Making the most of mangroves

The overlooked potential of a mangrove palm, Nypa fruticans, is beginning to get the attention researchers think it deserves. It was recently showcased at the Bali Clean Energy Forum.


Stand of nypa palm. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

Stand of nypa palm. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Robert Finlayson

‘Nypa is very productive as ethanol feedstock’, said Dr Sonya Dewi, Indonesia program coordinator for the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), at the Bali Clean Energy Forum. ‘Tapping can be maintained for up to 50 years and it provides important ecosystem services as a natural wave buffer and habitat for aquatic fauna’.

The Bali Clean Energy Forum, held at the Nusa Dua Convention Center, 11—12 February 2016, brought together representatives of 26 countries; the private sector; experts in the field of energy; civil society; and young people. It was organized by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in cooperation with the International Energy Agency. Dr Dewi was speaking as part of a session organised by ICRAF on bioenergy.

However, she also sounded a word of caution in the midst of the burgeoning enthusiasm for nypa as a highly-efficient and environmentally-friendly biofuel feedstock: ‘All feedstock supply chains need to be integrated into sustainable land-use planning, with local contexts and drivers taken into consideration so as to find synergies between local and national programs and policies in developing bioenergy options’.

Nypa fruticans is one of the many underused feedstock species with potential for smallholders, energy entrepreneurs, and climate-change mitigation and adaptation, claimed Dr Dewi. It was important to study the feasibility of a particular species—such as ‘kemiri sunan’ (Reutealis trisperma (Blanco) Airy Shaw), ‘aren’ (Arenga pinnata) and nypa—for bioenergy within its value chain. This needed a sampling strategy for robust results that would allow expansion beyond pilot areas.

There were many gaps in knowledge about potential biofuel crops, she said. There was no list of underused species, for example, nor had studies been conducted of the feasibility of a particular feedstock’s supply chain within overall land-use planning at the local level. It was here that deals would be made or broken given the often conflicting socio-economic forces prevalent throughout Indonesia’s varied landscapes. A critically-important gap was whether a crop could achieve a viable scale of operations and how to expand from pilot studies to other areas in the archipelago to achieve economies of scale. But before even that could be carried, the return to labour and return to land needed to be ascertained in comparison with other potential and existing fuel crops. Harvesting nypa is hard work and would need adequate compensation to ensure it was worth the trouble.

‘Such gaps in our understanding should be filled in partnership between government, research organizations, smallholders and larger private enterprises’, said Dr Dewi; ‘ and they should be well designed and based on existing data and knowledge’.

Dr Dewi explained that nypa would be a promising place to start. It exists as a natural system in tropical mangrove forests and saltwater swamps, with which Indonesia is well-endowed, boasting the longest equatorial coastline in the world.

‘Substantial nypa areas are designated as “forest land” by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’, she said. ‘Hence, there is no competition for the land to be used for other agricultural purposes’.

According to some literature it can also grow on peat without any drainage system so, potentially, it can be part of peat-restoration programs and provide not only environmental benefits but also economic ones.

Further, in many areas in Indonesia, such as South Sumatra Province, in the past five years greenhouse-gas emissions from conversion of mangrove forest had become the largest source of emissions. Using nypa for biofuel purposes could provide livelihoods’ options that might prevent further conversion of such ecosystems.

Potential distribution of Nypa fruticans in Indonesia. Source: World Agroforestry Centre

Potential distribution of Nypa fruticans in Indonesia. Source: World Agroforestry Centre

Mapping of potential nypa areas had been carried out already by Dr Dewi’s team. Using the Maximum Entropy model to predict distribution of species, the team drew on almost 1000 sampling points collected visually from high-resolution Google Earth images throughout Indonesia. The model used nine independent layers: digital elevation model (90 m); land-cover map; distance to coast; distance to river; peat; minimum temperature; soil type; soil texture; and rock.

‘The limitation of this method is that it maps the potential distribution but not the existing distribution’, said Dr Dewi. ‘Sampling points need visual examination on the ground. But it is a conservative prediction and might well be an underestimation’.

In total, the potential distribution of nypa in Indonesia is 15.76 million ha, suggesting there was sufficient area to reach an economy of scale. Forty-six percent (46%) of the potential distribution of nypa is ‘forest land’ or a waterbody, hence, the risk of competition for land is low. But policy needs to be developed to allow access to such areas.

Dr Dewi’s team did not include areas of peat that were potentially suitable for nypa owing to a lack of data. However, the assumption was that nypa held potential for restoration of peat land.

‘Before we go much further with nypa’, said Dr Dewi, ‘we need to establish some case studies and research the value chain, feedstock supply-chain and sustainability issues as well as the profitability of feedstock production and opportunity costs in terms of returns to labour and land. In short, would it be economic to take it to production scale?

There were also various other studies needed to determine the answer to her question. For example, life-cycle analyses and best practices; harvest and post-harvest technology; impacts on ecosystem services; and a purposive sampling of different areas to decide if expansion nationally was possible.


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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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