Vanishing Villages of Indonesia

If you’ve watched the recent controversial but much needed Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, you may have noticed it shined a spotlight on the aquaculture industry while introducing the notion of “blood shrimp”, tainted with slave labour and human rights abuses. And although the practice slowly becomes more sustainable, the shrimp you are eating is still unfortunately having a huge effect on the people, the mangroves and wildlife of Asia and Central America. It was in August 2016 when photographer Elisabetta Zavoli and journalist Jacopo Pasotti came together to investigate this underreported topic.

As an industry it has been described as the greatest threat to mangrove forests and has caused over 35% of worldwide loss. 

Photographer Elisabetta Zavoli and journalist Jacopo Pasotti during their investigation ©Jacopo Pasotti

Indonesia’s Shifting Coastlines

Much of Indonesia’s 95,000km of coastline was once lined with mangrove forests, full of wildlife and able to support the millions of coastal communities that relied on them to provide a sustainable but rich livelihood. Their densely packed forests, reaching up to 50metres in height, were able to contain more than five times as much mean carbon per hectare as its upland tropical forests. And yet, their mangroves have been sacrificed, much of it to make way for shrimp aquaculture, at the fastest rate of destruction recorded in the world (Campbell & Brown, 2015), losing 40% in the last three decades (FAO, 2007). The aerial below is now a typical scene across the coastlines of Indonesia as deforestation continues to spiral and the global trade for tropical farmed shrimp intensifies.

Bumi Dipasena, one of the largest areas of intensive shrimp farming in the world, with ponds covering 17,000 hectares. ©Elisabetta Zavoli


Swallowed by the Sea

The submerged village after mangrove clearing. ©Elisabetta Zavoli

The mangroves’ complicated roots systems not only hold the land together to reduce erosion and flooding, it also builds up sand, dirt and silt particles as they absorb the impact of waves. It’s perfectly adapted and with its ability to support the surrounding environment. And what happens if you clear the mangroves? The natural living barrier, that protects and provides, is taken away. Elisabetta and Jacopo report that more than 700 hectares of fishponds and homes have been lost to sea. Parts of the Central Javan coastline have shifted 2km landward in just a few years causing devastation among coastal communities as saline water floods into villages and fields leading to unproductive crops and submerged pond farms. Bedono, a once thriving fishing village home to 200 families, has been evacuated, is now totally underwater and has been erased off the map and satellite images. 

“I was surprised to see with my eyes the Bedono sinking area, and I was even more surprised when, on Google Earth, I could clearly see the change from above” Jacopo
©Google Earth Images

“This was all once farming land before, we grew rice and corn, then the tides came in, and the coast began to shift. Flooding got worse and worse, and eventually our entire village was swallowed up by the sea. Every year, more and more people abandoned the village, and now we are the only ones left.” Pasijah and her family are the only ones who remained in the village, lifting the stilts of her home to keep up with rising waters. But she is determined to stay to try and protect her sinking home. The mangroves that she planted have been growing and have become a forest, surrounding her village so it’s not open to the sea and waves.

“I am looking after my village, if I move then it will be gone, there will be nothing left but the open sea” 

Bedono is just one example of many villages with a similar story along the coastlines of Java. ©Elisabetta Zavoli 

Living in Contamination

“I am afraid within the next 50 years, all mangrove forests could be gone in Indonesia” says Daniel Murdiyarso, senior scientist at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). The “blue revolution”, continues, as mangroves make way for aquaculture in a vicious unsustainable cycle. Seafood from farms have surged from 13 million tons produced globally in 1990 to an estimated 92 million tons by next year. And if it wasn’t enough that the coast lost their protective mangroves, there’s also a darker side to the story. 


Local people, who were promised riches in the shrimp farming business, their lives are upside down. Everywhere you look, strange signs of a sick Earth are appearing and fishermen no longer know how to decipher them. Hasan Abdullah looks after ponds over 2 hectares of land. Once offered riches for converting his land into the ponds, he now lives off his contaminated fish as catches become smaller by the day. Chemicals and antibiotics such as dencis and samponen are thrown into the ponds which makes it easier to harvest the fish, and make the shrimp grow big. “I don’t care, I eat the fish, not the chemicals” As the land becomes more toxic and unable to support life, people in the area have become desperate and indebted to the chemicals that are emptying their nets. The whole system has collapsed around the coastlines of Indonesia as fishermen are forced to look after their traps through the night, to stop others stealing their shrimp. And after a few years, their ponds become so toxic that nothing can survive, as more mangroves are then cleared to make way for more ponds.  



Hope for solutions and recovery 

“I guarantee that there will be no more deforestation of mangrove forests in future. In its place, we will plant mangroves”. It’s a statement we’ve heard many times before from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. And as well as conserving what’s left of the existing mangrove cover in Indonesia, there are attempts to revive areas that have suffered from mangrove loss. In Demak, Northern Java, Building with Nature are following nature’s way after replanting failures, and working with local communities, government agencies and educational institutes. The successful pilot project started in a small village and is now expanding along the coast. The scheme includes the introduction of a mixed mangrove-aquaculture (MMA) system, where parts of the farming ponds are reduced in size to make space for mangroves and training in pond and water management. Shrimp yields have tripled and margins doubled as a result, says Wetlands International. With mangroves visibly returning and putting the communities at the forefront of conservation and restoration, the future looks to be shifting towards a more sustainable practice, at least at a local level.  

Elisabetta was able to see how a coastline becomes a desert without mangroves but also how fast they could grow back and bring life back together with them. “There is a healthy compromise” she says, “where the forest serve the people, and the people serve the forest”

©Elisabetta Zavoli


And “there is always hope as long as everyone takes on the responsibility for the others' life…..our choices and actions are actually affecting the life of other human beings and other living beings, far away from our home.”

Elisabetta’s quote continues to echo during a time when every single one of us can take responsibility for the future of our mangroves and natural world.


TAKE ACTIONS towards reducing the destruction


Read Elisabetta and Jacopo’s whole investigation

Read about community-led mangrove restoration for a better