The tree of life

Elisabetta Zavoli

2012 - 2016

Serang, Banten, Indonesia

If mangrove trees had blood, the 54,000 km of Indonesian coastline would be indelibly stained in red. In the last 25 years, this massacre has reduced this complex amphibious ecosystem by more than 50%.

Among many other unique qualities, mangroves are capable of storing four times more carbon than any other inland tropical forest and are home to a biodiversity that has few equals on the face of the earth.

Java island has already lost at least 70% of original mangroves forests. Until a century ago, coastlines of Indonesia were crowned by 4.2 million hectares of mangroves. Today they are about 3 million hectares. 40% of this loss is due to the blue revolution: the booming of aquaculture. But economic growth may come at expenses of the poorest who are exposed to loss of local resources, climate and environmental hazards increase.

Particularly in the coastal valley of Sawah Luhur, on West Java Island in Indonesia, the soil has been burned up, fishing nets are empty like barren wombs and the water has become a massive grave. Everywhere you look, strange signs of a sick Earth are appearing and fishermen no longer know how to decipher them.

In short, everything is upside down: the night sky shines golden from the perpetual dawn of villages lit and above, the stars have all but disappeared.

Below them, the tree(s) of life is dying under a fierce blood moon. The vital yet invisible network that inextricably links the life of every being on Earth has been torn apart. We all have lost.

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  • "The barren womb" - An empty fishing net is hanging down a mangrove tree on the coastline in front of Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2014.

  • "Puzzling" - Kaspudin, 54 years-old fisherman, has been woken up, in his fishing hut, by strange sounds coming from the fishery ponds. Fishermen no longer know how to decipher the signs of decay coming from the environment. Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2013.

  • "Blood stained" - The coastline, at night, in front of Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2014. If mangroves had blood, the 54000 km of Indonesian coastline would be indelible stained with red as a result of the massive land reclamation taken place in the last thirty years.

  • "Deadly waters" - The son of a fisherman is bathing in the highly polluted waters of the main river running across Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2014. Garbage, industrial waste and sewage, coming along with the rivers from inland, ends up at the farming ponds.

  • "The cut" - The dead body of a water snake lays on the parched soil among farming ponds, in Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2013. No more wilderness is left: the massive presence of human activities and the lack of mangroves have dramatically reduced the number of wild animal species.

  • "The predator" - Kasrudin, 38 years-old fish and shrimps farmer of Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2014. Man is the most fearsome predator on Earth.

  • "Universe" - The beautiful starry sky, as seen in a moonless night above Sawah Luhur village reminds us that Earth is just a tiny point in the endless Universe and that we have only this amazing place which could support our lives. Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2015.

  • "The trap" - Just before dawn, Babay, 30 years-old shrimps farmer, checks his bamboo trap, called "bubu," that he has pulled out of his pond's main canal, in Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2014. This trap, used to catch shrimps, has a slot inside so, once shrimps enter, they can't escape. The development of intensive and extensive shrimps aquaculture is the main reason for the loss of mangroves forests in Indonesia.

  • "The catch" - The catch of shrimps and fish from extensive farming ponds, on the coast of Sawah Luhur village, has declined significantly in recent years, due to the lack of natural support from mangroves ecosystem. Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2014.

  • "A cloud of poison" - A shrimps farmer walks soaked in the water of his pond while strewing "Samponen", in Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2016. "Samponen" is a chemical used by farmers in great quantities in order to kill every form of life in the pond. It is distributed at midnight, left to act for a couple of hours, then dead fish floated to the surface, making the catch faster, on time for the fish to be sold "fresh" at the morning market. After this treatment, the pond becomes a sterile environment, taking at least four months before being able to host life again.

  • "Sentinels in the night" - Two farmers smoke in front of their fishing hut, under a full moon night in Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2016. Since the daily catch is so poor, fishermen have to look after their traps all night long in order to avoid the theft of shrimps by other villagers.

  • "Another world" - Kaspudin, 54 years-old shrimps farmer, enters his pond surrounded by young mangrove trees that he started to plant six years ago, when he decided to join a project of ecosystem's restoration and change from intensive aquaculture to sustainable ponds farming. Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2014.

  • "Lost paradise" - An aerial view, at sunrise, of the remaining primary mangroves forest on the coast of Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2016. These ancient mangroves are vestiges of the coastal forest that once covered the island of Java. In the past 50 years Java has already lost more than 70% of its mangroves forests.

  • "Too late?" - Kaspudin, 54 years-old shrimps farmer, is lost in thoughts in front of his fishing hut in Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2014. Many fishermen families got into debt in order to buy chemicals and nutrients to manage extensive fishery ponds and the fishermen who decided to move to a sustainable farming, like Kaspudin, had to face years of poor income while waiting for the restored mangroves to sustain the ecosystem again.

  • "Moonlight catch" - Under the moonlight, a couple of farmers catch fish with a throwing net called "jala", in front of Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2014. Almost all the fishing activities at the farming ponds are done at night or in the early hours of the morning. During the day, farmers work in managing the land, which is deeply impacted and transformed by this activity.

  • "The tree of life" - Under the reddish moonlight of a "blood moon", a lonely mangrove tree can be seen standing as the last bastion of the pristine mangroves forest once covering the coastal valley of Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2014.

  • "In the cycle again" - Romdana, 48 years-old, poses in his pond full of mangroves trees, in Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2016. He joined a project of mangroves restoration, run by the local NGO Wetland International Indonesia Programme, focused on helping farmers changing from extensive aquaculture to sustainable ponds farming.

  • "The murder weapon" - Timan, 51 years-old shrimps farmer, stands up with his legs covered in mud on his pond's bank in Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2014. He holds a bamboo scoop with which he dredges, by hands, the canals bringing sea water to his ponds. Since this coastal valley was reclaimed for extensive shrimps farming, the land has been deeply modified by man's handiwork. Fish and shrimps farmers use to spend many hours per day stuck in the mud, up to their waists, in order to fish, dredge the canals or work on strengthening the pond's banks. The mud is polluted by garbage, sewage and industrial waste, dumped in the rivers without any treatment.

  • "The sluice" - A pair of farmer working pants lays to dry on the sluice that blocks water from flowing freely from the extensive shrimps ponds in Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2015.

  • "Still hope" - Supiro, 32 years-old shrimps farmer, plants mangroves propagules in his pond in Sawah Luhur village, Banten, Java, Indonesia, 2016. He is one of the youngest fishermen to join a project of mangroves restoration, run by the local NGO Wetland International Indonesia Programme, focused on helping farmers changing from extensive aquaculture to sustainable pond farming.


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