Failed mangrove tourism project in Sumatra highlights need for community collaboration

By Barita News Lumbanbatu

  • Once a bustling attraction, the Sicanang Mangrove Forest ecotourism project in North Sumatra is padlocked and falling into disrepair.
  • Launched in 2019, the project was supported by Sumatra-based NGO Yagasu but fell apart in the wake of claims that the project was improperly established on private land.
  • Facing multiple accusations, Yagasu withdrew from the project, which failed without the organization’s support. The outcome, Yagasu staff say, highlights the importance of close collaboration among NGOs, local governments and community groups.

SICANANG, Indonesia — In October 2019, the Sicanang Mangrove Forest ecotourism project launched as a mangrove tourism destination.

At its launch, the project, in Sicanang village on the outskirts of the city of Medan in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, was hailed as an initiative that would both ensure the natural benefits of mangroves as flood-control barriers and act as a sustainable source of livelihood through ecotourism and other income-generating activities like using mangrove plants to create food products and dyes for batik cloth.

The project didn’t last. When Mongabay attempted to visit the Sicanang tourist attraction in September 2022, the gate was padlocked. According to local residents, the tourist attraction has been officially closed since November 2021.

The Sicanang Mangrove Forest.
Fish Ponds in Paluh Kurau Village. Image by Barita News Lumbanbatu for Mongabay.

Lost potential

The Sumatra-based NGO Yagasu (Yayasan Gajah Sumatera) began assisting the Sicanang mangrove rehabilitation project in 2015. At the time, 895 of the 1,550 hectares (2,212 of 3,830 acres) within the village boundary remained mangroves.

In Indonesia, every hectare of mangrove counts. The country is estimated to have lost some 40% of its mangroves over the past 30 years. On the east coast of North Sumatra, research indicates some 60% of mangroves were damaged between 1977 and 2006. And Yagasu looked well positioned to help Sicanang preserve its forests. Operating since 2001, the organization has worked with communities across northern Sumatra to plant more than 30 million mangrove trees.

With support from Yagasu, people from Belawan Sicanang village agreed with the government to designate 178 hectares (440 acres) as a community-based mangrove protection area. Yagasu helped set up silvofishery ponds, which allow fish and shrimp harvesting to coexist with mangrove seedlings. Local people were trained in processing and managing mangrove products, a nature school with a mangrove-themed curriculum taught English to local children, and a tourism pavilion was built.

But, in less than two years, the mangrove restoration program in Sicanang was terminated, and with it, Yagasu’s involvement.

“We [Yagasu] have stopped supporting the ecotourism program, both morally and materially,” says Meilinda Suryani Harefa, Yagasu program director.

Local people at the silvofishery ponds.
Local people at the silvofishery ponds, which allow fish and shrimp harvesting to coexist with mangrove seedlings. Image by Barita News Lumbanbatu for Mongabay.

The closure came in the wake of local land conflicts. According to Meilinda, the Sicanang community association approved of the project, including setting aside 178 hectares of the village for a mangrove protection area. The plan was also approved by the village head and known to the subdistrict head, she says.

But this was not enough to prevent claims from both individuals and companies that the land had been wrongfully appropriated.

“Suddenly, there were many people who claimed land. I was accused of seizing the land,” says Meilinda, when contacted by telephone.

At least 17 hectares (42 acres) of the conservation area were subject to land disputes, Meilinda explains, even though the ecotourism plans were signed by the village head and had been discussed with community groups in advance.

Yagasu found itself faced with subpoenas from people claiming land ownership, as well as calls for compensation and demands for a share of any ecotourism profits. In addition, on Nov. 6, 2020, a group of student activists called for a demonstration against Yagasu’s involvement in the project. The group demanded an investigation into the land permitting process and the funds used to support the project, and it called on the Medan City Tourism Office to take over the project.

In the face of these challenges, Yagasu withdrew. “We resigned and stopped our involvement with the mangrove ecotourism Sicanang village program,” says Meilinda. The group took with them boats they had provided but left behind permanent buildings such as a schoolhouse and floating restaurant.

The survival of the project, from that point on, lay solely in the hands of local government and community organizations.

While Yagasu continues its involvement with multiple other restoration projects, the Sicanang effort languished without the organization’s support. “It is very unfortunate that the restoration project was not extended by the Medan city government,” Meilinda says.

Buildings and boats at the Sicanang mangrove rehabilitation project.
Buildings and boats at the Pasar Rawa Mangrove. Image by Barita News Lumbanbatu for Mongabay.
The closed Sicanang Mangrove Forest ecotourism project.
Ecotourism Mangrove Pasar Rawa. Image by Barita News Lumbanbatu for Mongabay.

Haunted house

During Mongabay’s visit, the site looks more like a haunted house than a bustling ecotourism destination. The narrow wooden walkways across the mangroves are deteriorating, broken in places.

An abandoned gazebo sits, surrounded by trees nearly 3 meters (10 feet) high. Hendra, a local resident, recalls that at the height of the project, up to 1,000 visitors came to the site per weekend. Here, at the gazebo, visitors could enjoy nature while eating sea products such as fish, shrimp, crabs and lobster caught by local fishers. Others took boat tours around the mangroves.

Another local resident, Rusmiono, recalls planting and caring for mangroves alongside other community members. These mangroves, he says, are home to animals such as turtles, monkeys, birds, fish, shrimp, crabs, lobsters and snails. Since the ecotourism project closed, he says, he has had no income.

Other residents still feel some positive impacts from the project, such as Kartika Hanum, who received training in using mangrove materials for livelihood projects. “We make syrup and jam from fruit, chips and tea from leaves; there are also batik products and sandals,” she says. This has allowed her to maintain a small business even after the closure of the ecotourism project, selling products through word-of-mouth and at local events.

  • Abandoned structures from the Sicanang mangrove rehabilitation project.Abandoned structures from the Sicanang mangrove rehabilitation project. Image by Barita News Lumbanbatu for Mongabay.

“All the economic potential is in mangroves,” Kartika says. “The knowledge must be owned by coastal residents.”

Meilinda, meanwhile, has moved on, her dedication to mangrove conservation still intact. Yagasu’s work is expanding to other coastal communities in the Medan area, as well as elsewhere in northern Sumatra. Recent projects include a collaboration with the University of North Sumatra’s Natural Resource Management Study Program to conduct mangrove education activities and silvofishery development for fishing communities in the Paluh Kurau village in the  Deli Serdang district of North Sumatra.

Moving forward, the lessons from Sicanang loom large. “The current challenge is about sustainability, which is maintenance for life,” Meilinda says, emphasizing the importance of collaboration among the NGOs, local governments, academics and especially the communities themselves. “It all starts with the awareness of the people.”

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