Sat, 03 Apr 2004

Jakarta must protect its mangrove forests

Nirwono Joga, Chairman, Indonesian Landscape Architecture Study Group, Jakarta

The Agricultural and Forestry Service has introduced its mangrove eco-tourism program, an idea in the works for quite a while. This program is actually an effort to commercialize, not conserve, mangrove forests. It is obvious that the Jakarta provincial administration is excellent at "selling" assets, rather than protecting and conserving them.

This program is said to come from an old idea as various environmental practitioners and activists have offered this program to the Jakarta provincial administration as far back as the 1980s as a solution to "conserve and develop" mangrove forests and prevent the conversion of mangrove forests into posh residential areas along with the expansion of the toll road leading to Soekarno-Hatta international airport.

It is actually quite ridiculous, therefore, to hear the Jakarta administration now come up with this program instead of rehabilitating the mangrove forests, which continue to shrink and what is left is in a terrible state. It also shows that the Jakarta administration is oblivious to environmental concerns.

Jakarta bylaw No. 6/1999 on the plan for Jakarta's 2000 -- 2010 spatial layout design sets the target of the city's green open space at only 13.94 percent (9,545 hectares) of the total city area, much lower than the ideal rate of 30 percent.

Meanwhile, in reality the existing green areas now makes up only about 9.04 percent (6,190 hectares) of the total area of Jakarta (66,152 hectares). If the motto of sustainable development remains mere rhetoric and the conversion of green areas, including protected mangrove forests, for non- environmental purposes continues unabated, it will be difficult to reach the target of 13 percent, let alone the ideal of 30 percent.

Mangrove forests as one of the main components of a city's green space have been stipulated as protected forest areas. Therefore, all plans related to rehabilitation, renovation, reconstruction, preservation or conservation, especially commercialization, require a thorough, profound and independent analysis of impacts on the environment and on the society. This means that the plan to develop mangrove eco-tourism areas in Muara Angke also requires this compulsory impact analysis.

Unfortunately, the Jakarta administration has never shown consistency in implementing sustainable development. The Jakarta administration has instead converted part of the protected mangrove forest in Muara Angke into Pantai Indah Kapuk luxury housing estate.

As a result, the mangrove forest area has been reduced from 1,200 hectares in 1998 to just 327 hectares in 2003 and part of Pluit Reservoir was converted for the construction of Mega Mall Pluit. In this context, the losses on the part of the city residents are manifold. Mangrove forests are the world's most productive ecosystems and therefore highly important for environmental conservation.

A mangrove forest is a unique ecosystem as it encompasses three areas at the same time: Land, coastal and marine areas, which, despite their otherwise disparate functions and ecosystems, are closely inter-related. A mangrove ecosystem bridges the land and marine communities. The unique character of a mangrove forest ecosystem has made it home to a typical biodiversity of organisms of animals living on land, in the sea and in the air. Mangrove forest areas are also places where various species of sea fauna spawn and various kinds of seashells, shrimp and crabs multiply. They are also home to hundreds of species of birds and often long-tailed monkeys.

Mangrove forests are the right place for marine creatures to survive. They are an ideal habitat for coral reefs, elements important for the conservation of urban coastal areas.

Indonesia's has the world's largest number of mangrove forests. Tragically, over 75 percent of these, including the one in Angke, have been either seriously encroached upon or wiped out altogether.

For Jakarta, mangrove forests, ecologically, serve to prevent the intrusion of sea-water, which, reportedly, has extended as far as 14 kilometers inland to the Taman Silang Monas area, or about a third of Jakarta's total area (2003).

A mangrove forest is also necessary to withstand coastal abrasion, which has destroyed over 50 percent of the coastal area in the northern parts of Jakarta. Mangrove forests are also the ideal protection against strong winds and huge offshore waves, very effective in absorbing water runoff from rivers, including potential floodwaters and a good neutralizer of marine contamination by acting as nature's filter.

For aviation and airports close to the sea, such as the Soekarno-Hatta international airport, mangrove forests are the habitat for hundreds of species of birds are very important for flight safety. Hundreds of species of birds, such as seagulls, herons, starlings, sparrows and many others, live or often visit mangrove forest areas. Their flight routes are regular, so unless these birds are well managed, they may cause trouble for aircraft engines.

Even the Soekarno-Hatta international airport has received a lot of protests from foreign airliners regarding disturbances caused by the flight route of these birds. Luckily, there have been no accidents caused so far. But, of course, prevention is better than a cure.

If it is indeed seriously committed to sustainable development and intends to develop mangrove eco-tourism, the greatest challenge that the Jakarta administration is facing is, first of all, how to totally rehabilitate protected mangrove forest areas, which are now badly devastated, so that they will be restored to their normal condition. Water pollution, piles of garbage and illegal dwellings, now a common sight, must be wisely dealt with in a well-thought-out long-term plan.

Efforts to rejuvenate and conserve mangrove forests obviously take time because the planting of mangrove trees and nipa palms, two species of plants most dominant in a mangrove forest, from seed-sowing up to time when they grow to maturity takes at least 15 to 20 years. As the forests are in a badly damaged condition now, the seeds, especially those of mangrove, can easily die when sowed, so the planting process needs special attention.

In line with the rehabilitation of mangrove forest areas, the Jakarta administration and the locals around these mangrove forest areas, can begin planning the most suitable mangrove eco- tourism program without adverse effects on the locals' livelihood and also without disrupting the conservation of mangrove forest areas themselves.

This planning must involve the locals from the beginning up to the implementation stage. Regular public hearings must be conducted. Academics and environmental activists and practitioners may team up to provide technical assistance for the rehabilitation of mangrove forest areas and offer the most suitable eco-tourism development program.

The Jakarta administration and legislative council must also immediately draft a regional regulation on the conservation of the city's green open space, including mangrove forest areas, as the city's assets. In no way and under no circumstances can mangrove forests areas be converted for commercial purposes.

A city is not built simply on the basis of a discourse. The building of a city is based on sustainable development undertaken with full commitment and consistency, regardless of who the building parties are. Guaranteeing the sustainability of mangrove forest areas is tantamount to guaranteeing the sustainable existence of the city and its residents.