A Tree Falls in Sulawesi: Mangrove Restoration and Research in Indonesia

Journalist: Emma Goshgarian | Editor: Joseph Serpico


Nearly every Eckerd student knows a little something about mangroves, but only one student has these coastal trees tattooed on her leg. To Zoë Shribman ’17, her Sonneratia body art is more than a whimsical design: it reflects over two years of biological research, restoration, cultural immersion, and language practice all centered around Indonesian mangrove forests.

It all started her freshman year, when she applied to be a part of Eckerd’s Asia and the Environment Initiative, which includes an on-campus seminar followed by a summer of research in a specific Asian country. For Shribman, it was Indonesia, and it’s been Indonesia ever since. The following summer, in 2016, she returned, this time as a research assistant.

After Eckerd’s program finished, Shribman stayed another month by herself with a local NGO to work on an education and mangrove rehabilitation project on two islands, as a part of a program for International Mangrove Day.

Shribman’s own research focuses on evaluating “mangrove forest structure and forest diversity” and Indonesia is the perfect place for her to conduct the research. “Here in Florida,” she says, “we only have three species. In Indonesia, there’s actually the most diversity of species in the world.” Indonesia has 43 total species, to be exact, and the most forest surface area in the world. Shribman continues comparing Floridian and Indonesian mangroves: “Here, our mangroves are really important for lining the coasts to buffer against hurricanes…but in Indonesia they used their mangroves for so many things,” from food to dyes, from a fuel source to furniture.

But for those concerned with mangrove ecology, Indonesia is not exactly a tropical vacation. Mangrove degradation is a serious problem with over 35% of mangrove forests disappearing globally. “The biggest reason for this degradation is lack of education,” Shribman maintains. “People don’t know how valuable their mangroves are.”

One of the most destructive practices is the construction of commercial fish ponds, or tambaks. Natural mangrove forests are cleared to create huge fish ponds to sustain high-volume aquaculture. These ponds are pumped with pesticides and antibiotics. They are only viable for about 5-7 years, after which “they become deserts…[Indonesians] can’t use them so they abandon them.” Indonesia is littered with these tambaks, and as a result the local communities suffer. Being that mangroves often act as a natural buffer for coastal communities and prevent erosion, when mangrove forest are destroyed the coastal communities who rely on them become vulnerable to natural disasters such as flooding.

When not conducting experiments, Shribman speaks of extensive effort to educate
and connect with the locals. As a Caucasian female, she stuck out. “For them, it’s remarkable to see us coming from the US, which is crazy far away, like ‘Why did you come all the way from the US?’ Well, that’s how important it is.” Indonesians were fascinated with Eckerd’s interest; to them, these mangroves are just ‘ordinary’ and a part of their backyards. “The fact that we’re excited about it gets them excited about it.”

Shribman is acutely aware of the poverty gap. She concedes a certain amount of privilege when it comes to being able to travel and conduct research: “They [Indonesians] see us, and they can’t even travel to an island in their own country.” She repeatedly emphasizes how important it was to refrain from coming in like “fancy Americans” and bulldozing local culture. “We really want to focus our projects on what they wanted. The point of this project was to have collaboration.”

In this regard, Shribman has an ace up her sleeve. “I’m sort of fluent in Indonesian,” she modestly admits. A combination of personal study, intensive classes in Indonesia, and complete linguistic immersion, her communication skills have proven invaluable. “The biggest way that we were able to prove to them that we cared about them was the fact that we were trying to speak their language,” she recalls. “I can’t tell you enough how important it’s been that I’ve learned Indonesian.” From television interviews to classroom presentations, Shribman has been able to convey scientific concepts to Indonesians in their own tongue.

So when is her next flight to Indonesia? “I don’t have any plans right now,” she says, “but I’m 100% going back.” In the meantime, Shribman plans to start graduate school in 2018 after taking a year to consider her options. Her goals include studying plants, doing field research, and pursuing higher education. Her future careers are as diverse as her beloved mangroves: “I’m trying to keep my options a little bit wider…maybe tropical botanical ecology…I’m really big into activism, I could see myself working as a scientist for a non-profit.”

As a senior, she is preparing to begin a new chapter in her life. To the freshman who are just starting their’s, she advises them to “get involved as much as you can with anything.” Several passport stamps, long flights, field days, language classes, and a tattoo later, Shribman is living proof that you can’t go wrong getting involved with something you love.