Coastal forests are key to preventing future disasters and restoring life and livelihood around the Indian Ocean
A 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 approached 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."
Restoring 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)
This piece is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
Although not a direct restorative effort, there is a dutch company that harvests shrimp by heating the water tanks with waste heat from the energy plant next door. An obvious benefit is reduced reliance on imported tropical shrimp and the accompanying destructive practices...
Here's an update on the Mangrove Action Project!
Since December 2004 we have continued working to reverse the degradation and loss of mangrove forest ecosystems worldwide. We are especially proud of our Ecological Mangrove Restoration (EMR)program.
Our main goal is to promote the rights of traditional and indigenous coastal peoples, including fishers and farmers, to sustainably manage their coastal environs.
Through our global network and offices in the U.S. (International Office), Thailand (Asia Regional Office), Indonesia, and Latin America, MAP is stimulating the exchange of ideas and information on the conservation and restoration of mangrove forests, while promoting sustainable livelihoods for coastal communities.
Check out our new website: http://www.mangroveactionproject.org