Lumajang, EAST JAVA. In front of a row of three green houses which had seen better days, 37- year-old Suwandi, and his teenage son Sofian were busy piling up tree seedlings on the back of motorcycles. Unlike the green houses which appeared already tired despite having been built just five years ago, the two worked energetically in the cold mountainous air at more than 2,500 meters above sea level.
After a while, about 150 tree seedlings of three local species — Kesek, Dononia and Cemara were neatly piled on the motorcycle, ready to be taken to Jempang, an area of the park that is currently being reforested. Awaiting them there were a number of young volunteers, including Sofian’s fellow students at a local Muslim boarding school who had ample time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite their young age, the teenagers appeared very enthusiastic in helping plant the seedlings along a road within the park.
“I have often helped father plant (the seedlings). My friends are also glad to help, and it just happens that it is their holiday. So that the forest is no longer damaged,” said Sofian.
He added that he and his friends only wanted their playground, near their homes, to be green once again.
At the Nurul Huda Salafi Muslim boarding house in Pajaran, in the Tumpang sub-district of Malang, Sofian and his friends are also taught about the importance of forests in their lives.
For Sofian, the lessons were not mere lessons because he had seen with his own eyes how large swaths of green forests in the park had now become charred open fields. A big fire, not the first and certainly not the last, had devastated thousands of hectares of forest there in 2019. Sofian has seen how his father had worked tirelessly to replant the burned areas despite also having to care for the family’s own potato field.
Suwandi, who is better known in his village as simply Wandi, was a casual worker for a land reforestation program funded by JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), a program that was later continued by JICS (Japan International Cooperation System).
“In the beginning, Andi asked me to help him prepare seedlings. Myself and five other friends. That was in 2015,” said Suwandi who hails from the Ranu Pani village in the Senduro sub-district of Lumajang.
“I did not expect full awareness from all participants. Let us say that even if only five to ten people became aware of the need to replant on their own, I would see that a success,” said Andi Zulkarnain, who works with villagers of Ranu Pani.
But after the completion of the program, Wandi and a couple of his friends continued to replant on their own. When asked why he did so, Wandi could not give a clear response.
“So that the forest can return, that there are many birds again,” he said.
When asked about his fellow villagers who stopped replanting, Wandi speculated that they might have other activities to attend to. Potato farming, which is common in the area, demands a lot of work, he said. Other participants continued to secretly replant on their own.
Ranu Pani, a village of over 8 hectares inhabited by 1,487 souls, is perched on the slope of Mount Semeru at a height of 2,200 meters above sea level.
Collecting information on local plants
Andi (45) said that the reforestation of TNBTS he was working on, began with a cooperation project between the park authority and JICA-RECA (Restoration of Ecosystems in Conservation Areas) in 2010. The project ended in 2015 but was continued to be carried out by another partner, JICS until March 2020.
Despite the completion of the project, some members of the local community continued the ecosystem restoration on their own.
“Before we knew about ecosystem restoration, what we generally heard was the word reforestation. It is only since 2010 that we began to use the term ecosystem restoration,” said Andi, who was the program coordinator at the time.
He added that the difference between the programs under JICA-RECA and JICS were in the technicalities of their implementation. They differed in areas such as the choice of plants, community involvement, and the maintenance of the planted trees which also involved the community.
The plants chosen for the project must be of local species and not invasive. The project wanted to avoid the case of replanting ares in East Java in 1980s with the Acacia tree native to Australia and Africa, which resulted in the Acacia becoming an invasive species in Alas Purwo, a savanna area on the easternmost tip of Java island.
“Besides being a local species, the seedlings must also come from the local forest,” Andi said, adding that seedlings are grown from seeds or seedlings found in the TNBTS forest and therefore the involvement of local communities becomes important.
The involvement of the local communities was also important in conducting campaigns to promote the active role of communities in forested environments, so that when replanting programs are completed, they could continue the reforestation on their own. However, ecosystem restoration necessitated a much longer time, Andi said.
“The first initial year was only to gather information about native plants in Ranu Pani. We had to ask the Tenggerese what the names of the plants were and then we had to seek their scientific names,” Andi said referring to the indigenous inhabitants of the area.
With the help of five local inhabitants, Andi searched for trees in the forest that could be a source of seeds, marked their location and observed how their seedlings develop, spread and grow.
“On average those trees are dozens of years old, some may even be hundreds of years old. They are big trees and many of them are rare as we were only able to find a few trees only, “ Andi explained.
The group would then collect seeds or seedlings from the forest and grow them at a nursery, something that could take years to perfect as each seedling had their own specific characteristics which were not yet compiled or covered in books on forestry.
Collaboration, community empowerment for success
The ecosystem of the 502.8 square kilometer park is facing threats from both human activities and nature. Novita Kusuma Wardani, the acting head of the TNBTS agency, said that the most frequent threat to the forest area is forest fires.
“Most (of the area) becomes degraded because of forest fires. The cause of forest fires can be natural or fires sparked intentionally by human activities,” Novita said.
There are also two active volcanoes within the TNBTS, the Bromo and the Semeru. Certain eruptions, exacerbated by the extreme dry season, can result in damages to forest area and threaten its ecosystems. The most recent eruption of Mount Semeru (93,676 meters above sea level), caused extreme dryness and forest fires in Curah Kobokan in the Lumajang district, where restoration was needed.
Besides natural factors, forest encroachment, especially in areas bordering with local agricultural land, can also lead to damage to the ecosystem, although not as any cases compated to forest fires.
Another source of threat to the TNBTS that was just as serious came from invasive plants. C.G.G. J. van Steenis in his notes on Java Mountainous Flora (1972 and 2006), the Dutch were partly to blame for bringing invasive plants to the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru area.
Read also (in Indonesian): From local wisdom to Van Steenis, ecosystem restoration continues
“When the Dutch came to Indonesia, including to the area current area of the national parl, they brought with them plant species from their country,” Novita said. She pointed to the examples of Foeniculum Vulgare, Verbena Brasiliensis, imported species that are now widely covering the Oro-Oro Ombo area on the slope of Mount Semeru and are starting to spread to the lower areas.
The ecosystem restoration carried out by the TNBTS authority jointly with other parties is hoped to be able to slow down the rate of damage caused by fires, human encroachment, and invasive species. The long ecosystem restoration process has had a success rate of 83 percent, measured from the percentage of plant growth, three years after they were planted.
She said that the zone to be rehabilitated at the TNBTS covered 2,000 hectares. So far only 110 hectares had been restored in the 2010-2020 period. Although the rehabilitated area appear small, the program had a higher success rate compared to previous similar programs at the park.
“TNBTS started the restoration of the ecosystem in the 2003s with various programs. There was the Gerhana (Gerakan Rehabilitasi Hutan Nasional/National Movement to Rehabilitate Forests), that later became GNRHL (Gerakan Nasional Rehabilitasi Hutan dan Lahan/National Movement to Rehabilitate Forests and Land). Starting from 2010, it became the ecosystem restoration. We carried this out in degraded areas within the rehabilitation zone,” Novita explained.
Previous ecosystem restoration programs were focused on reforestation (replanting) of damaged forests, not followed by intensive maintenance and the monitoring of the plants’ growth. Only the number of trees planted were recorded, but information about their growth were often ignored. The involvement of local communities in the programs were also limited.
“Programs that monitor the ecosystem restoration continuously until the plants grow big, require a lot of funds,” Novi said.
TNBTS, Novita added, financed the ecosystem restoration from various funding sources, including from the state budget and in cooperation with other parties. Volunteers, nature lovers, district authorities and communities also contributed to the planting in certain events, such as the annual National Planting Month in November.
There were also a number of partnerships with institutions such as with Sumitomo Forestry in Pasuruan, PT. Tirta Investama also ini Pasuruan, and JICA- JICS in Ngadas and Ranu Pani.
The ecosystem restoration program by JICA and JICS not only involved planting trees but also monitoring the trees until the completion of the program and after that the local community takes over on their own
“What we did may be limited to filling. They monitor what has been planted. If a problem arises, such as an eruption of the Bromo that resulted in its ash disrupting the growth of plants, every single trees had to be cleansed from ash,” Novita said, adding that by filling, she means the replacement of plants that had died by the TNBTS staff, while their daily monitoring was conducted by JICA and JICS.
This has become part of their success story. The villagers independently learned which species grow best, where to plant them, and how to care for the trees including what needed to be done when plants are covered with below 13 degrees frost and volcanic ash from Bromo and Semeru.
Since the completion of the ecosystem restoration program funded by JICS in March 2020, the community has taken over and continued the restoration on their own. Suwandi and his son Sofian, continue to prepare tree seedlings every month, while Andi who lives in Malang city, up until this day continues to ask his friends to help plant the seedlings that Suwandi had prepared .
“The TNBTS continues to conduct ecosystem restoration up until now. The zone to be rehabilitated is still huge. Besides continuing program of the TNBTS funded by the state budget, we are forging opportunities for collaboration with other parties to plant trees together,” Novita said.
*This story is supported by the Pulitzer Center Rainforest Journalism Fund.