On weekdays, Pasijah is at her busiest from morning until noon. The 49-year-old mother of four resides in Rejosari Senik, a coastal hamlet that is part of Bedono village in Central Java’s Demak district.
Aside from daily house chores, she drops off and picks up her two youngest children from the madrasa where they are studying. It’s a journey she makes in a canoe.
The concrete road that used to pass near her house and lead to the main highway hugging the northern coast of Central Java is no longer visible. Seawater slowly engulfed it about a dozen years ago and boat is now the only means of transport linking her home – left surrounded by water in a mangrove swamp – with the madrasa in Sayung sub-district.
"Rejosari Senik used to be fertile fields. Around 2007, the rob started to go up and a year later the rice fields were replaced by fish ponds," said Pasijah, referring to the Indonesian name for the tidal floods that have plagued the northern coast of Indonesia’s most populous island. Her house has been surrounded by knee-deep water for years now.
Back in the 1970s, Rejosari Senik was still about seven kilometers from the shoreline. But conditions changed dramatically after the sea slowly started eating up the land in 2006. The erosion has now completely disconnected the hamlet from the mainland and left Pasijah’s home, a 15-by-7-meter structure on stilts, surrounded by water. The view from the front door is swamp densely packed by mangrove forest.
Pasijah and her family are among the few that have remained in the flooded hamlet. She said economic factors had forced her family to stay while those around them fled their homes and places of worship in search of higher ground. Her husband, Rokani, now spends his day fishing at sea.
More than 200 families once inhabited Rejosari Senik. Now it looks like a ghost town, abandoned buildings sticking forlornly out of the brackish, muddy water.
"There is no money to build a new home if we move out,” Pasijah moaned.
Even remaining in the area has a cost. To adjust to the rising water levels, the family’s house has to be continuously raised, sometimes up to three times in a single year.
"Just to buy bamboo materials, already costs Rp1.5 million [US$109], and this does not even yet cover other building materials," explained Pasijah.
Still, the family was determined to keep Rejosari Senik from being erased from the map. This determination redoubled after Pasijah and her husband met with environmental activists from the Maritime Mangrove Group.
They asked Pasijah to secure 500 mangrove stems to be used as seedlings in a nursery. Then the number was raised to 3,000. One stem, taken straight from a mangrove plant, is valued at Rp.50. But when it’s planted in a pot as a seedling, it can sell for Rp600.
Mangrove farming has thus allowed Pasijah to help supplement the family’s income. But mangrove conservation also provides other benefits.
Maulidia, 35, now sells food and drinks to anglers who increasingly come to fish in the mangrove swamp, which provides a safe habitat for fish to spawn.
Her business, conducted from a bamboo stall measuring some two meters by three meters, is now the main source of income for Maulidia and her family. She says she can earn between Rp100,000 and Rp250,000 (US$18.30) in a day.
Her stall is still surrounded by the vestiges of what was a former settlement, including protruding electricity poles, with their cables dangling just about one meter from the water.
"These electricity poles are still used by residents outside of Rejosari Senik hamlet, including to bring electricity to our stall," Maulidia said.
Munawar, a 55-year-old resident of Morosari Village, also in the Sayung sub-district, echoed Maulidia’s gratitude for the mangrove forest. Thanks to mangroves, residents in a number of villages could now earn a living after the rising sea wiped away their fish ponds, he explained.
Some farmers whose freshwater ponds have been inundated with seawater have tried to sell them, but Munawar says even if they could the price would be very cheap. "These former ponds have no more economic value because they are now part of the sea,” he explained.
He sold his ponds to developers for Rp2,000 per square meter in 2005 as sea levels began rising. Had they not already been affected by erosion, he says they could have sold for Rp15,000/m2. After selling his ponds, Munawar turned to fishing for a living, as with many other former pond owners in the area.
"Only about 30 percent survived [as pond owners] and hope that these ponds can still be utilized. The rest switched professions to become fishermen and factory workers," he added.
Those who opted to stick with their ponds began to become aware of the importance of protecting coastal areas from erosion around the time a representative of a Japanese non-profit organization, OISCA, began offering small stipends to local residents for mangrove seedlings, around 2004. Those who now actively plant and educate other residents about mangrove conservation then formed the Maritime Mangrove Group.
The mangrove forests that have become conservation areas are now bringing a small fortune to local fishermen, including Munawar, who says he can earn at least Rp200,000 a day from tourists and anglers. On weekends, he can pocket up to Rp600,000.
Ida, 48, a resident of Tambaksari hamlet, also part of Bedono village, sells snacks made from brayo, the local name for mangrove, in the Tambaksari tourism area.
"There are chips made from brayo leaves, brayo popcorn to brayo brownies. But the most popular is the chips," she said.
Ida accidentally stumbled on the recipes for the brayo snacks in an effort to prevent her children from buying snacks outside their home. She then tried to make chips from the young leaves of the brayo trees that were abundant around her house and found that her children liked them.
Then she tried to make a type of popcorn using the fruits of the trees, and the children liked these too. It did not take long for Ida to start selling the snacks to visitors at the mangrove forest in Tambaksari.
"On an average day, about 30 packs are sold, but on holidays it can reach up to 100 packs," she said. The snacks cost between Rp1,000 and Rp3,500.
As part of an effort to develop the ecotourism potential of the mangrove conservation site in Tambaksari, residents have equipped the area with a 100-meter-long mangrove track – an elevated walking path that allows visitors to explore the mangroves by foot.
The mangrove ecotourism concept has also been replicated in Glagahwangi Beach, in the Tambakbulusan Village of Karangtengah sub-district, and a similar concept is being planned for Morodemak Village in Wedung sub-district.
The Bedono Bangkit Regreening Group is developing mangrove ecotourism in Bedono hamlet in partnership with Dutch non-governmental organization Wetlands International, which wants to develop self-supporting mangrove ecotourism.
"Mangrove forest tourism in Bedono hamlet has been running for about 1.5 years. At first, we got a stimulation fund from Wetlands amounting to Rp100 million," said Kambali, chairman of the regreening group.
The fund, he added, was allocated for the creation of a 250-meter mangrove track, for a cattle farming project and the construction of a green belt. The mangrove track was made in accordance with a guidance provided by Wetlands, which wanted the group to focus on building a revenue-generating business.
The forest is dominated by black mangroves, and a number of selfie spots were added to attract visitors. Visitors are charged an entrance ticket of Rp5,000.
Last year the group received another injection of funds from Wetlands amounting to Rp10 million. Those funds were used to build a viewing tower where tourists can enjoy the view of the expanse of mangrove forest. At least 1,000 visitors have been registered in just 1.5 years.
Mangroves also provide benefits to wildlife, biodiversity
Aside from tourism, Fuad Muhammad, a bio-conservation expert from Diponegoro University in Central Java’s Semarang City, said that the mangrove ecosystem has various functions that include serving as a transit place for migratory birds, protecting the coast, trapping sediment and as an area for fish spawning, grazing and foraging.
The conversion of land into fish ponds or for housing reduced the mangrove vegetation and thus it was important to rehabilitate the coast, including by restoring mangrove forests and keeping them sustainable, said Fuad.
Zamrozi, 67, a leading activist with the Maritime Mangrove Group, revealed that there were at least 13 species of mangrove plants that could be found in the mangrove area. In addition, the mangrove forest is inhabited by at least 10 species of birds, including black and white egrets, grouse, storks and swallows.
But getting coastal communities to preserve their environment in a “green” way, did not come easy or fast, Zamrozi said. It has already taken more than a decade, and the efforts are still continuing.
Those efforts are now supported by regulations, such as a village regulation that prohibits the shooting of birds in mangrove forests, he said.
Moreover, the mangrove conservation area in Bedono Village has become a national pilot project, as well as an example for the development of similar areas in the districts of Pati and Kulonprogo, the latter one in Yogyakarta, on the southern coast of Java.
Researchers from foreign countries have also studied the conservation area and local fishermen are often invited to take part in mangrove planting operations, including those held by both the private and government sector as well as national universities such as Diponegoro University (Undip) and Gajah Mada University (UGM).
The local senior high school (SMAN 1) in Sayung is also involved in mangrove conservation.
Siti Asiyah, the 50-year-old former headmaster, said erosion and tidal flooding used to inundate the school.
"If the rob came, seawater enters the classrooms so that the learning process of students becomes disrupted," she said.
SMAN 1 Sayung was later designated as the only school in Demak district to become a partner in the Indonesian Coastal School Program, a program from the Maritime and Fisheries Ministry to educate and increase awareness among students in coastal areas of the functions and benefits as well as the human activities and climate factors that can affect coastal and marine resources.
A wake-up call
Over the past 15 years, erosion has claimed half the land area of Bedono, Village Chief Agus Salim said. Some of the hamlets which are under water include Rejosari Senik, Tambaksari, Morosari, Pandansari, Towosari, and Mandalika.
"Until now, around 600 hectares of Bedono Village have been completely lost. In the past, the population of Bedono reached 4,000 households, but now only 2,000 families or about 5,000 people are left,” he said, estimating that 90 percent of those who remained were now fishermen, nine percent were traders and one percent factory workers.
Data from the Demak district’s Maritime and Fisheries Office shows that damaged mangrove forests covered 1,174 hectares, or around 25.72 percent of the total, and were spread in four sub-districts -- Sayung, Karangtengah, Bonang and Wedung.
Of those four sub-districts, the worst damage occurred in Sayung (653 hectares), followed by Wedung (320 hectares), Bonang (152 hectares) and Karangtengah (49 hectares).
"The conditions are still good in 2,470 hectares, 919 hectares are threatened with damage and 1,174 hectares are damaged," explained the head of Demak’s Marine and Fisheries Office, M Sulkhan.
That damage has allowed erosion to consume 798.44 hectares of coast, according to official data. Sayung sub-district has seen the worst levels of erosion, affecting 420.57 hectares.
In Bedono hamlet, Kambali said that the community became aware of the need to participate in the preservation of mangrove forests after seeing the loss of two neighboring hamlets to abrasion -- Rejosari Senik and Mandalika. The community did not want their hamlet to suffer the same fate, he explained.
Yet when developing mangrove forests for ecotourism, there were a number of principles that needed to be met related to conservation, education, participation and income, said Fuad, the bio-conservationist. The principles of conservation and education were very important, to ensure the existence of mangrove forests as protectors of nature and in maintaining a balance between the ecosystem and the preservation of the environment.
"Community participation is also very important because they should be the main actors. Starting from planning, monitoring to implementation,” Fuad added. “Through these, the understanding about the benefits of preserving mangrove forests must be disseminated like a virus to the wider community.”
A version of this story first appeared in Suara Merdeka on 23 Dec. 2019. It has since been edited for clarity. Reporting for this coverage was supported a story grant from the Earth Journalism Network's Asia-Pacific program.