In the quiet village of Mentawir, located in the heart of Kalimantan Timur, there exists a man whose smile seems never to fade. Lamale, donned in a crisp collared shirt and a white hat, may appear too neat for someone steering a wooden boat. But don’t question his warmth when welcoming guests. At the age of 70, Lamale is as spry and agile as ever. He is about to take me and a group of fellow journalists on a captivating tour of the Mangrove Mentawir forest.
Our journey takes place on Tuesday, October 3rd, 2023. Mentawir is a small village in the Sepaku sub-district, just a 40-kilometer boat ride away from the heart of Nusantara, the capital city. I met Lamale at the ferry dock in the late afternoon. With a cheerful smile, he assured us, “Don’t worry; it might sway a bit since we are on water.”
Ten people, including me, boarded the not-so-large wooden boat. As more people filled the boat, it swayed gently. I gripped the railing tightly as the boat rocked. We set off towards the mangrove forest, a mere five-minute ride from the dock. Lamale shared that the mangrove forest was home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, including rare species such as hawksbill turtles, coastal dolphins, dugongs, and proboscis monkeys.
As we walked on the 900-meter-long bridge, split amid the lush mangroves, the absence of guardrails made my fellow journalists uneasy. “It’s quite scary without railings, especially if there are crocodiles around,” one of them remarked. The mangrove forest of Mentawir is home to various species and is a sanctuary for wildlife. Lamale shared stories of visitors who marveled at fireflies during the night and observed javan storks during the day.
The bridge, initially constructed with sungkai wood, had undergone multiple renovations due to its inability to withstand the elements. Lamale sought assistance from PT Inhutani I, a state-owned forestry company, to rebuild the bridge using ulin wood, a sturdier material. However, there are still no guardrails on the bridge, posing a safety risk for visitors. Lamale expressed his frustration at the lack of funds for necessary improvements.
Mentawir is part of the mangrove forest area within the Nusantara Capital Integrated Tourism Area (IKN). The mangrove forest in the IKN region spans the coastal areas of Penajam Paser Utara and part of Teluk Balikpapan, totaling approximately 8,600 hectares. While the mangrove forest in Teluk Balikpapan covered 16,800 hectares in 2018, Mentawir contributed around 2,300 hectares, equivalent to 13.5% of the total mangrove area in Teluk Balikpapan. PT Inhutani manages 1,700 hectares for ecotourism and conserves the remaining 1,400 hectares.
Lamale’s hope for the preservation and economic potential of the mangrove forest in his village is palpable. Since opening the ecotourism site in 2016, visitors have flocked to this remote village, benefiting the local community. Through the Tourism Awareness Group (Pokdarwis), Lamale encourages locals to utilize mangrove products for teas, coffees, sweets, syrup, and compost powder, creating additional revenue for the community and funding tourism facilities’ maintenance.
The sunset in Mentawir is magical, with the aroma of the sea blending with the golden light filtering through the mangrove leaves. As darkness falls, Lamale welcomes us into his home, offering mangrove-based coffee, tea, and syrup. We share stories of the day’s adventure. Lamale asks, “Did you see the two javan storks earlier on the tree by the sea?” I confirm having captured the moment on camera. He explains, “Those two are a couple; they are the last of their kind here.”
The mangrove forest of Mentawir stands as a testament to nature’s wonders and the potential for sustainable tourism. Lamale’s dreams, like the mangroves themselves, are resilient. With the ongoing development of the Nusantara Capital, there is hope that the mangrove forest in Mentawir will not only thrive but also become a beacon of eco-friendly tourism, bringing prosperity to the local community while preserving the diverse wildlife and natural beauty that this enchanting forest holds. As Lamale’s words echo in my mind, I am reminded of the immense value of mangroves and the importance of their conservation.