Recent Portraits of Mangrove Recovery in Lubuk Kertang

DetailsWednesday, 08 June 2022
DetailsDavid Kevin Handel Hutabarat

"Results never betray effort and struggle. This quote describes the current condition of the mangrove area in Lubuk Kertang, West Brandan District, Langkat Regency-North Sumatra. After a long struggle, the collaboration of local communities, NGOs, academics, lawyers, and the government, now the mangrove ecosystem, which was disturbed and severely affected by encroachment, is recovering and greening."

Onrizal, S.Hut., M.Si., Ph.D., a lecturer at the Faculty of Forestry, Universitas Sumatera Utara, is one of the academics involved since the beginning in the late 2000s in assisting technical rehabilitation and strengthening communities around mangroves in collaboration with local communities and environmental activists (NGOs) which the government and the business world then supported. In 2020, the USU Community Service Team was also involved in community service activities to utilize rehabilitation results in making handicrafts and food products. Onrizal responded to these changes as one of the positive results of all the efforts.

“The recovery of mangroves impacts the recovery of the environment, including the population of aquatic biota such as fish, crabs, shrimp, and others, thus contributing to increasing the income and welfare of the community. Globally, recovering mangroves increase the capacity of mangroves in the region to store carbon, which is important in mitigating climate change. The results of our research show this. So we can say that mangrove recovery has a significant good impact locally, nationally, and globally,” he said.

Until the early 2000s, mangroves in West Brandan, Langkat, North Sumatra were still relatively good. However, the conditions began to change in 2003, with the encroachment and illegal clearing of land for oil palm plantations by companies and individuals. It is illegal because the land is a forest area with protected forest status and some production forest. Through information from the local community, in 2007, oil palm planting began in the area. One of the mangroves affected by illegal activities is the mangrove in Lubuk Kertang Village. The loss of mangroves has led to a decline in aquatic biota, a source of livelihood for most residents.

Comparison of Lubuk Kertang Mangrove Area in 2017 (top) and 2022 (bottom)

The mangrove area is included in the register 8/L forest on the east coast of Langkat Regency. As such, it has protected area (L) status and has been designated since the Dutch colonial era. Some mangrove forest disturbances are generally related to petroleum wells that are part of the Brandan-Pangkalan Susu petroleum exploitation that dates back to the colonial era.

Onrizal recounted what Azhar Kasim, the head of the Bahari Family Mangrove Farmer Group and a resident of Brandan, Langkat, told him. He told the story of the initial occupation of register 8/L mangrove land, which began in 2003. Thousands of hectares of mangrove forests were cut down (land clearing) to become oil palm plantations illegally, both in the form of oil palm plantation companies and individuals. It is alleged that the primary modus operandi was to make it appear as if local communities were claiming the mangrove forest land as their inheritance and then selling it to the company, even though the area was included in the forest register.

Fishing community resistance

As a result of the conversion of mangrove forests into oil palm plantations, fishermen's catches dropped dramatically, triggering resistance from the affected fishing communities. In 2011, the fishing communities mobilized massively and continuously by involving fishermen networks at the district, provincial, and national levels. This included efforts made to disseminate information in the mass media. This was able to “pressure” law enforcement officials to act so that around 1,200 ha of converted land was successfully released. However, the legal case is proceeding slowly.

The Kelompok Tani Mangrove Keluarga Bahari of Langkat Regency then independently began rehabilitating the mangrove land that had been successfully released. This group has also independently planted mangroves covering an area of ± 70 ha. Even so, they often get various forms of intimidation, including the destruction of mangrove nurseries or plants at the rehabilitation site or intimidation of fishermen who are directly involved in the rehabilitation program. However, this did not discourage them from rehabilitating damaged mangrove forests and maintaining those that were still good together with the fishing community. In addition, approaches to related government parties continue to be carried out.

Real government support by the fishermen began to be felt in 2012. The fishermen group received program support from the Balai Pengelolaan Hutan Mangrove (BPHM) Region II based in Medan to rehabilitate 25 ha of damaged mangrove land, which is located next to 70 ha of mangrove land that they had previously rehabilitated independently. This support from BPHM Region II further strengthened the struggle of local fishermen. Furthermore, support was obtained from the Langkat Regency Government, where the Regent of Langkat was present and participated in planting mangroves as a sign that the Mangrove Rehabilitation Model Area Creation Program in collaboration with BPHM Region II was implemented.

This activity involves not only farmer group members but also local fishermen who are not included in the farmer group. The number of administrators and the Kelompok Tani Mangrove Keluarga Bahari is 175 people spread across 7 villages covered in 3 sub-districts (Sei Lepan, West Brandan, and Babalan), Langkat Regency.

Support for the fishermen group's efforts continues to grow. Also, in 2012, the group worked with the Ministry of Environment to rehabilitate 25 ha of mangroves with around 80,000 seedlings. In the same year, together with mariner troops, they planted around 50,000 mangrove stems in the former conversion mangrove area. Furthermore, in 2013, this group again won the trust of the BPDAS Wampu Sei Ular to carry out mangrove seedlings for mangrove rehabilitation with an area of 304 ha in the L/8 register area.

The facilitation of creating a 25-ha mangrove rehabilitation model area by BPHM II was very helpful and increased the group's confidence in continuing mangrove rehabilitation in the area. It was also supported by official government agencies, namely BPHM II, Langkat Regency Government, BPDAS, KLH, and the Marines. On the other hand, this also reduced the level of disturbance and threats from parties suspected of being groups/accomplices of companies that had previously converted the register area.

Although the level of pressure and threats began to decrease, on the evening of July 7, 2013, the nursery created by the group was allegedly doused in crude oil by unknown people. As a result, 200,000 of the 800,000 mangrove seedlings in the nursery were damaged/dead. The group has also reported this case to the police, but until now, no suspect has been found. For the time being, rotating guarding by group members is an effort to maintain the security of group activities in the field.

Evaluation of Rehabilitation Success

Plant survival rates in the rehabilitation model area ranged from 65-75% in mid-2013. The leading cause is thought to be due to the high pyrite content of mangrove land converted to oil palm plantations. An indication of the presence of soil pyrite in the rehabilitation model area can be seen in the silvery brown layer on the water surface. Pyrite content in the plant root area (or around 0-50 cm) is toxic to mangrove plants, thus inhibiting growth and causing death. In such areas, it is recommended that the land be washed before planting activities are carried out. The process of leaching the soil pyrite can be done by breaking as many embankments built by oil palm plantations as possible so that the tidal flow runs smoothly and, simultaneously, leaching the land continues.

The benefits of this program are now being felt. The opening of canals and tributaries previously blocked by oil palm plantations has allowed the proliferation of aquatic biota so that fishermen’s catches are slowly increasing again. During field surveys, local fishing communities have returned to netting fish and shrimp. Mangrove crab traps, which were previously stopped when illegal oil palm plantations occupied the area, are now starting to appear again. These fishermen’s presence automatically increases the area’s security, including the rehabilitated mangrove plants.

Onrizal further emphasized that in order for mangrove conservation efforts to continue and succeed, rehabilitation institutions that already exist in the area need to be strengthened. Capacity building for groups to manage mangrove tourism areas needs to be supported, including the capacity to make various processed foods and drinks from parts other than mangrove plant wood and support for marketing these products. In this way, the catch of aquatic biota will increase, and the sales of mangrove tourism services and various processed products from mangrove forests other than their wood will increase. The Kelompok Tani Hutan (KTH) continues to grow, and its capacity to rehabilitate mangroves is rising. In 2016, KTH Keluarga Bahari, with Azhar Kasim as chairman, received a social forestry license from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK). Subsequently, several KTHs in Lubuk Kertang and surrounding areas, such as KTH Lestari Mangrove and KTH Mekar, also received social forestry licenses from the KLHK.

About 1000 ha of mangroves in Lubuk Kertang and surrounding areas have recovered. However, various obstacles and challenges are also present in maintaining the sustainability of the rehabilitated mangroves. “Therefore, continuous monitoring is needed along with strengthening collaboration and expanding the economic benefits of both goods and services from rehabilitated mangroves so that community welfare can be realized in a sustainable mangrove ecosystem,” Onrizal hoped. (Onrizal/RJ)

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