The Jakarta Post
As East Kalimantan prepares to become Indonesia’s future capital, a trip to anywhere in the province promises to be more interesting than ever. The Jakarta Post recently took a trip to the East Kalimantan city of Balikpapan on a media junket with tech company Grab Indonesia.
Our first destination right after getting off a morning flight from Jakarta was Graha Indah Mangrove Center Balikpapan, about an hour’s drive away from the airport that is now named Sultan Aji Muhammad Sulaiman Sepinggan (SAMS) International Airport, previously known simply as Sepinggan airport.
We traveled from the airport to the mangrove center using the GrabRent feature, where we could book the car for ourselves for four to 12 hours. All we needed to do was book from the app and wait at the pick-up point easily identified by its green-themed signage.
The first thing we noticed during the drive was the blue sky that contrasted with Jakarta’s greyish sky. As we encountered no traffic jam, it was rather easy to figure out why the sky was blue. But as we entered the tranquil Graha Indah residential area and arrived at the mangrove center, we knew it was more than just the result of low emissions.
Agus Bei, an environmentalist who manages and takes care of the mangrove center, greeted and ushered us to a table and offered tea and coffee.
Fresh from the concrete jungle of Jakarta, sipping late morning tea and coffee in a quiet setting surrounded by tall trees felt like a blessing to us. And just a few steps away from the table, small boats were moored and waiting to take us on a further exploration of the mangrove center.
Agus Bei started to develop the mangrove center practically by himself in 2001, and began to collaborate with a community of volunteers in 2009. He said that it was not easy to raise other people’s awareness about caring for the environment as it is a demanding task.
The volunteers and Agus consistently planted mangroves until 2017, often assisted by companies who conducted their CSR projects at the center.
“Come 2018, we [Graha Indah mangrove center] focused more on maintenance, education and spreading awareness,” said Agus, who received the Kalpataru Award, the highest accolade for Indonesia’s environmental heroes, in 2017.
Agus is now actively mentoring mangrove planting in many villages across East Kalimantan. He mentioned Manggar and Teritip hamlets in East Balikpapan district, and Berau regency as places that he mentors on mangrove center development and preservation.
“It takes two to three hours to reach each village, on a long boat that might only be as wide as one’s body. Three of us [Agus and two volunteers] must fit into that boat, so that is a task that really needs extra care,” said Agus of his mentoring programs.
We finally went on board the two awaiting boats, which were at least the width of two people side by side with a little space left.
Our cruise along the Somber River started at its narrowest part under the lush shade of tall mangrove trees. It didn’t take us long to reach the wider part of the river, with dense mangrove forests to our right and left, and blue sky above us. We saw little fish jumping in and out of the water, sometimes they jumped from the water and landed on the mud, and disappeared into little holes, probably finding their way back to the water.
A few fellow boaters are also seen on the waters, close to the banks of the river. Signs with the message “Save bekantan” were also seen on some parts of the mudflats, referring to the endangered proboscis monkey.
Where were the proboscis monkeys, by the way? Unfortunately, it was almost noon when we cruised the river, and the monkeys prefer to avoid the heat. Further downstream, we saw the monkeys on the higher parts of trees, partly shielded by the leaves. Our boatmen said the best time to watch the monkeys is early in the morning and late afternoon.
Not far from a bridge that Agus said belonged to state-owned energy holding company Pertamina, our boat turned around and cruised back to the starting point. The air felt breezy and the soft motion of the boat made us feel sleepy as well as hungry.
Reuniting with Agus at the starting point of the cruise, he expressed his hope that Indonesia’s future capital in East Kalimantan would be a green city, in which the government ensured green, sustainable living.
“I said to Balikpapan city administration and the Environment and Forestry Ministry that in the future when the government is based in East Kalimantan, they should also cooperate with local environmental activists [for nature conservation], because they are the ones who know best,” said Agus, who is pleased that many visitors from across Indonesia and abroad have come voluntarily to get educated about the mangrove ecosystem, and that the mangrove center itself has good tourism potential.
He is, however, worried that the wetlands will decline in conjunction with the establishment of the new capital city.
“This is a 150-acre mangrove center, 15 percent owned by the city administration and another 85 percent owned by private parties. […] It is possible that there will be land reclamation as it would be considered profitable from the business point of view,” said Agus.
On the other hand, he hopes that Balikpapan city and East Kalimantan administration will take more proactive measures to help preserve the mangrove ecosystem.
“Mangrove forests are the source of food for proboscis monkeys. If the wetland extent declines, the monkeys will run out of food and become extinct, and our children and grandchildren might not be able to see them alive again,” Agus warned.
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