Planting trees since early childhood as a form of investment is what many people do. But very few are those who spent more than half their life to plant trees only to assure the continuing existence of their ancestral land.
By Abdullah Leurima
KBRN, Ambon. Eighty-year-old Yusuf Sohilauw continues to plant mangrove trees, something he has been doing tirelessly since 1953. Despite his advanced age, Tete Yusuf, as he is known, is not planning to stop any time soon and his fruit of labor has manifested in the form of a some three-hectare mangrove forest in an estuary in Gorom Island in the Moluccas.
Tete Yusuf, was in his time a strong man. Remnants of this could still be seen from the firm lines in his calm yet wrinkled face. He may have the blood of warrior running in him, as his ancestors were local Kapitan, or leaders, but all his drive is focused on the environment he lives in. His love for his environment is clearly reflected in the way he responded to the serious erosion that hit the coast of his village because of the strong waves.
“I first planted mangroves in 1953 to protect the coastline. At the time, I did not know that the soil there was unsuitable to plant mangrove. All those plants I planted there died but I kept planting. None survived. Later I learned that the soil there was not suitable for mangroves so I moved my planting to across the river,” Tete Yusuf recounted in June 2020.
Yusuf’s home village is Samboru, in the Negeri Kataloka area of Gorom, an island in the Eastern Seram District of the Moluccas. Kataloka is a former small kingdom that shared the island with another kingdom, Ondor. Both were affiliated to the Sultanate of Tidore.
Gorom, rich in nutmeg, clove and marine resources, lays in a string of small islands between Ambon islands and the Kei Islands in Southeast Mollucas. The island that also has the largest population among the islands there, lies facing Raja Ampat and Fakfak in Papua, became a base for the Indonesian Pioneer Forces, that later became the police mobile brigade (Brimob) during the “Trikora” Operation to take over Papua from the hands of the Dutch in 1962.
During the Trikora operation, young Yusuf joined the Pioneer Force led by then Police General Anthon Soedjarwo and took part in infiltrating Papua through Fak Fak. After the end of the Trikora operation, that helped Indonesia gain the western half of New Guniea Island, Yusuf moved to Java, joining the then newly renamed Brimob at its headquarters in Kelapa Dua in Jakarta.
But one month into his stay in Jakarta, he began to feel haunted by guilt for having left his mangrove plants in his home. He decided to leave the brigade and return home sometime in the mid-1980s. He then worked as a guardian for the state utility company PT PLN in Gorom for a decade before resigning to fully focus on his mangrove planting in 1995.
“Many said I was mad, but I don’t care, I want to grow this mangrove forest here so that the coast is safe and no longer gets eroded by abrasion. I chose the location across the river because learning from experience, the initial site was not suitable. I also only recently know that it turns out mangrove plants makes the sea fertile because it provides ample food supplies for the marine life,” said the father of seven and grandfather of many.
Before 1995, what is now the mangrove forest used to be an area with just a couple of suffering mangrove plants. In the space of just one year, Yusuf planted some 250 seedlings of a mangrove genus locally known as Tongge (Rhizahora sp), and 200 seedlings of Mange-Mange (Avicennia sp). The first mangrove species had long supporting roots while the second had respiratory roots.
He took the Tongge seedling from a nursery he carefully built in months while the seedlings of the Mange-Mange could easily be found as they grow in large number during the Eastern Wind season. The Rhizaphora seedlings were grown from fruits that had fallen from the tree.
“Many of the first plants in 1995 were damaged and only 13 Tongge trees survived while many of the Mange-Mange were swept away by the waves. But I continued to plant them. Thank God, there are now thousands of Tongge and Mange-mange growing well. I do not remember how many they are in total, because I planted them within 300 meters along the coastline and 100 meters into the sea,” he said.
His determination turned the coast around the estuary of the Samboru river into thick groves of mangroves. The presence of the mangrove forest has also led to better catch for fishermen working the area and the chirping of birds are now commonplace.
It is not only the local villagers who are feeling the impact from the mangrove forest but also those from neighboring villages. Bastian Sopacua, from the neighboring village of Rumean said that the mangrove forest there had led to a better catch for fishermen in the past few years.
“We often look for fish in the waters around Koon island using fiber boats. But Koon is now a conservation area and we can no longer cast our nets there because it is now prohibited. Nowadays, we are fishing around Samboru, Ketter and Rumeo and the yields are starting to be good,” Sopacua said.
Nina Hamka, the 77-year-old wife of Yusuf, does not talk much, but her gaze clearly reflected the life burden Yusuf has carreid on his shoulder and without any veteran allowance. But her husband’s dedication on the mangrove plant remained unflinching and so has been her support for him. She just said she was sad because they did not have money to treat the eye problem that her husband is suffering from.
“Many call me a mad man because I only do this. But I don’t care,” Yusuf reiterated, while Nina smiled. As time went, the wagging tongues also waned.
Kadir Rumalessin, a staff at the Goran Riun hospital who is better known as Mantri Dade, is a relative of Yusuf. As a close relative Dade is fully aware of Yusuf’s journey. It is also Dade who is actively spreading the information about the mangrove forest that the old man had built.
“What Tete Yusuf has done is something extraordinary and rare, because usually one plant something with an investment for the future in view. Just imagine if he had instead planted nutmeg and clove, he would have been having great harvests. Tete Yusuh does not receive any veteran allowance. But even if he did, it is nothing for him, this is his way of giving back to his country,” Dade said.
The head of the Gorom Island Sub-district, Ramly Keliobas has known about the mangrove forest when he was the Secretary of the Eastern Seram Tourism Office. He had even included the mangrove forest into the list of nature tourism sites and had planned to build a number of gazebos there. But now, Kelioba appeared to be in the dark about Yusuf and his conservation effort.
It was only until the news reached the ears of a district legislator, Andul Gafar Wara Wara, that attention began to pour. In his visit to Gorom Island towards the end of May 2020, the young legislator from the National Awakening Party (PKB) aired a prayer for the old man and expressed hopes that his hard work would provide a livelihood for people in the land.
“What Tete Yusuf has done is something unique and this must become a model for the younger generation. Even though just a farmer, and already old at that, he continues to demonstrate a high spirit. As a representative of the people, I have nothing but high appreciation because what he has been planting not only benefits the coastal natural resources but can also prevent further erosion,” Wara Wara said.
He aired hope that the district administration through the concerned office could extend an assistance to Yusuf concrete because not it takes great will t undertake such unique and inspiring action. “Hopefully Tete Yusuf and his family would be given health and a longevity so that he can continue to motivate and inspire through his concrete work,” Wara Wara said.
But an unexpected response came from the Molluccas environmental office in Ambon which got wind of Yusuf’ achievement from a video. The office’s head, Roy Siauta, said that it was environmental heroes such as Yusuf Sohilauw that he has been searching for.
“After watching, seeing this video, we saw a man that was already old but what he is doing is really good and in support of the environment in Gorom Island. The name of that man is Yusuf Sohilau. As the head of an office that deals with the environment, we express our highest appreciation to him,” Siauta said.
He said that after having watched the video, the Mollucas environmental officeplans to follow up with a site visit. And based on the data collected from the fiekd, Siauta said that his office will try to nominate Yusuf Sohilauw as a recipient of the government’s Kalpataru Award.
“Personally, for the office and for the regional administration, we want to give our positive appreciation and will support all his activities. We will certainly design activities that can further empower Yusuf in the future. We will visit because we have just seen the video. Hopefully God will bestow Mr. Yusuf and his family with health and strength,” he added.
According to a fishery lead trainer from the Fishery Training and Guidance Agency (BPPP) in Ambon, Wahyudi Lamani, mangrove plants had physical, biological, as well as chemical functions that benefited life beings. Its physical function includes the ability to reduce wind velocity, currents, and prevent erosion, while the biological function is as safe haven for breeding and feeding for various marine life and birds.
“Its chemical functions, among others, is to produce detritus or decompose leaves for fish and microorganism feed. So, if there is someone who dedicates himself to plant mangrove like Tete Yusuf, that is a very noble act that is rare,” Lamani said.
A life that gives life, is for Tete Yusuf, his path to perfection. For him, planting does not necessarily mean that he will harvest, because nature has spiritual and esthetic values which by far exceed any economic value. In his advanced age, Tete Yusuf will continue to. Up until his arms can no longer move. Ekuatorial.