Indonesia's unique mangrove forests are facing rapid degradation as they are being harvested for the production of charcoal, a practice that has sustained local communities for generations.
Mangrove trees, a crucial part of the ecosystem, are rapidly processed into wood charcoal. Despite the mounting concerns over environmental impact, those engaged in this activity argue that they have no alternative means of survival.
Indonesia is home to the world's largest population of mangrove trees. Yet, the escalating rate of their felling, conversion into charcoal, and export to countries like China, Europe, and Japan is a growing concern. While individuals involved in this trade acknowledge the importance of these trees for the environment, they find themselves trapped without alternatives.
Nurhadi, a 68-year-old resident of Borneo, exemplifies this situation. He maintains two furnaces in a cabin, where a team of around a dozen workers toils. The process involves cutting mangrove wood, feeding it into furnaces, burning, cooling, and packaging the resulting charcoal.
Mangrove wood, known for its density, is well-suited for charcoal production, particularly for barbecues. However, this process is time-intensive, resource-demanding, and offers meager returns. A staggering 16 tonnes of raw material yield only three tonnes of charcoal. Nurhadi, who barely makes a modest annual profit of $1,250 (£1,000) after accounting for costs, emphasizes that the motive is sustenance, not riches.
In the village of Batu Ampar, nearly half of the population relies on mangrove charcoal as their livelihood, a practice dating back to the 1940s. Many families, including Nurhadi's, have passed down this tradition through generations. The Kuba Raya Regency, where Nurhadi resides, hosts the largest mangrove forest in western Indonesian Borneo, contributing to 20% of global mangroves.
However, the proliferation of charcoal production is accelerating deforestation. While there were 90 furnaces in the early 2000s, their numbers have since risen to over 490. The loss of mangrove canopy is now alarmingly visible from overhead flights, highlighting the urgent need to balance economic needs with environmental preservation.