Home Features To dye for: Indonesia's carbon-rich mangroves in fashion with women weavers

To dye for: Indonesia’s carbon-rich mangroves in fashion with women weavers

Mangroves have an outsize role in sequestering planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions but they are disappearing fast in Indonesia

In a rural office on Bengkalis island, off the northeast coast of Sumatra, 30-year-old Mayasari runs a face mask dyed with tree sap through an antique sewing machine.

The day before, Mayasari, who goes by one name, and a dozen other women in Pedekik village learned to make hand sanitizer with an extract from the mangrove trees that fringe the coast.

“Alhamdulillah (praise be to god) – if this comes from nature in Bengkalis, then it’s great,” Mayasari told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.




The Bengkalis training is the first government program aimed at addressing the double hit from coronavirus and climate change among mangrove-dwelling communities in Indonesia.

The face masks made by the Pedekik women’s group are sold for 2,000 rupiah (US$0.14) each, offering a new source of income for members.

Besides this scheme in Riau province, others are also underway in South Sumatra and South Kalimantan, in a bid to demonstrate to communities the practical value of keeping their mangroves standing.

Indonesia – the world’s largest archipelagic country and its biggest home of wetland forests – counts about 3.3 million hectares (8.15 million acres) of mangroves across its rivers, basins and shorelines, an area larger than Belgium.

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These mangrove ecosystems provide vital services to local communities, from food to protection against storm surges.

Mangroves also have an outsize role in sequestering planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions, storing one-third of the world’s coastal carbon stock and about five times as much per hectare as Indonesia’s upland forests.

But according to a 2015 study from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), about 40% of Indonesia’s mangroves were lost in the previous three decades.

They are often ripped out to make way for shrimp ponds and other small businesses like charcoal production, which provide economic security for millions but account for most mangrove loss.

Last year President Joko Widodo expanded the remit of Indonesia’s peatland restoration agency to include ambitious plans to restore 600,000 hectares of damaged mangrove forests by 2024.

“A target of this magnitude has not been attempted anywhere else in the world,” said Daniel Friess, a mangrove researcher and associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

Naturally dyed masks and hand sanitiser made from mangrove extract produced by women in Bengkalis island, Riau province, Indonesia. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

Natural products

About 90% of the budget allocated this year to Indonesia’s Peatland and Mangrove Restoration Agency (BRGM) was for planting seedlings, but a small amount was earmarked to foster change in how communities view mangrove forests.

Mayasari first learned to weave local batik and tenun textiles aged nine. Today she makes four metres (13 ft) of traditional fabric every few weeks, earning about $150 a month.

But the single parent, with two children to put through school, makes only a small profit because she must buy expensive and unhealthy chemical dyes.

This year the mangrove agency began working with Achmad Nur Hasim, an Indonesian designer who has supplied tenun fabric to French fashion brand Christian Dior.

Achmad said 90% of traditional textiles in Sumatra are dyed using synthetic products.

He hopes textile weavers in Pedekik and elsewhere will instead adopt natural dyes derived from the sap and fruit of local trees, supporting broader efforts to conserve mangroves.

Mayasari said she can find the jengkol tree used for darker shades, pinang for orange and bixa for red just outside her home.

The Bengkalis women’s group this month won a public vote for the best collection of handwoven clothes at the TENUN Fashion Week in Malaysia, which showcased work by 45 women’s weaving communities across Southeast Asia.

A mangrove forest near the coast of Bengkalis island, Riau province, Indonesia on June 13, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Harry Jacques

Money worries

Extending the peat agency’s mandate to include mangrove restoration involves expanding field work from seven to 13 of the archipelago’s 34 provinces.

Forestry scientists said matching mangrove species to the landscape depends on complex local factors, such as tides, salinity and sediment levels.

“The key distinction is between planting and restoration,” said Friess. “It is not restoration if (the planting) fails.”

In February, the BRGM estimated restoring 600,000 hectares of mangroves by 2024 could cost 18.4 trillion rupiah.

Only about 1.5 trillion rupiah was initially allocated for that purpose this year – still seven times higher than the agency’s budget for peat restoration.

But the government later slashed its 2021 mangrove restoration target from 150,000 hectares to 33,000, as spending was squeezed by the coronavirus pandemic, although it plans to open new funding schemes for mangroves.

The finance ministry did not respond to questions about the programme.

Government expenditure to curb climate change was only a third of the 266 trillion rupiah required annually, Indonesia’s finance minister said this year.

“The challenge is to make a better programme with very limited finance,” said Dermawati Sihite, an environmental lawyer who leads community work for the BRGM.

Forest flooding

One key reason to stop further destruction of Indonesia’s mangroves is to ensure the climate-heating carbon they store remains in their biomass and the soil they grow in.

Research shows global warming also hikes risks to mangrove eco-systems. A 2016 study published in the journal Wetlands Ecology and Management indicated coastal mangroves in Indonesia and elsewhere could face inundation from rising sea levels within 35 years without stronger action to curb climate change.

That would threaten food security for people in Bengkalis like Hidayati, a mother of three who earns 100,000 rupiah per day picking clams from mangroves a short drive from Pedekik.

Hidayati said mangrove loss would deplete the fish and crustaceans that meet local household protein needs, owing to prohibitively high meat prices.

“If the mangroves are gone, then the fish will have nowhere to feed,” one fisherman said, after untangling a barramundi from a net in the strait bisecting Bengkalis from Sumatra’s mainland.

Fieldworkers said mangrove loss in Indonesia also reflects regional economic drivers, from tin mining in Bangka island to aquaculture in coastal Java.

Erosion and subsidence are already damaging the coastline in Bengkalis.

Here, as in other peatland regions, hundreds of mangrove trunks, each costing 3,000 rupiah, are stacked in a lattice underneath homes to prevent buildings on peat from subsiding.

One local contractor said he knew of no other way to affordably shore up foundations.

“Mangrove restoration or rehabilitation needs careful planning,” said Daniel Murdiyarso, principal scientist at CIFOR. “There is no one-size-fits-all.”

Reporting by Harry Jacques; editing by Megan Rowling. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.

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