Known as “rainforests by the sea,” mangrove forests not only help provide indigenous populations with food, fuel and building material, they also create critical “buffer zones” between the land and the sea that limit loss of life and habitats during tropical storms. Once covering over 32 million hectares along tropical and subtropical coastlines around the world -- about the size of 70 million football fields -- mangroves now occupy less than half that area.
13.7 Billion Years asked Alfredo some questions to find out what happened and what he’s doing to save these little-known but very important plants.
How did you make the change from being an aeronautical engineer to activist?
I was actually working as a volunteer for Greenpeace in Seattle at the same time I worked for Boeing. When I saw an opportunity to work for Greenpeace on assignment in Japan in 1980, I quit Boeing to become a full-time activist.
That must’ve been quite a pay cut!
Greenpeace paid me seven dollars a day -- a far cry from my engineering pay, but I love Japanese food! And the people there were friendly. I was enriched in spirit by the experience.
How were you first introduced to mangroves?
I found out that activism is quite wearing on one’s private life and finances. I needed a break, and I decided to start a new career in photojournalism. I became involved in mangrove issues in 1992, while on a photojournalist assignment for an article in Cultural Survival Quarterly. My second writing effort for the journal, “Fishers Among the Mangroves,” paid me two free copies of their magazine, which I still have.
Why did you start the Mangrove Action Project?
I discovered that the single issue of mangrove destruction as a result of shrimp farming contained components of several issues I had been involved with in the past: indigenous communities, endangered species, marine ecology and human rights violations. It just seemed quite appropriate and timely to start up the Mangrove Action Project. Thankfully, we have received a lot of moral support for our network from around the world.
What exactly is a mangrove?
Mangroves are taxonomically diverse, salt-tolerant trees and other plant species, which thrive in inter-tidal zones of sheltered tropical and subtropical shores. They have special roots and leaves that enable them to live in salty wetlands where other plants cannot survive.
Mangroves at Emerson Point Park, Palmetto, Florida (courtesy of rusty one)
How long have they been around and where do they live?
The earliest mangrove species originated around Indonesia and Malaysia. Some of these early species spread westward on ocean currents, to India and East Africa, and eastward to the Americas, arriving in Central and South America between 66 and 23 million years ago. During that time, they spread throughout the Caribbean Sea across an open seaway which once existed where Panama lies today. Later, sea currents may have carried mangrove seeds to the western coast of Africa and as far south as New Zealand. Four species of mangroves exist along portions of the coasts of the southern United States.
Why are mangroves good for the environment?
They give stability to coastlines, providing protection from erosion. Vital coral reefs and sea grass beds are also protected from damaging siltation or land-borne pollutants. Mangroves have also been useful in treating effluent, as they absorb excess nitrates and phosphates, preventing the contamination of near-shore waters. And, with a capacity to sequester large amounts of carbon from the air and store immense quantities of carbon in their soils, mangroves help reduce the effects of global warming.
Mangrove coastline, North Island, New Zealand (courtesy of Carmelo Aquilina)
Do animals benefit from healthy mangrove forests?
Mangroves are prime nesting and migratory sites for hundreds of bird species. Over 500 species of birds have been recorded in mangrove areas in Belize alone. Shallow mangrove wetlands offer refuge and nursery grounds for juvenile fish, crabs, shrimps and mollusks. Sea turtles, manatees, crab-eating monkeys, fishing cats, monitor lizards and mud-skipper fish all use the mangrove wetlands for their survival. Even the detritus from mangroves -- mainly fallen leaves and branches -- provide vital nutrients for the marine environment and support immense varieties of sea life in intricate food. So mangroves are very important to healthy coastal ecosystems, from microscopic planktonic algae all the way up the food chain.
Proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus), Malaysia (courtesy of micrognostic)
How do coastal communities use mangroves?
Mangrove wetlands have been likened to supermarkets for the local communities, where people can find everything they might need for their everyday lives. Traditionally, mangrove ecosystems have been sustainably managed by local populations for the production of food such as fish, crabs, shellfish and shrimp, as well as tannins for fishing nets, dyes for cloth, wood for fuel and building material, feed for livestock and various medicines. For millions of indigenous coastal residents, mangrove forests offer dependable, basic livelihoods and sustain their traditional cultures.
What is the mangrove “buffer zone”?
Mangrove forests literally live in two worlds at once, creating “buffer zones” between land and sea. This barrier helps minimize damage of property and losses of life from tsunamis, hurricanes and storms. In regions where these coastal fringe forests have been cleared, tremendous problems of erosion have arisen, and sometimes terrible losses to human life and property have occurred due to destructive storms.
When was the first time people knew that mangroves created these buffer zones?
Tropical and sub-tropical indigenous coastal peoples knew about this attribute of mangroves as a buffer zone against storm surges and cyclone winds perhaps thousands of years ago.
It seems that the Cyclone Nargis that hit Myanmar in May made a lot of people aware of mangrove deforestation for the first time.
It took a tsunami, several cyclones or hurricanes and massive losses of lives and livelihoods to awaken a sleeping public to the overall effect of mangrove loss and degradation.
What are the reasons for mangrove deforestation?
Mangrove forests are naturally resilient and have withstood severe storms and changing tides for many millennia, but they are now being devastated by modern encroachments. The rapidly expanding shrimp aquaculture industry poses one of the gravest threats to the world’s remaining mangroves. Literally thousands of hectares of lush mangrove forests have been cleared to make room for the artificial shrimp ponds of this boom and bust industry. This highly volatile enterprise has grown exponentially over the last 25 years, leaving devastating ruin in its wake. The charcoal and timber industries have also severely impacted mangrove forests, as well as tourism and other coastal developments. Additionally, lenticels -- the porous spots on the exposed portions of mangrove roots -- are highly susceptible to clogging by crude oil and other pollutants, attacks by parasites and prolonged flooding from artificial dikes or causeways. Over time, environmental stress can kill large numbers of mangrove trees.
Of all these reasons, would you say that the shrimp industry is the biggest culprit?
Globally, up to thirty percent of recent mangrove destruction has been due to clearing for shrimp farms. Industrial shrimp aquaculture development is responsible for much of the mangrove destruction over the past two decades. High consumer demand for cheap shrimp in Japan, US and the EU has been the driving force behind this rapidly accelerating industry.
What is the current status of mangrove loss?
Today, mangrove forests are among the most threatened habitats in the world -- disappearing at an annual rate of one or two percent, yet with little public notice. The actual amount of mangrove forest destruction is alarming. Thailand has lost more than half of its mangrove forests since 1960. In the Philippines, mangroves have declined from almost 450,000 hectares in the 1920s to only a little over 100,000 hectares in 1990. In Ecuador, estimates of mangrove loss range from 20% percent to nearly one half of Ecuador’s once 362,000 hectares of mangrove-forested coastline. The Muisne region of Ecuador alone has lost nearly 90% percent of its mangroves.
Is there a way to protect mangrove forests and also have human coastal development?
Yes, there is a way to both manage the mangrove forest areas for sustainable use, while also conserving the resources of the mangroves to ensure a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem for future generations to enjoy and benefit from. In Thailand, for instance, MAP is working with a couple of great non-governmental organizations that are promoting community-based tourism. The Thailand Community Based Tourism Institute and Andaman Discoveries are both successfully combining eco-tourism with conservation and restoration, effectively involving local community members in the process, so that the local communities both learn from and co-manage the projects.
Outside of eco-tourism, are there other market-driven solutions for conservation?
Other kinds of market-driven solutions can work if they do not involve compromises with industry that negate the conservation effectiveness in the process. Today, there are many market-driven schemes involving certification of shrimp, for instance, that are not adequate for conserving mangrove ecosystem functions, nor are adequate for protecting the basic rights to livelihood of the indigenous and local coastal communities. Yet these flawed certification schemes are proliferating today, confusing the consumer public, while allowing further coastal degradation and social ills to flourish in the wake of industry profits.
In poor countries where mangroves exist, cutting them down for land development can create jobs and boost economies. How do you explain to someone who needs a job that it’s better to keep the mangroves and not build a golf course or a shrimp farm?
Mangroves are worth much more than the value of private enterprise, especially in the long term. There are several revealing evaluations comparing the worth of mangroves to the profits earned by developments, such as shrimp farming. In the end, conserving healthy mangrove wetlands pays much higher dividends.
How does mangrove deforestation affect people who don’t live near tropical or sub-tropical coastlines?
Well, since mangroves play an important role in combating climate change by sequestering carbon from the air and holding carbon in storage beneath their roots, their survival is important for all of us. Also, the wild commercial fisheries are enhanced by healthy mangroves, with a noticeable drop in fisheries production with mangrove loss. Plus, there are potential healing medicines to fight HIV and other human ailments that can be extracted from mangrove bark, leaves or roots. Also, for bird enthusiasts. mangroves are vital stop-over sites for migratory birds which rest and feed in the mangrove wetlands during their long migrations North or South.
What can people do to help keep mangrove forests healthy?
If people in the United States would reduce their consumption of shrimp, this would help greatly in protecting the mangroves and related coastal wetlands. Also, put pressure on the tourism industry to not develop coastal mangrove areas for mass tourism and golf courses. People can also help support the global grassroots movements that are aiming to conserve mangroves and promote the rights and abilities of indigenous and local communities to manage and conserve their mangrove forest resources. And of course, people can also become supporting members of MAP. An informed public is an effective watchdog against ecological dangers.
What are some of the problems facing current mangrove reforestation initiatives?
Major restoration efforts that have both preceded and followed the tsunami of 2004 have been large-scale failures because of a lack of ecological finesse in the attempted restoration process. According to MAP’s chief technical advisor, Robin Lewis, so-called “restoration” has more often actually been afforestation, whereby mangrove seedlings were planted in inappropriate areas, including in sea grass beds, mud flats and salt flats, with little chance for survival, and usually with little follow-up monitoring and evaluation to properly assess the “restoration” process. “Success” of past mangrove planting projects is often shallowly defined in terms of number of seedlings planted, with little regard to the status of these mass plantings after the fact. If one plants 300,000 seedlings, as occurred in Banda Aceh after the tsunami, and all of these are soon destroyed by wave action and floating debris, then this is a dismal failure. Even if the original planting attempt was impressive in scale, the results must be judged by the survival rates experienced over a prolonged time span of 10 years or more after the fact.
Do governments share any of the blame?
Until recently, mangrove forests have been classified by many governments and industries as wastelands or useless, mosquito-infested swamps. This erroneous designation has made it easier to exploit mangrove forests as cheap and unprotected sources of land and water for shrimp farming. The Mexican government is selling the mangrove areas for around $1,000 per hectare, though a study by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, found that over a 30-year-period, mangroves should be valued at more than $600,000 per hectare.
So are some governments making progress?
Overall, steps have been and still are being taken to pass legislation and issue guidelines for managing and conserving mangroves. However, a general lack of commitment to effective enforcement and prosecution of offenders is problematic, and mangrove loss continues, often unabated.
Should local communities play a larger role in mangrove conservation and reforestation?
Definitely. Local community rights should be strengthened. Indigenous people should be able to both manage and conserve mangrove areas because these communities are 24/7 on the scene and in the vicinity of any violations. They can better monitor and prevent violations of the laws protecting mangroves.
Has mangrove reforestation received any major funding?
In the early 1990s, a $30 million World Bank loan was issued to undertake a five-year mangrove restoration effort along Thailand’s coasts. However, the program required a certain number of hectares to be planted per year, and this loan stipulation led to some Thai officials in charge of the restoration to authorize plantings in sea grass beds, mud flats and salt flats. They even allowed clear-cutting of healthy mangrove forests just to replant them with seedlings to meet their annual acreage quota. Needless to say, the bulk of that $30 million and the massive manpower that went into the hand planting were wasted, and more harm than good was caused in certain instances when healthy inter-tidal ecosystems were converted into unhealthy and failing mangrove plantations.
Mangrove nursery, Mazatlan, Mexico (courtesy of Mirandala)
What can be done to prevent these massive failures?
There is that wise adage that those who do not learn the lessons of history are bound to repeat its mistakes. This definitely applies to past and present attempts to restore mangroves. What is needed is a more scientific and ecological approach to mangrove restoration that involves planting the right species in the right locations.
What is MAP doing to help people, politicians and conservationists move mangrove conservation forward in a constructive way?
We are active on many fronts, but with only a small staff and volunteers, we are quite challenged. MAP is carrying forward a five-pronged approach, including networking, advocacy, conservation and restoration, education and sustainable community development.
Are there efforts to educate children about this issue?
Mangroves still need a tremendous boost in awareness-raising concerning their importance and relevance to healthy coastal ecosystems. With this tremendous challenge comes opportunity to reach the future generations and educate them about the importance of mangroves. This education component is urgently needed, and towards this end, MAP has developed a 300-page Mangrove Curriculum for the primary schools in the global South. The curriculum is now being introduced into schools in the Caribbean, South America and Asia. Also, MAP has run a Children’s Mangrove Art Competition whose winners from 12 nations have their art works published in our annual calendar. The 2009 Children’s Art Calendar is now at the printer, and will soon be available for purchase.
What about informing consumers?
MAP has launched a consumer awareness and markets campaign, “Shrimp Less, Think More,” which aims to reduce consumer demand for shrimp in the United States, thus reducing destructive expansion of the shrimp industry into more mangrove areas. The campaign is active throughout the West Coast from Seattle to San Francisco. If we as conscientious planetary citizens reduce our consumption of shrimp, we can put some brakes an otherwise runaway shrimp farm industry.
Are you involved in any restoration projects?
We are promoting the Ecological Mangrove Restoration (EMR) method, developed by Robin Lewis, which involves understanding both the individual species and the community ecology, adequate monitoring of replanting progress, resolving land ownership and use issues. Reaching far beyond just planting of seedlings, MAP’s EMR program, which restores natural water flows, greatly increases the overall success rate for restoring large areas of degraded mangrove forests. The method is also cost-effective and produces a more biodiverse restoration with long-term results. A program for monitoring and evaluation of restored sites is built into the EMR process with a 5-10 year plan to ensure success of the endeavor over the longer term. Active MAP EMR projects are now in progress in Asia and in Florida.
Have you seen success with the EMR method?
It has proven extremely successful in past endeavors, such as in West Lake, Florida, and is being attempted on a small-scale basis in India, Indonesia and Thailand.
Can political tools like trade embargoes help mangrove conservation?
Yes, but with the WTO overruling countries’ rights to set limits to outside development pressures, this can limit the effectiveness and political will to conserve resources. Also, business interests and money can too often corrupt and persuade politicians to turn a blind eye to violations. In many nations in the global South, political and military figures are often themselves investors in the destructive development ventures, thus creating a classic case of conflict of interest.
Science attempts to understand reality. Activism attempts to change current conventions. Should the two meet, and if so, where? Can science or activism hurt the other's goals?
Science and activism must meet and find a common language of sorts to help solve the problems of today, so that we will have a tomorrow. Activism can become an effective bridge to allow the findings of science to cross over to a larger public. Non-governmental organizations can be the liaisons between the scientists and the local communities, allowing a more expedient way to disseminate the solutions that science may uncover. But modern science must also respect and incorporate the traditional wisdom of indigenous and local communities, realizing that their truth and traditional wisdom can complement, not hinder, those scientists seeking truth. Science and activism can hurt each other if either attempts to ignore the truth and importance of the other.
The MAP Web site states that your organization believes “in the laws of physics, which state that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” How does that translate to human development on one side and conservation on the other side?
If human development ignores the necessity for conservation and sustainability for the present, the results will be a wasted planet and unstable human civilization for the future. Human development must go hand in hand with the principles of conservation in order to thrive and survive.
With the oil crisis, the food crisis, the water crisis, surging, population growth and climate change, it seems difficult for different countries to agree and create a unified, international plan to solve problems that affect us all, either directly or indirectly. What do you think is the biggest problem facing humanity today? Are all these issues connected?
Yes, these issues are all connected in a web of mismanagement and shortsightedness with a mad dash of greed on the side. The industrialization and privatization of our common resource base, including those resources we obtain from agriculture, fisheries and forestry, have sacked our global economy and the legacy for our children is being drained away. Without immediate remedial action, we may have set in motion the ruin of our planet’s health and vitality. So-called “free trade” is really opening up doors for those with the means to obtain more means, while those already poor must face impoverishment of their livelihoods and cultures.
Raw shrimp (courtesy of cobalt123)
What would you say to someone who loves to eat shrimp?
You must choose between the immediate gratification for your desire for shrimp and the longer-term need for a healthy planet. What legacy you leave your children and your children’s children depends upon your actions today. Would you rather choose a legacy of rotten shrimp carapaces piled high to the sky, or one of careful planning and respect for the planet we share with so many other creatures. If you must eat shrimp, please follow the advice of our “Shrimp Less, Think More” campaign, and eat only shrimp caught or produced in the United States or Canada. These shrimp are caught or raised with much more effective regulations in place and improvements being made, whereas imported shrimp from the global South too often carries with it the terrible burden of social injustice and ecological ruin. When you are enticed by the ads of Red Lobster or Skippers with “All the Shrimp You Can Eat” buffets, ask yourself, knowing the issues, “How much shrimp can you stomach?”
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
MAP is short on funds but rich in energy and spirit. Nevertheless, we are seeking more funding to continue the work ahead. In 10 years, I’d like to be struggling less and accomplishing much more with a small full-time staff, small manageable offices in Seattle, Asia, Latin America and Africa, and some wonderful volunteers, who are accomplishing great things together!
- For more information about Alfredo Quarto and the Mangrove Action Project, and to sign up for the MAP newsletter, click here.
- To read Alfredo’s article “Fishers Among the Mangroves,” click here.
- Experts Say No to Wetland Development (July 28, 2008)
- Replanting Mangroves to Save Lives (July 24, 2008)
- Mangrove Activists Ask Consumers to Eat Less Shrimp (June 19, 2008)
- On Myanmar, Mangroves and Shrimp (May 9, 2008)
- The Shrimp Effect: Does Eating Shrimp in Canada Kill People in Myanmar? (May 8, 2008)
- Absence of Mangroves Proved Fatal During Myanmar Cyclone (May 8, 2008)