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Reflective Piece On Blue Forest
Author: Melvin Ng

While many nature enthusiasts hope for a sustainable and green future, that future remains a distant one for countries like Indonesia. For a developing country like Indonesia, issues regarding livelihood, traffic, security and healthcare are prime concerns, not conservation. The mantle of conservation is largely shouldered by private, non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Blue Forest is one of such NGOs that we visited during our trip. Blue Forest conducts programmes that are geared towards empowering rural coastal community members to rehabilitate, sustainably utilize and conserve their precious mangrove and coastal resources. In the lead up to our trip, we liaised with Blue Forest for an educational programme on mangrove conservation and sustainable livelihoods by coastal communities. This materalised as a trip to the coastal Bontomani village in Labbakkang district, Pangkajene region, a 2-hour drive from Makassar.

In Bontomani, what was once a pristine mangrove swamp had now largely been cleared and converted to water ponds for fish and prawn farming. This is a phenomenon that is widely spread throughout South Sulawesi, and perhaps even other parts of Indonesia. Commonly, urea is used as a fertilizer in the ponds to keep the ground conducive for fish and prawn farming. This has created salinity issues. Many water ponds progressively become unusable as the salinity of the water eventually increases beyond the point fish and prawns can grow in. Farmers consequently leave these plots of lands in search of new ones to continue their livelihood, further compounding the loss of mangrove and coastal biodiversity in the region.

It was such a sad sight to see. As we stood at the edge of the vast swath of water ponds, we could not help but bemoan the loss of mangroves that once extended deep inland. Mangrove deforestation was a major contributing factor to the massive damage caused by the Aceh Tsunami in 2004. Yet, many communities cannot help but continue to clear mangrove swamps as their livelihoods depend on these lands. In Singapore, a similar situation exists where a large majority of our precious mangroves has been removed for reclamation and other development.

At the remaining patches of mangroves left, we were taught the various species of mangroves and their distinguishing characteristics: leaves, flowers, fruits, roots and location. Most of what we saw could be found in Singapore! Interestingly, different mangroves have various unique requirements for them to grow; and this has made mangrove replanting a daunting task for both the government and NGOs. One of the crucial reason is that there is simply no land left to replant mangroves. Mangroves need to grow in intertidal areas. These are areas that are exposed during low-tide and submerged during high-tide. However, because of land development for other uses, the only parts of the coast left for replanting are those that are perennially submerged and unconducive for mangrove replanting.

Blue Forest introduced us to their philosophy – a very different take on conservation many would not have thought about. In Bontomani, Blue Forest has no authority or power to put a stop to mangrove clearing or mandate mangrove replanting. After all, the village depends heavily on the water ponds for their livelihood. Instead, Blue Forest had chosen to focus on educating the community on sustainable livelihoods, so that the village would be able to farm sustainably in the same plot of land for a long period of time without moving elsewhere. Sometimes in the fight for green causes, green activists cannot achieve a complete win; but we can still make a difference if we continue to do our best within our abilities and limitations. This is an interesting perspective we can use to tackle the green issues we face in Singapore, like the Cross Island Line. Even though we were not able to secure the proposed alternative route, acquiring negotiating power allowed green groups to reduce the number of boreholes being dug.

Blue Forest educated the community on the use of organic fertilisers made from cow manure and vegetable remains to replace urea, so as to put a stop to unsustainable salinity problems. We saw how one of the community heads had completely transformed his pond to one that used sustainable organic fertiliser, and more importantly how he himself was convinced by the green cause he had dedicated himself to. We were told that 70% of the village were by then already using organic fertilisers, despite not being able to verify the accuracy of his words. Yet, to see such a ground-up effort seemingly takeoff in a rural coastal village was comforting at least.

While our experience at Bontomani was bittersweet, we were glad to experience a paradigm shift in the way we look at how development and conservation should be balanced. Even though conservation may have to take a backseat sometimes as development may be inevitable, we should still feel heartened about every bit of effort put into green causes. Nature needs out help and every bit matters.