A Tale of Two Heroes

- By:

Courtesy of Wetlands International

Often conservation work starts with individual initiatives. The stories of Haji Madsahi and Babah Akong emphasize the value of local knowledge and initiative for the restoration of coastal ecosystems. They have both received awards for their work and Wetlands International now works with them, so that their efforts can be further scaled up.

Haji Madsahi

Since the 1970s Haji Madsahi was a Forest Ranger in the Pulau Dua, a Nature Reserve located in Banten, the westernmost province on the island of Java and home to thousands of breeding waterbirds. In his 20s, the young Madsahi started out as a volunteer guarding the reserve. It was here where he planted mangrove seedlings, which sprouted into a forest linking PulauDua to Java, creating more space for breeding waterbirds.

For his tireless commitment, the Government of Indonesia awarded him a Presidential award and free pilgrimage to Mecca as well as his new status as a civil servant. Since then, Haji Madsahi was frequently asked to participate in interviews, both from Indonesian and international media. He delivered talks to visitors and provided training on how to plant mangrove seedlings. Despite his lack of formal education, graduating only from primary school, Haji Madsahi supervised the fieldwork of many PhD students. 

Babah Akong

In the 1992 tsunami, waves hit the coastal area of the island of Flores. Nearly 2,000 people perished andcountless homes, communities and government facilities were destroyed. In the village of Reroroja, the Elder Babah Akong, decided to devote his life to protecting the coastal environment in which he lives. He knew of course that he could not stop a tsunami from striking his village once again; however, he believed that his community can be made more resilient against the impact of this natural force. He decided to plant mangrove seedling along the coastline and as a result Babah Akong created a natural shield, reducing the impact of disaster risk to his village from tsunamis.

As all heroes, his journey has come with much sacrifice, including the investment of his own capital - even down to selling his wife’s gold bracelet - and scepticism from residents. Nonetheless, Babah persevered.

Then in 2009 the Government of Indonesia awarded Babah Akong with the Kalpataru Environment Award for his devotion to environmental restoration. Since, he has become a local hero whose efforts began to be appreciated and followed, both by the public and local government.

The Pursuit of Restoration Continues

Restoring mangroves and coastal ecosystems surpass economic value. Their environmental services provide a variety of ‘bonuses’ such as breeding grounds for various fish, crustacean and waterbird species, as well as CO2 absorbing functions. Importantly, mangroves also reduce the impact of large waves, ocean-based storms, intrusion of sea water into land and the occurrence of erosion in coastal areas, creating a better micro-climate for communities living on the edge of land and sea.

Haji Madsahi and Babah Akong have started a movement; however the job is far from completion. Much larger efforts are needed to restore Indonesia’s mangrove and coastal areas. In Banten Bay, the western part of the island is threatened due to narrowing abrasion. Even more worrying, the government has planned development projects for waterfront development which would in essence reverse Haji’s work. Coastal areas such as Flores, which has a land area of 1,700 km2 and a sea area of more than 5,800 km2, are prone to natural disasters. The region has repeatedly been hit by tsunamis, floods, droughts, landslides, cyclones, and coastal erosion.

Wetlands International collaborates with leaders such as Haji Madsahi and Babah Akong. More than 400,000 mangrove seedlings and other productive trees have been planted in eight villages; and through this, various types of community livelihood activities have been developed.

Haji Madsahi and Babah Akong can be proud of their accomplishments as the people of their communities better understand and support ecosystem restoration efforts. Thank you to our local heroes, and the people of Sikka, Ende and Banten for sharing your knowledge, experience and wisdom.

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