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Restoring Mangroves
Emily Gertz, 29 Dec 04

Coastal forests are key to preventing future disasters and restoring life and livelihood around the Indian Ocean

mangrove_aerialview.jpgA half-century ago, if you approached a point on the shore along the rim of Indian Ocean, you probably would have come upon endless acres of mangroves. Swampy rainforests hugging the edges of both land and sea, Indo-Pacific mangroves are storehouses of biodiversity, home to the world's richest variety of salt-tolerant trees, ferns, and shrubs. Hundreds of different birds live in the trees, which also shelter migratory species. Mangroves are rich in sea life - from plankton, to mollusks, to shell and fin fish - and well-populated with crocodiles, monkeys, wild cats, lizards, sea turtles, and more.

Mangroves also insulate coastlines and coastal communities from the abuses of the ocean - erosion, storms, and waves.

Fast forward 50 years: on December 25, 2004, if you approched the shore along the rim of the Indian Ocean, you would have been much more likely to come upon a shrimp farm, urban landfill, or tourist resort than a rainforest. In the past half-century, over half the world's mangroves - estimated to have covered 22 million hectares (54,340,000 acres) of tropical and subtropical coastlines in the middle of the last century - have been lost to development, oil exploration, pollution, inland irrigation, and especially shrimp aquaculture, an export industry frequently underwritten by international development lenders like the World Bank and the Inter-Asian Development Bank.

From Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta to southeastern India's Goadavari-Krishna mangroves, to the Sundarbans mangroves along the India-Bangladesh coast (home to nearly 700 endangered tigers), small pockets of mangroves have hung on, sometimes as protected areas, all highly endangered.

But in this terrible time after the tsunamis, place, environment, ecology and economics have combined to illuminate the simple sense of reforesting the mangroves.


Mangrove destruction may have factored hugely in the loss of human life to the South Asia tsunamis, and mangrove restoration may be key to mitigating future disasters. Jeff McNeely, a World Conservation Union scientist, told ChennaiOnline News on December 28,

What has made this a disaster is that people have started to occupy part of the landscape that they shouldn't have...[F]ifty years ago, the coastline was not as densely occupied as now by tourist hotels...[W]hat has also happened over the last several decades is that many mangroves have been cleared to grow shrimp ponds so that we, here in Europe, can have cheap shrimp.

...When a tsunami comes in, it first hits the coral reef which slows it down, then it hits the mangroves which furthers slow it down. It may get through that but by then a lot of the energy has already been dissipated.

Other press in South Asia have picked up on the mangrove - tsunami connection. "The mangroves in Pitchavaram and Muthupet region acted like a shield and bore the brunt of the tsunami. The impact was mitigated and lives and property of the communities inhabiting the region were saved," wrote G. Venkataramani in The Hindu on December 28. "Although, mangrove forests are themselves victims of the power of tidal waves they help in mitigating much of the damage and loss of lives in such cases, according to biologists," wrote Latha Venkatraman in The Hindu Business Line on December 29, and the Bangkok Press has editorialized,

Fifty years ago, the coastline rimming the Indian Ocean was occupied only by fishermen, not huge tourist hotels and associated attractions. As the tourist facilities mushroomed, and shrimp farms and other such ''developments'' also competed for space, the coral reefs and mangrove forests which provided a natural barrier against heavy seas were cleared away. This is very much the case along Thailand's Andaman coast, especially in Phuket, Phangnga and Krabi _ the provinces hit hardest by the killer tidal waves which struck with such merciless force late on Sunday morning.

... The loss of life and property is a tragedy for those directly affected. It also will take governments days, perhaps even months, before they can account for all those who went missing on Sunday and the extent of the property damage. It will take years to rebuild - if this is considered wise - what was lost or damaged. There is clearly much to be learned from took place on Sunday. It would make no sense at all to embark once again on development patterns that contributed to such heavy losses."

mangrove_srilanka-maduganga.jpgRestoring mangroves is also a matter of economic and social justice, and this region is going to need even more of both as disaster relief moves forward. Britian's Environmental Justice Foundation has documented human rights abuses in the shrimp farming industry. Public Citizen is just one organization that has documented the linked ecological, economic and social costs of mangrove deforestation for shrimp aquaculture:

The relationship between mangroves and other wetlands with coastal fisheries is complex and not precisely understood.  There is, nevertheless, a large and growing body of evidence that many marine species use these habitats as nursery areas and for shelter during early development.  Their loss has been shown to negatively impact coastal fisheries resources and the livelihoods of coastal communities.  Thus, as the removal of mangroves devastates coastal biodiversity, coastal communities are also hurt, economically and socially, as the underpinnings of their society begin to disintegrate. 

As wetland areas are destroyed, coastal communities lose their access to areas that provided small-scale, sustainable economic activities such as fishing, agriculture and the local production of forest-related products.  In areas where limited access is still available, resources have been severely degraded and the limited amounts of available food may pose a potential health risk linked to high levels of pollution and toxic compounds from the shrimp farms. 

Fortunately, the alternatives are out there.

Mangrove Action Project documents sustainable management alternatives already in practice in the region that can both protect mangroves and provide solid livelihoods for the people who live near them. Silvofishery combines mangrove reforestation (or retention) with low-input aquaculture techniques. And Yad Fon's Community Forest Project in southwestern Thailand has successfully pioneered techniques for "community-managed forests" that combine grassroots organizing, democratic decision making, local economic development, micro-lending, and, restoration and protection of mangroves and local fish populations.

Are there other appropriate economic development projects in mangrove zones? Sustainable wood harvest and charcoal production? Products or pharmaceuticals derived (at rates that can be steadily replenished) from rare forest materials? Traditional crafts - or modern reinterpretations? Let us know.

Preservation of human life as well as biodiversity, restoration of a vital ecosystem, and just economic development - clearly interwoven in the wake of a disaster that defies words.

Alex has written of creating an entirely new future along the Indian Ocean rim, of establishing a new measure of success for relief and redevelopment. Based on the evidence, that measure should include restoration of what the region had 50 years ago: a coast lined with healthy, productive, protective mangroves.

(Photos: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration;
Maduganga Mangrove Estuary, southwestern Sri Lanka, from Ramsar Convention on Wetlands)

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Mangrove planting/restoration in Eritrea. It's a different climate (desert on the Red Sea), but interesting:

"Nothing here is wasted. The bricks used to construct our shrimp circles are made here on the farm. So is the food we give our shrimp. Our feed mill also makes feed for chickens, goats, cattle and camels, which is much needed in Eritrea. Wastes from the fish and shrimp help to fertilize our field crops. After the fish are filleted, their skins are tanned for leather and their bones and innards go into the shrimp food. One of our principal field crops, Salicornia, provides a gourmet vegetable from its young shoots. The mature plant provides seeds that produce a fine edible oil and a high protein meal. There is also a large amount of biomass which can be used, along with other seawater-irrigated crops we grow, for animal fodder, particle board, and fire bricks. Combinations of Salicornia straw and meal with fish and shrimp meal provide a complete feeding regimen for most domestic animals and a signifant part of human feed."

Thanks for your work these past few days folks.

Posted by: Bear K on 30 Dec 04

Emily, there have been numerous attempts to put an economic value on mangrove forests, especially in comparison to shrimp farms.

If you do a Google search, you'll find lots of interesting information.

Posted by: praktike on 30 Dec 04

The URL to Alex's article is missing a leading "h" - it's currently "ttp://"

Posted by: Frank Shearar on 30 Dec 04


Thanks for that info and links, Bear and "praktike." This is our toehold on mangroves, ecology and development. It's definitely something I want to keep following.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 30 Dec 04

120,000 dead and all you can do is talk about trees. it makes no sense to me , how we can just keep on being the worlds fixer, when we have starving here at home.
Our own trees are going as the wind blown, mangroves,? i say heal thine self physician

Posted by: Ronnie L. on 30 Dec 04

More here:

Meanwhile, vast mangrove plantations are also being grown in Can Gio in Vietnam's Mekong delta, in Thailand's Ranong area, in Ulugan Bay in the Philippines and India's southern Andhra Pradesh state. The mangroves help filter the fury of the cyclone's winds and water. Andhra Pradesh has also created casuarina plantations along the coast that have proven effective at weakening the force of winds.

Posted by: praktike on 30 Dec 04

how we can just keep on being the worlds fixer, when we have starving here at home. Our own trees are going as the wind blown,

I'm guessing you mean American Trees. (Did you know there are supposed to be mangrove forests around the coast of Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico too? There'd be a lot less hurricane damage if they were all still there ...)

Even if you aren't ready to agree that there is "one world", which is home for everybody, there is no question that there is "one ocean". The diminished water quality from shrimp farms in the far east will eventually make its way to the California coast. So restored mangrove forests all around the tsunami zone are really going to protect California.

That's how "we" can do it. Notice that the contributors to this web site are from all over the world. And, out of the goodness of their hearts, they are trying to save California!

Posted by: pierre on 30 Dec 04

Terrific post, Emily!

Is it possible to re-establish mangrove forests?

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 30 Dec 04

Yes, it's quite possible ecologically, although as yet, there seem to be no reports on the actual impacts of the tsunamis on the mangroves. It may be a situation where deforested coastlines are ecological and humanitarian disasters, and forested coastlines also quite damaged and under incredible stress, between existing pressures like pollution or over-harvesting, and the new humanitarian crisis.

That said, lots of groups and companies are involved already in mangrove restoration, with success stories in different counties, tons of research going on. There is a lot out there for the countries hit by the tsumanis to draw upon.

Could you get back to something as biodiverse as what an Indo-Pacific mangrove would be "naturally?" I imagine it's quite difficult--think about what it would take to return a clearcut in the Pacific Northwest to a "pristine" state. But you could still arrive at something all around better than a clearcut.

As complex as the ecology is, though, probaby it's the politics and economics that are going to be infinitely more difficult to overcome. What's the market value of a mangrove? Nothing much in terms that mean anything to the international aid and development banks, and payments on international debt.

a result from praktike's link to the google search on 'mangroves economic value':

"Humans benefit from relatively undisturbed ecosystems in very many ways - aesthetically, through ecological services such as climate regulation, and by directly harvesting wild species for food, fuel, fibres and pharmaceuticals.

Putting a money value on these benefits is extremely difficult, as many of them do not involve goods and services traded in markets. One study in 1997 put their combined worth at about US$38 trillion a year, roughly equal to the global economy itself. "

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds:

So this is where the worldchanging vision comes in: redevelopment projects probably need to intrinsically encompass mangrove restoration, but to make that happen, common understandings of "market" or "economic" value need to radically redefined.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 30 Dec 04

The Global Environment Centre ( an international NGO based in Malaysia - is starting to undertake an assessment of the linkage of mangroves and Tsunami damage linked to a larger programme on wetlands and climate change. We believe than an assessment of the impact of the tsunami on the mangroves and the role of mangroves in protecting communities from the surge will yield useful information to better predict and prepare fir future events It will also guide preparedness strategies for increased storm activity in the region predicted in relation to climate change.

If anyone has any information that you would like to share with us - please send an email to me:

Posted by: Faizal Parish on 1 Jan 05

And what's more, mangrove areas are simply beautiful! Wonderful roots, greenery, tide pools & little animals. Far more attractive than commercially over developed stretches of lazing tourists.

Posted by: Leje on 3 Jan 05



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