Caked in mud up to their knees, a small group of Indonesian youngsters plant mangrove saplings along a stretch of exposed coastline next to the Java Sea under the watchful eye of environmentalist Samsudin.
A former schoolteacher, Samsudin has now dedicated his life to conservation and uses puppetry and storytelling to spread his message to the young about the importance of protecting mangroves in an area suffering massive coastal erosion.
“To keep tides from hitting us, we plant mangroves — forests for animals and oxygen for us to live. I weave everything into my stories,” said Samsudin, 50, as he mused how some people in the area see mangroves as a “nuisance” and destroy them.
Indonesia is home to more than one-fifth of the world’s mangrove forests, which naturally help keep out high tidal waters.
Yet for years, coastal communities have chopped down trees to clear the way for fish and shrimp farms, and rice paddies.
Samsudin, who uses one name like many Indonesians, teaches children aged 11 to 15 three times a week about how to look after the environment, sometimes illustrating it with puppets of monkeys and orangutans.
Samsudin said that he has helped plant about 700 hectares in the area.
While his efforts are locally focused, the issue has gained national attention and Indonesia recently embarked on one of the world’s biggest campaigns to restore mangroves, targeting 150,000 hectares annually across nine provinces up to 2024.
Indonesia, an archipelago of thousands of islands, has about 3.3 million hectares of mangrove, with more than 600,000 hectares in critical condition, said Hartono, chief of the mangrove restoration body.
Data from the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry from 2017 estimate that more than 1.8 million hectares of mangroves are damaged.
Hartono, who also goes by one name, said the main causes of the degradation in Indonesia were illegal logging and land conversion.
For Samsudin, teaching about the issue is a labor of love, even though he said some in his own family question why he devotes so much time to it.
Yet for 12-year-old Muhammad Jefri, one of Samsudin’s students, the lessons resonate.
“I want to protect the environment, because it’s important for people,” he said.
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