Many years ago, I spent time in the south of India documenting the work of a local activist trying to protect and restore mangroves. She worked by mobilizing communities’small-scale fishermen (and the women who take the fish to market), farmers, union leaders, members of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, and even former priests (and maybe a current one as well). Then as now, the mangroves were being cut to make way for “development.” In the Indian state of Kerala, this mostly meant expansion of large-scale shrimp farming in huge, chemical-laden lagoons carved from the mangrove beds.
Sadly, the pace of destruction in many coastal regions of India, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries has only increased since I was in Kerala, along with our appetite for cheap, plentiful shrimp. Mangroves were out of sight, out of mind. Until the devastating 2004 Asian tsunami. After that, the role mangroves play in protecting coastal communities from harsh weather did make it into the world press. Areas where mangroves were intact, experience and studies showed, saw fewer casualties and markedly less damage. Perhaps mangrove trees, slender, tall and vivid green, might get a reprieve after all. To find out more about mangroves and what they do, including for us, check out the Mangrove Action Project.
Belize, in central America, also has large stands of mangroves’at least for now. Their value is accepted fact. In 1961, Hurricane Hattie ravaged Belize; mangroves were protected and still are. On our recent trip there, we saw lots of riverine mangrove forest and in them a boa constrictor, several iguanas, lots of birds and in the river, the shadow of a manatee. Ah, bliss. Until we learned that if a politically well-connected developer wants to build a resort or luxury timeshares for Belize’s northern neighbors seeking warm weather and beach (among them lots of Americans), mangroves will be cleared. Notwithstanding their legal protection. Or their vital “ecosystem services” like holding back ocean tides, wind and both garden-variety storms and mega-hurricanes.
“We can grow trees anywhere but we cannot establish a factory anywhere,” a spokesman for Uganda’s president said recently, commenting on protests over a forest being excised to make way for a sugar company. Those trees aren’t mangroves, but they could be. There’s a madness to our relationship with mangroves. You’ll see them…then you won’t. Instead, there’ll will be shrimp and beachside villas. A maladapted calculus to be sure.