A look at the wetlands of East Kalimantan from the Somber River, Graha Indah’s mangrove center

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As East Kalimantan prepares to become Indonesia’s future capital, a trip to any part of the province promises to be more interesting than ever. Jakarta Post recently made a trip to the East Kalimantan city of Balikpapan for a media briefing with tech firm Grab Indonesia.

Our first destination soon after getting off an early morning flight from Jakarta was Graha Indah Mangrove Center Balikpapan, about an hour’s drive from the airport now called Sultan Aji Muhammad Sulaiman Sepinggan International Airport (SAMS), formerly known simply as Sepinggan Airport.

We traveled from the airport to downtown mangrove using the GrabRent facility, where we were able to book the car for ourselves for 4-12 hours. All we had 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 on the ride was the blue sky contrasting with the grayish sky of Jakarta. Since we didn’t encounter any traffic jams, it was pretty easy to figure out why the sky was blue. But when we entered the quiet residential area of ​​Graha Indah and arrived at the mangrove center, we knew it wasn’t just the result of low emissions.

Agus Bei, an environmentalist who runs and cares for the mangrove center, greeted us and ushered us to a table and offered tea and coffee.

Fresh from Jakarta’s concrete jungle, sipping late morning tea and coffee in a tranquil setting surrounded by tall trees felt like a blessing to us. And a few paces from the table, small boats were moored and waiting to take us on further exploration of the mangrove center.

Agus Bei started developing the mangrove center practically on his own in 2001, and started working with a community of volunteers in 2009. He said it was not easy to raise awareness of other people about caring for the environment because it is a challenging task .

Volunteers and Agus have been steadily planting mangroves until 2017, often assisted by companies who have conducted their own CSR projects at the centre.

“Come in 2018, we [Graha Indah mangrove center] it focused more on maintenance, education and awareness-raising,” said Agus, who received the Kalpataru Award, Indonesia’s highest honor for environmental heroes, in 2017.

Agus now actively mentors mangrove plantation in many villages in East Kalimantan. He mentioned Manggar and Teritip hamlets in East Balikpapan district and Berau regency as places he mentors for the development and conservation of mangrove center.

“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] he has to fit into that boat, so that’s a task that really requires extra care,” Agus said of his mentoring programs.

Eventually we boarded the two waiting boats, which were at least two people wide side by side with some room left over.

Our cruise along the Somber River began at its narrowest part in the lush shade of tall mangrove trees. It didn’t take us long to reach the widest part of the river, with thick mangrove forests to our right and left, and blue skies above us. We saw small fish jumping in and out of the water, sometimes they would jump out of the water and land on the mud, disappearing into small holes, probably finding their way back into the water.

A few shipmates are also seen in the water, near the river banks. Signs with the message “Save the proboscis monkeyhave also been seen on some parts of the mudflats, referring to the endangered proboscis monkey.

Where were the proboscis monkeys, by the way? Unfortunately it was nearly noon when we crossed the river and the monkeys prefer to avoid the heat. Further downstream, we saw monkeys in the highest parts of the trees, partly screened by leaves. Our boatmen have said that the best time to view the monkeys is early morning and late afternoon.

Not far from a bridge that according to Agus belonged to the state energy holding Pertamina, our boat turned around and returned to its starting point. The air was breezy and the gentle movement of the boat made us feel sleepy as well as hungry.

Reuniting with Agus at the cruise departure point, he expressed his hope that Indonesia’s future capital in East Kalimantan will be a green city, where the government ensures green and sustainable living.

“I told the Balikpapan city government and the Ministry of Environment and Forests 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 all over Indonesia and abroad have come voluntarily to learn about the mangrove ecosystem and that the mangrove center itself has good tourism potential .

He is, however, concerned that wetlands will decrease as the new capital is established.

“This is a 150-acre mangrove center, 15% owned by the city and another 85% privately owned. […] There may be land reclamation as it would be seen as commercially viable,” said Agus.

On the other hand, he hopes that the city of Balikpapan and the East Kalimantan administration take more proactive measures to help preserve the mangrove ecosystem.

“Mangrove forests are the food source for proboscis monkeys. If the extent of wetlands decreases, the monkeys will run out of food and become extinct, and our children and grandchildren may not be able to see them alive again,” Agus warned.


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