The clearing of 110 hectares of mangroves in Sungai Sayang affected fishermen’s income, worsening the impact of the climate crisis on coastal communities.

The impact of mangrove clearance in Sungai Sayang Village, in Jambi’s East Tanjung Jabung district (East Tanjab) was felt in mid-December 2022, when heavy rainfall was followed by tides. Coastal communities scattered, struggling to carry soil from the riverbank.

Men unloaded wheelbarrows of soil on the side of the road while women discharged soil they had carried in gunny sacks. They were building a wall to contain the rising tides but to no avail. Water quickly breached the wall, gushing through the gaps, and inundating the village.

“The water is rising! Let’s build an embankment! Our road should not be submerged!” yelled Ambo Angke (48), as water approached the side of the village’s main road.

The main road, the only access to and from the village, was underwater. Some motorcycles braved the hip-deep flood but broke down.

Only buildings built on stilts were safe, while the rest, including schools, houses of worship, and even the village cemetery, were deep underwater.

“Water has never been this high. The school building and houses of worship are all inundated,” said Angke, recalling the flood that also returned in February 2023.

Sungai Sayang is situated on Sumatra’s eastern coast, less than one kilometer from the coastline. The largest river that passes through the village is a tributary of the Natuna Sea.

The December floods came after the 110-hectare mangrove forest that protected the village from the sea was cleared in May 2022.

“We coastal communities are friends with the sea, but because the mangroves were felled, so was our protection, and disaster struck,” added Angke.

Deforestation and land conversion into settlements, plantations, agriculture, and fish ponds have reduced the density of mangrove forests on Jambi’s east coast.

A study on mangrove density by Achmad and friends from the Jambi University showed that in 1989, the province still had 7,151.31 hectares of high-density mangrove forests, 308.95 hectares of mid-density, and 608.13 hectares of low density.

Mangrove density in Jambi 1989-2018
Graphic that shows the high and low density mangrove cover in the coast of Jambi between 1989-2018. Infographic: Suwandi/Kompas

The massive conversion of mangrove forests into palm oil plantations in 2000 reduced the high-density mangrove forest to just 2,925.11 hectares. Two decades later the total mangrove cover stood at 2,076.44 hectares with the biggest loss in Sadu and East Sabak subdistricts in East Tanjab.

“With the mangrove areas undergoing a high rate of deforestation, the coastline receded,” Achmad wrote in his university’s journal for Natural Resources and Environmental Management.

As much as 80 percent of coastal dwellers survive by operating coconut plantations, while the rest are fishermen. Angke recalled that in 2008, a massive land conversion into palm oil plantation affected 2,000 ha of land in Alang Alang Village, East Sabak District, killing all the coconut trees.

Seawater submerged coconut trees for a long time. For the trees that survived, seawater decreased their productivity by around 30-35 percent.

“We are worried that the seawater will soak coconut plantations again. Coconut plantations are the hope when fishermen have difficulty finding fish,” said Angke.

Meanwhile, the head of plantations at the East Tanjab Plantation and Livestock office, Hardani, said that the regional economy is still supported by coconut plantations, palm oil, and fisheries.

Coconut plantations covered 50,342 ha and employ 22,862 workers. Meanwhile, production reached 57,295 tons.

Exacerbating erosion

Erosion has increased in the Sadu subdistrict. Achmad said that the erosion level is similar to that in Bekasi, West Java. It lost 35 square meters of land in a year. Mangrove clearing in 2022 has worsened the condition in Sadu.

The residents of Sungai Sayang understand that the relentless pounding of seawater every day erodes the land. For this reason, they let mangroves grow naturally. The village was established further inland. Approximately 1 kilometer from the coast.

Other areas on the east coast are still protected by small islands such as Berhala and Lingga Islands, which serve as natural wave breakers. So they are relatively safe from high waves. But villages in Sadu are not so lucky as they face the ferocious open sea, including Sungai Sayang.

We coastal communities are friends with the sea, but because the mangroves were felled, so was our protection, and disaster struck.

Ambo Angke

Protected mangrove forests are in the east coast nature reserve of Mendahara-Nipah Panjang subdistrict covering 4,126.60 ha, the Cemara Beach essential ecosystem area covering 450 ha, and the Berbak National Park comprising 162,700 ha.

While mangrove forests along the Sadu coastline are not protected, allowing companies and individuals free access to turn the area into palm oil and coconut plantations. While on the shore of Sungai Sayang, Ambo Angke pointed to piles of dead wood.

“There was land there a year ago. It has now sunk and the water has reached here,” Angke said.

Mangroves are not just disappearing in Sungai Sayang but also in five other villages – Cemara, Sungai Itik, Jambat, Air Hitam Laut, and Remau Baku Tuo. 

Angke who has Bugis ancestry said that in 2008, Cemara villagers were relocated by the government because their village was submerged. This included hundreds of hectares of coconut plantations. Ruins of some houses could still be seen jutting out into the sea off the coast.

Forty-year-old Tomi, a fisher from Sungai Lokan, remembers well.

He now lives 10 kilometers off Sungai Sayang. His coconut warehouse was located in Air Hitam Laut — another village 15 kilometers south of Sungai Sayang — far from the sea. But it is now submerged in water.

“My warehouse in Air Hitam Laut used to be more than 100 meters from the sea. But water reached the walls,” said Tomi.

Tomi tried to save the warehouse by building a wall of sand sacks around it. However, this protection did not last a single day with the sea swallowing it.

The dry coconuts ready for sale became wet, and unusable. He has since moved to a warehouse in Sungai Lokan far from the sea. The Air Hitam warehouse has been completely destroyed.

Mangroves protect the land

Suyadi from the Ecology and Ethnobiology Research Center of the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) explained that mangrove forests protect coastal ecosystems, beaches, and the land.

“Mangroves help humans get the safest climate and weather, and prevent disasters,” Suyadi said.

Suyadi said mangroves protect coastal communities from erosion and large waves, including tsunamis. Even ecologically, as a breeding ground for crabs, fish, and shrimp. Including capturing sediment that forms land.

In addition, mangrove forests have carbon stocks around 1,023-1,083 metric tons per hectare. This means that mangroves can absorb up to 3,754-3,975 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per hectare.

With the loss of 110 ha of mangroves, the potential loss of carbon sequestration reaches 437,250 metric tons.

“If mangroves are exposed, they release carbon. That impacts the climate directly,” he said.

Annisa Fauziah, data and information coordinator of the Jambi Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) said that the east coast has changed.

Currently, her office issues warnings of extreme weather daily, especially for the December-June, 2022-2023 period. Extreme weather varies from strong winds to high waves.

In the 2015-2020 period, rising sea waves continued. Sometimes reaching 6-8 meters. Likewise, wind speed is always above average, 30-40 km/h. “The norm is 10 km/h,” Fauziah said.

Monthly temperature also showed an increasing trend, around 0.185 degrees Celcius cumulatively in the last 10 years. As mangroves on the east coast become more exposed, extreme weather events such as strong winds, high waves, and lightning will occur more frequently.

This will further expose coastal communities to the impacts of the climate crisis.

A precarious crab habitat

Between Sungai Sayang village and the Natuna Sea, more than a hundred hectares of mangrove forests have disappeared. This leaves only bare land, water, patches of wild grass, and the rotting trunks of felled mangrove trees. The winds become stronger and the sound of crashing waves louder.

Norma (37) from Sungai Sayang said she caught crabs and shrimps in mangrove forests before they were cleared. In just five hours she could catch 20 kilograms of shrimp. 

“I spent time there after dusk and returned home before midnight,” Norma recounted. But with the mangroves gone, she could only catch five kilograms of shrimp, which she had to catch from midday until midnight.

The destruction of mangroves for almost a year has made Norma’s family want to leave their fishing profession. She and her husband are saving to buy land. Norma’s husband has also been forced to go further out to sea to catch fish.

Fishing costs a lot of money, more than Rp500,000 ($33) for a single trip. Norma said her husband’s earnings only reached Rp700,000 ($46) leaving him little to spend on his and his family’s needs, much less raise the money to buy land. They might have to put off their dream of coconut farming.

In addition to strong winds and high waves, fishermen are now experiencing a “dead sea” phase — a condition when the undercurrent does not flow in the ocean, making it difficult for fishermen to catch fish.

Whenever fishing at sea was not possible because of extreme weather, Norma went to the mangrove forests to search for crabs and shrimp. Large shrimp could fetch Rp100,000 to Rp120,000 ($6.5-8) per kilogram while medium-sized ones could bring around Rp 80,000 ($5) per kilogram. 

“After the mangrove forest was cleared, fishers like us had to go farther into the sea to fish. More capital is needed while yields are uncertain and the risks are high,” Norma said.

Norma hopes that the government provides monetary assistance as revenues are barely enough to meet her daily needs and children’s school fees.

Tomi from Sungai Lokan also felt the impact of the extreme weather. “When the waves are high it is difficult to fish and when the sea is dead calm, there are also no fish.”

The beginning of a disaster

Conditions in several villages in the Sadu subdistrict are worrying. There have been three district heads so far but these villages remain underdeveloped and isolated, as reflected by the poor conditions of the roads.

Arie Suryanto, founder of the Green Loving Indonesian Coastal Communities (KCHPI) said that the deforestation of mangroves in Sungai Sayang began when an employee of a private company, Erasakti Wira Forestama (EWF), bought villagers’ land on behalf of the plantation. 

Thirty villagers sold 130 hectares of land to the company for Rp5.28 billion ($350,000), paid in nine installments between 2015 and 2016.

After the mangrove forest was cleared, fishers like us had to go farther into the sea to fish. More capital is needed while yields are uncertain and the risks are high.


The purchase of land in Sungai Sayang is believed to be linked to the government’s plan for a mega construction project — the Ujung Jabung Port — in Sadu’s Sungai Itik village in November 2014.

However, port construction stalled following the Covid-19 pandemic. The company that bought the land was forced to divert its businesses. They cleared mangroves to plant oil palm in May 2022.

Upon receiving information from villagers, Suryanto visited the area where mangrove deforestation reached the shoreline. Suryanto and villagers tried to stop EWF but the company ignored them and continued palm oil planting.

In September 2022, the government sealed the land, forcing the company to halt its activities permanently and uproot the planted oil palms.

After the government seal, Arie continued, the company washed its hands and placed the blame on “S”. Starting with the purchase of villagers’ land, clearing mangroves without permission, and planting palm oil, all carried out by S personally.

When contacted by Kompas on March 2nd, 2023, S was reluctant to clarify the logging of 110 ha of mangroves. “Sorry, sir, another time,” S said and immediately hung up the phone.

KCHPI then reported S to the East Tanjab police on September 9, 2022, alleging violations of the law on environmental protection and government regulations on coastal boundaries. S was considered to have damaged the coastal boundary by clearing mangroves covering 110 ha.

“The police report on mangrove logging is now SP3 (ceased),” Arie said.

The investigation was ended because S bought community land and the claim on the poor coastal boundary management no longer applies. Now, state-protected coastal land has been eroded and what remains is community-owned land.

Meanwhile, the head of the East Tanjab environmental agency (DLH), Adil P. Aritonang, confirmed that the purchase of land in Sungai Sayang did not involve EWF, but through S personally.

He said the company had never applied for a permit to work in the area. The government cannot sanction EWF because it has not found evidence of its involvement.

“This is a case of citizen vs. citizen but because S is part of EWF, the company promised to replant 110 hectares,” Aritonang said.

When asked about the reforestation agreement, Aritonang said S promised to rehabilitate the cleared area. However, Aritonang added that his administration cannot force S to honor his promise.

The government is still waiting for the company to rehabilitate the mangrove area. However, he said it did not have the authority to force the company to start immediately.

Aritonang acknowledges the economic losses suffered by villagers in of Sungai Sayang due to clearing of mangrove forests there however the administration is yet to offer any solutions to the problem. Villagers are encouraged to use the 110 hectares to build shrimp and crab ponds before reforestation starts.

Suryanto believes the clearing of mangrove forests in Sungai Sayang is proof that the local government is not consistent with protecting the environment. He also believes the local government is not serious about coastal issues.

KCHPI, he added, plans to sue Tanjung Jabung Timur district authorities. However, the plan was scuttled after the government and the company agreed to rehabilitate 110 hectares.

“The rehabilitation agreement starts in March 2023,” Suryanto said.

He also highlighted the Wetland City accreditation award obtained by East Tanjab district head Romi Hariyanto. The award took place in Geneva, Switzerland, from November 5-13, 2022.

“I ask the international organization Wetland City Accreditation to revoke the award given to the East Tanjab district head (Romi Hariyanto) if the issue of mangrove clearing in Sungai Sayang cannot be resolved,” said Suryanto.

He believes that the award should not be for prestige or mere honor. Instead, it should be for real efforts to improve and maintain ecosystems in wetlands, especially in areas prone to climate crisis.

The Wetland City Accreditation came as the eastern coast was destroyed. Romi Hariyanto is the first district head in Indonesia to be awarded the Wetland City Accreditation. This is because the East Tanjab district was perceived as successful in integrating conservation management with wetland sustainability.

One of Hariyanto’s policies to preserve wetlands is the regulation to protect Cemara Beach which shares the same coastline with Sungai Sayang, 30 kilometers to the south with an area of 450 hectares.

This location is a place for migratory birds from Siberia to Australia from September to December. Another regulation protects the east coast mangrove forest conservation area of 4,126.6 ha and peatland in Sungai Buluh covering 23,748 ha in the Mendahara Ulu subdistrict.

Aritonang argued that the award received by the East Tanjab district head could not be linked to mangrove degradation in Sungai Sayang. The files for the award had already been submitted prior to the mangrove clearance incident.

Replanting mangroves

The residents of Sungai Sayang are preparing to plant mangroves on their own initiative to reduce erosion caused by logging. The planting plan will be carried out by the end of this year at the latest.

With support from KCHPI, they have nursed 5,000 mangrove seedlings. They are already more than three months old and about 10-15 cm tall.

“The women voluntarily nurse mangrove seedlings and care for them. However many mangrove seedlings died because crabs ate them. Crabs came because their habitat was cleared,” said Angke.

Mangrove seedlings will be planted along the coast covering 30-50 ha. However, villagers are still reluctant to plant at the company’s location. They believe the damage is purely the responsibility of the government and the company.

Mangrove planting by the community, said BRIN researcher Suyadi, is one solution to preserving mangroves sustainably. The government should encourage communities who try to ‘revive’ mangroves, he added.

I ask the international organization Wetland City Accreditation to revoke the award given to the East Tanjab district head (Romi Hariyanto) if the issue of mangrove clearing in Sungai Sayang cannot be resolved.

Arie Suryanto, KCHPI

Suryanto believes that when mangrove ecosystems are preserved throughout coastal Indonesia, efforts to reduce the climate crisis impact can be made. As a country with the largest mangrove potential in the world, President Joko Widodo during the G20 Summit, on Wednesday (16/11/2022), committed to preserving its ecosystems.

KCHPI recommends the government build wave-breaking embankments to protect coastal areas where mangrove forests have been deforested. The next step, Suryanto said, is for the government to perform mangrove rehabilitation and re-establish the Natuna Sea coastal area.

“The government should not ignore the climate crisis that triggers sea level rise and drowns coastal communities. They need to immediately implement adaptation and mitigation efforts for climate crisis impacts on the east coast,” Suryanto said.

Citing Climate Central research, sea levels are expected to rise by around 20 to 30 centimeters by 2050. According to data from The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the range is still 0.8-1 meter until 2100.

Sea level rise is also projected to submerge settlements in Indonesia’s coastal areas, including Sungai Sayang.

Meanwhile, Norma admitted that she did not know about climate change and its impacts. However, mangrove clearing has made this coastal woman nervous that her village will be hit by tidal floods and her living space will disappear.

“If all mangrove forests are cut down, we could drown. We hope the government is on our side, for the future of our children and grandchildren,” said Norma.

This report is produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and was first published in Bahasa Indonesia by Kompas on 24 June 2023.
About the writer


Suwandi is a journalist based in Jambi, Sumatra. Interested in covering the issue of the climate crisis and environmental crimes. He is active in writing social culture for indigenous people, which has...

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