested after about 20 days, and the processed carrageenan sells for Rp. 15,000 per kilo on Tanakeke or Rp. 20,000 per kilo in Makassar. Farmers in the village of Lantang Peo report selling almost a ton a month, so a family can earn a net income of about Rp. 800,000 a month.

These farmers turn to the sea because there is no land. Their homes are wooden houses raised on stilts, with sleeping quarters above and cooking facilities below. The houses are erected from a foundation of cement glommed upon piles of rock and bits of dead coral. After our narrow vessel reaches its mooring, and we walk through the village, I notice that the ‘streets’ between tightly spaced houses are paved with a conglomeration of dust, dead coral, and non-biodegradable garbage like plastic and PVC wrappers from manufactured food products. These passageways are actually walkways, as there are no cars, no motorbikes, not even any bicycles.

When we arrive at the home of our hosts, we drink sweet tea and munch on doughy balls filled with sweet peanut paste, which the lady of the house Daeng Ngagi serves proudly on the floor of her clean and well-organized kitchen. Colorful plastic bowls in various sizes form an indoor rainbow, hung on nails on the wall. Her husband is Pak Arif Rani, age 35, who is the coordinator of 20 supervisors of a project here in Tanakeke to restore mangroves around the island.

After snacks, a community organizer named Rehana, age 24, escorts us out into the sea to view mangrove restoration first-hand. We wade knee-deep into the sea, slogging slowly across the ankle-deep mud of the seabed. As we reach the edge of the mangroves, we are thigh-deep, and more than one hundred villagers are gathering the mud from the bottom with buckets, pouring it into a pile corralled by a loose stick fence. Most of the villagers gathered—perhaps 95 percent—are women. They are all covered head to toe, including many of their faces, to protect from the mid-day sun reflecting off the water. All their effort is in hopes of encouraging more mangroves to spontaneously propagate on the collected mountain of mud.

Over 1,200 hectares of the 1,776 hectares of mangrove forest that naturally ringed the island was destroyed 20-30 years ago during a push toward aquaculture that enveloped many coastal communities in Indonesia known as the “Blue Revolution”. Mangroves disappeared across Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Bangladesh as coastal communities were encouraged to convert them to fish and shrimp farms. The export products of these farms brought strong returns for five to ten years, but then the villagers experienced falling incomes as the cost of imported inputs like feed and fertilizer began to outstrip their productivity. With the intensive use of chemical inputs, shrimp and fish ponds quickly degrade and become less productive.

Daeng Ngitung, age 35, is a fish farmer still trying to make a go of it in Tanakeke. He tells of the arrival of a virus that wiped out shrimp harvests a few years ago. This is a common story among shrimp farmers I met in South Sulawesi. Like intensive agriculture on land, the shrimp farms have used antibiotics extensively to boost their numbers per unit of area. Over time, their product becomes less healthy both in terms of the animals’ resistance to disease and the product on supermarket shelves.

Rani organizes the villagers of Lantang Peo to rehabilitate the mangroves that were destroyed. He receives training and assistance from Mangrove Action Project (MAP) – Indonesia. MAP is an international NGO based in the US that began in the 1990s to raise awareness and advocate for the rehabilitation and protection of mangroves. Hundreds of villagers on Tanakeke are engaged in Community-Based Ecological Mangrove Rehabilitation (CBEMR), a multi-stage process for rehabilitating mangroves that was pioneered by R. R. Lewis of Florida. The distinctive strategies that have made CBEMR successful include extensive assessment of community and ecological contexts before planning and implementation of rehabilitation plans, as well as post-project monitoring that includes local communities. Important initial steps included resolution of land tenure and utilization rights in conjunction with ecological and hydrological assessments to ensure that only appropriate habitats where mangroves are likely to flourish are selected for restoration.

Communities here appreciate of the benefits of mangroves as weather buffers and nurseries for fish, shrimp and crabs. While wading in the sea amongst groves of mature mangroves, we are approached by a lone young woman in dark sunglasses and hijab. This is Ibu Murni, age 35, a local teacher who literally sings about the importance of mangroves for the local environment and, hence, for the local community. Originally from Takalar City, she has lived in Rewatayya village for the past nine years, hoping to inculcate in her students the same love for the mangroves. If the students’ awareness and love of the environment begins when they are small, she told me, then they will continue to love and care for their natural environment when they grow up. She explained how much of the mangrove area around us was not there when she arrived nine years ago, which left the village exposed to strong winds from the sea. She has encouraged elementary and middle school students to get involved in re-planting efforts. Ibu Murni sings a song that she teaches students about mangroves for the camera before we begin the return wade back to Rewatayya.

In the late afternoon, as darkness begins to descend on Tanakeke, the electricity comes on. Most villages enjoy electricity for about four hours a day from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. from solar power. The evening’s electric light helps facilitate a pre-dinner meeting of team leaders to review the day’s rehabilitation work and plan for tomorrow. Tomorrow the teams plan to reconvene at 6:00 a.m.

It’s mid-December, and since Tanakeke lies just south of the Equator, these are some of the longest daylight hours of the year. It’s a lucky time to visit because regular rains fill cisterns with fresh water for bathing and cooking, but they haven’t yet become as heavy and frequent as in the months of January to April. During those rainiest months, villagers report that the sea level has been rising a couple of times a month for three or four days in a row when high tide coincides with the heavy afternoon rains. The water soaks the floors of houses, schools, and mosques for the late afternoon and evening hours then recedes. How do people cope? Everything is moved from the lowest floors of their wooden stilt houses to the upper floors before January.

The longer-term coping strategy is mangrove rehabilitation. Mature mangroves serve as a buffer for high winds and seas that might otherwise pummel the waterfront villages, especially during the annual rainy season. When the mangroves were healthy before the Blue Revolution, villagers say, the sea didn’t rise into their homes. Whether the seas will continue to rise inexorably or whether restored mangroves might help stem the tide, a healthy buffer between land and sea certainly couldn’t hurt.

Many of the Blue Revolution shrimp and fish farmers are still fathers and grandfathers in the villages of Tanakeke. They burned and cut the mangroves to make room for shrimp and fish ponds because they saw neighbors doing it and making good money. The aquaculture ponds established in the former mangrove areas were productive for about ten years, but then deteriorated due to intensive chemical use in feeds, fertilizers and antibiotics. Yields declined as prices declined throughout the 1990s and aquaculture converts found themselves in a lurch. Then viruses increasingly began to attack the stocks of those who remained in the aquaculture business.

Haeruddin Daeng Ngenjeng, age 57, stuck with fish and shrimp farming for over two decades before finally switching to seaweed cultivation after losses due to a virus. Seaweed gets better prices and requires less labor, he said, with rope the only other substantial input. Some of the fishponds he used to operate still remain near his home in Lantang Peo, and he continues to look for other sources of income. Since 2001 and the switch from aquaculture to mariculture, Daeng Ngenjeng said that 20 villagers a year have been able to embark on the Haj, a feat that no one from Lantang Peo could achieve before, even in the good years of shrimp farming.

Starting a shrimp pond required more than just clearing the mangroves. Most had to borrow capital to construct the necessary dikes, then stock imported feed and fertilizer. With dike maintenance and degrading soil and hydrology, these costs continued or even increased as revenues decreased. After paying off loans for the initial and continuing investments, farmers often had little left for their families. As sea levels rise, the few farmers who remain in shrimp ponds contend with the additional challenge of the sea breaching their dike walls and washing their livelihoods away.

Daeng Ngitung, age 35, has been in aquaculture for over a decade in the village of Kampung Bugis. He prefers mixed shrimp and fish ponds for a healthy symbiosis, though he has already abandoned approximately ten percent of his ponds due to degraded land condition. The soil there was no longer healthy and ponds could not be made productive. Though he has contended with viral infections of his stocks and rising seas, Daeng Ngitung plans to stick with mixed shrimp and fish farming. Unlike many in aquaculture, he owns his own ponds. Upon advice from representatives from MAP—Indonesia, he is shifting to a less chemical-intensive mix of fertilizer with higher organic input to improve the condition of the land. With already degraded land, this shift must be gradual to sustain yields. How long will it take to shift to fully organic ponds? Daeng Ngitung said he doesn’t think about that but just focuses on his children, which are the motivation for the change. He also hopes to be a leader in his community, encouraging a broader shift for the benefit of the next generation.

The neighboring farmer Usman Daeng Lallo, age 34, has also been in mixed aquaculture for 10 years but does not own his own land. He rents from a landowner whom he knows but is not family, paying Rp. 1.5 million a year for two hectares. He needs lots of fertilizer to keep up yields enough to pay his costs, including rent as well as inputs, and still make a profit. MAP –Indonesia does not encourage villagers on Tanakeke to remain in aquaculture, according to Rio Ahmad, age 26, a CBEMR expert ecologist. Though MAP—Indonesia conducts organic fish and shrimp farming field schools in other areas of South Sulawesi (e.g. Maros, Barru), Tanakeke is better suited to alternative livelihoods such as seaweed farming.

“Fish farmers on Tanakeke are at a competitive disadvantage to their mainland counterparts,” says MAP – Indonesia Director Ben Brown. “Inputs are more expensive; marketing is more expensive; and they lack significant freshwater inputs and also lack natural sources for making fertilizers.

“On the other hand they are at a competitive advantage for seaweed mariculture due to consistent oceanic salinities, clear water, and ample sub-tidal flats for seaweed farming. The relative value of the mangrove ecosystem is high out on this island. As a low-lying island they need the protective function of mangroves, also as a driver of near-shore fisheries production, because unlike people on the mainland, they have few economic options besides fisheries.”

“The key is the mangroves here,” said Rio, when I asked about long-term solutions. Villagers who rely on healthy ecosystems at the nexus of land and sea for the cornerstones of their diet as well as for protection from the elements must treasure their mangroves. While aquaculture clearly resides within the purview of fisheries management, it’s not entirely clear who is responsible for mangroves. Are they primarily concerned about fisheries, forestry, or environmental ministry? With so many other competing concerns and lack of clarity about management mandates, mangroves are often overlooked.

Mawar Asni, age 36, is no longer counting on her husband’s income from fish farming to provide food for their family of four. She has become a MAP—Indonesia community organizer since participating in a field school focused on organic gardening. She learned how to make organic fertilizer and cultivate an organic vegetable garden. She also learned about the function of the mangroves near her village of Dende Dandere, one of the few on Tanankeke that has actual land with soil suitable for cultivating crops. She and her 24 cohorts in the field school now grow organic vegetables—long beans, eggplants, chilies, and kangkung—to feed their families and no longer buy vegetables from the market in Takalar City. With rising seas and periodic virus attacks, Mawar’s husband’s income from aquaculture has proven highly variable in the past few years. Her hopes for the future include a larger vegetable garden and healthy, growing mangroves. She is counting on the latter for crabs and fish—small ones to eat and big ones to sell.

Jumriani, age 32, is a teacher in the local elementary school. She is also a member of Womangrove, a network of women on Tanakeke who learn about the value of mangroves for their communities and how to sustain them. She appreciates the nursery function of the mangroves, providing more fish and crabs, as well as the protection from weather threats. From Womangrove, she appreciates a sense of engagement and empowerment that she didn’t have before. She and the other women of the her circle used to spend more time at home, usually in the kitchen, but now they are meeting regularly with each other and even developing communication with local and regional government. In 2012, Jumriani participated in an education exchange through MAP—Indonesia that allowed her to visit Marros, Barru for networking with the participants from similar field schools. Her most memorable experiences there were of good interaction with government and society and shared awareness about the importance of mangroves. High-quality participation of women in the management of mangroves is one of the primary challenges and innovations of MAP—Indonesia’s programs in Tanankeke. Through Womangrove, which already involves 40 women from two sub-villages on Tanakeke, women learn about forestry management, time management, home industry, seaweed cultivation, and literacy skills.

What will happen if the water continues to rise around Tanakeke?

No one knows, but the people of the island are taking steps to cope with changing times. The most obvious on a large scale is shifting livelihoods from aquaculture to mariculture and rehabilitating mangroves. Regional government has also contributed helpful tools including a desalination machine in Lantang Peo to provide pure water and plans for climate change field schools. More hopes for the future include 24-hour electric power, which is currently a luxury only found in the adjacent villages of Dende Dandere and Kampung Bugis. Perhaps someday there might be a resident doctor, nurse, or midwife.

The community-based initiatives to rehabilitate mangroves at Tanakeke may seem small within the context of the Bonn Challenge—a global movement to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020—but real shifts require a local focus. EMR offers a holistic approach—resolving land tenure and utilization rights, including the community (even women) in decision making, carefully considering ecology and hydrology, and mangrove restoration with a view to sustainable forest management in mind.

Author: Melinda Chickering

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