Somewhere along the coastal villages of Banten and Central Java, Elisabetta Zavoli discovered a deeper calling for her journey as a photographer. Trained in environmental sciences, the 41-year-old Italian woman has been on a life-changing mission for the past four years, visiting coastal villages in those two provinces every three or four months, often staying with local fishermen communities.

It began with her passion to preserve mangrove forests – a decaying presence in this country, from 4.2 million hectares a century ago to three million hectares today. Within the past three decades, more than 70 percent of original mangrove forests on Java Island itself have disappeared.

“Mangroves are critical along the coastlines to support good water quality, healthy fisheries and adequate coastal protection against floods and storms. With its 54,000 kilometers of coastline, the archipelago of Indonesia alone is home to a quarter of all the world’s mangroves. Yet, over the past 30 years, more than half of these forests have been lost to coastal development and fish and shrimp farming,” Zavoli said.

Inspired by an article she read about Blue Carbon Ecosystems — highly specialised coastal and marine ecosystems that are collected under mangrove forests, tidal marshes and seagrasses – Zavoli applied for a journalism grant from the European Journalism Centre together with Italian science journalist Jacopo Pasotti. The program supports in-depth reporting projects on topics related to the UN Millennium Development Goals.

By 2012, Zavoli had already built a portfolio that included pictures of a coastal community in Sawah Luhur, Banten. However, she was determined to see more and do more. The path wasn’t always easy, given language barriers and the scorching coastal climate, but the next four years would see her recording through her lens the thinning mangrove forests and their impacts on life in coastal villages.

Those photographs are now on display in an exhibition entitled “Tree of Life”, held at the Italian Institute of Culture (IIC) in Menteng, from 8 December 2016 to 10 February 2017, organised by the Embassy of Italy and the IIC. The exhibition, free of charge, intends to raise public awareness of the importance of preserving mangroves as a means to protect both people and the environment from rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions as caused by climate change. In line with the goal, on 2 February, the Embassy and the IIC also delivered a seminar by Professor Daniel Murdiyarso, a senior scientist at the Bogor-based Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“Considering that millions of Indonesians live on the coastal area and that their livelihood relies on sea products, mangrove restoration is of utmost importance to be able to adapt to climate change. So, definitely, my message is, ‘Mari menanam mangrove’ [let’s plant mangroves].”

At first, the villagers found her project bizarre. But over time, Zavoli managed to develop trust and acceptance by the communities she frequented. She picked up traditional techniques to catch fish and shrimps and tapped into local wisdom on how to live in harmony with the nature.

The locals of Tapak Village in Semarang, for instance, live by a centuries-old tradition of not cutting down the mangroves; their youth are known for founding a community that educates people about the importance of mangroves. Less than five kilometers from Tapak Village, a local man named Sururi in Mangunharjo Village has spent the past 20 years volunteering to replant mangroves and urging others to join in the cause. So far, his hard work has brought back 500 meters of coastal line to the sea.

One of the most memorable moments Zavoli experienced was a rare astronomical phenomenon called the Blood Moon — a combination of a lunar eclipse with a “supermoon” that makes the moon appear red in colour — which happened on 8 October 2014.

“The pond area was enlightened with a glimmering reddish light. I shot a picture of an old lonely mangrove tree standing up on the bare land, symbolically representing the tension between mankind and nature, a relationship that is lately increasingly dramatic. This is one of my favourite pictures in the Tree of Life,” she said.

Four years into her journey, Zavoli felt compelled to give back to the community. Since last year, she’s been running an eco-tourism program in Sawah Luhur to help locals there integrate their income in the dry season, also known as the most difficult time of the year for pond farming.

“I’ve already taken two groups of friends to visit the village and the pond area. By walking along a very easy trail about 3.5 to 5 kilometers, completely flat, visitors can see and learn the differences between intensive pond farming and sustainable pond farming, the ecosystem of the coastal valley, the importance of mangroves and lives of the fishermen,” she said.

Zavoli’s complete portfolio, which includes pictures taken in her homeland of Italy, as well as Bosnia, Zimbabwe and Algeria, is available on her personal website In Indonesia, she’s touched on a wide variety of subjects – a testament to her deep knowledge about the country. Aside from mangrove preservation, her other collections on Indonesia are “Devil’s Gold” (about gold miners in Lombok and West Sumbawa), “The Velvet Butterfly” (about an Indonesian transgender); “The Music of Emotions” (about Venetian violinist Sara Michieletto and her experience teaching music to impoverished children in Bekasi); and “Jakarta: the Sinking of Megacity” (about the risk of flood in the Indonesian capital).

Tree of Life
Italian Institute of Culture Auditorium
Jl. HOS. Cokroaminoto 117, Menteng, Jakarta, 10310

Monday – Friday 10 AM – 12:30 PM/2 – 4:30 PM;
Saturday 10 AM – 2 PM