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Missing mangroves.

On the island of Negros in the Philippine archipelago, Wilson Vailoces has been planting mangrove trees since the early 1980s. His neighbors made fun of him at first. They said the mangroves looked funny, like little trees perched on stilts in the mud and brine. They didn't see any use in his back-breaking labor to revive the murky mangrove swamps that had once lined their tropical coast.

Vailoces, however, was resolute. In his 50 some years, he had watched people cut down the mangroves and dynamite the coral reefs offshore, and he had seen his fish catch fall. For Vailoces, the connection was clear. His livelihood as a fisher depended on the fish spawned in these coastal ecosystems. To restore his fish catch, he had to do something to restore the coastline. He searched out the only remaining patch of mangroves on his island, gathered the trees' finger-length shoots, and took them home to plant.

His commitment paid off, says Don Hinrichsen, an English researcher and writer who has extensively studied coastal ecosystems throughout the world. When Hinrichsen first visited Negros in 1988, Vailoces had established a few acres of young mangroves, which already were teeming with life. Crabs, shrimp, mussels, and other creatures clung to the mangroves' broom-like roots or scuttled below in the mucky soils. The revitalized coastal wetland was restocking Vailoces' fishing grounds, improving his catch.

His efforts were also winning over his neighbors, who no longer made fun of him but instead began to plant mangroves of their own. Together, the community secured a 25-year contract from the Philippine government for the rights to the trees they planted. When Hinrichsen returned to Negros in 1990, he found that the community had doubled the area of its mangroves.

Restoration projects such as Vailoces', however, are rare, says Hinrichsen. More commonly, people destroy mangroves. These forested wetlands once lined about one-quarter of the world's tropical coasts, thriving in the shelter of coral reefs and barrier islands. Now less than half remain, according to a tally from the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute (see table). Less than 20 percent persists in Vailoces' home country, and only half of the remaining stands have never been logged.
Mangrove Loss in Selected
Countries Since Pre-Agricultural
Times

Country Current Area % Lost
 (square miles)

Indonesia 8,194 45
Nigeria 4,758 50
Malaysia 2,851 32
Cameroon 1,895 40
Sierra Leone 1,326 50
Guinea-Bissau 1,229 70
Bangladesh 1,135 73
Mozambique 1,076 60
Tanzania 827 60
Philippines 303 80

Source: World Resources Institute and the U.N. Environment
program, 1990, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science
1992.


Mangroves are disappearing because throughout history people have regarded them as sinister, malarial wastelands. From their travels in the Gulf of California in the 1940s, John Steinbeck and Edward Ricketts reported that the locals avoided these tidal swamps. In Sea of Cortez they wrote: "[In the mangroves] it was like stalking, quiet murder. The roots gave off clicking sounds, and the odor was disgusting. We felt that we were watching something horrible. No one likes the mangroves."

Government officials around the world have tended to feel the same way. They have been happy to support projects that cash in on the seemingly worthless swampland. They have sold extensive tracts of mangroves to logging companies to make paper pulp and chip board, and they have promoted the newly cleared land for coastal development. One of the most common replacements for the trees has been salt water ponds in which people raise shrimp for sale to wholesalers and exporters. Local people also whittle away at the mangroves in their pursuit of clean-burning fuel and pest-proof timber, says Hinrichsen.

Used this way, the value of the mangroves is fleeting. Once the trees are cleared, they don't grow back, and within a few years, shrimp ponds become fouled in their own wastes, leaving the land useless and barren - true wasteland. Timber companies, shrimp farmers, and local people then set their sights on untouched mangrove stands, continuing the cycle of destruction.

Wilson Vailoces is one of a relatively small but growing number of people who think mangrove destruction is short-sighted. He is joined by researchers such as Hinrichsen, who point to the many services mangrove swamps perform. They are highly productive ecosystems that can provide food and wood on a sustainable basis for local communities if well managed. The trees stabilize the coastline and provide a self-repairing barrier against the sea during storms. In Bangladesh, death tolls from coastal storms would likely be much lower if the Bangladeshis had not converted large expanses of mangroves into rice paddies. Mangroves are also home to a unique set of plants and animals, including tigers and eagles, some of which are becoming rare.

Government officials, however, have been reluctant to put an end to further development of their mangroves. Indonesia, which has the most mangrove forest land of any country, is ambivalent about its natural riches. One government policy declares that a 660-foot-wide swath of mangroves should be maintained along the country's coasts, yet the government actively promotes the leveling of mangroves to make room for shrimp ponds as part of its economic development plans. The Philippine government has begrudgingly pledged to protect about half of its remaining mangroves "to satisfy ecologists."

Even in regions with laws against destroying mangroves, governments have had little success in protecting this coastal ecosystem. Mangroves in Thailand's Wen River National Forest Reserve are protected under national law, but midnight raiders bulldoze clearings for shrimp ponds under cover of night. The culprits go unprosecuted because of the wealth and power of the country's aquaculture industry.

Vailoces and his neighbors have faced similar problems, despite their lease on the replanted mangroves. When the trees were small, poachers tried to steal them to replant elsewhere. When the trees matured, poachers tried to cut them down for timber and fuel. The desperation for mangrove wood and land is compounded by steady migration to the Philippine coasts, which already have a high population density. To protect their trees, Vailoces and his neighbors have had to stand watch at night.

This year, Hinrichsen will return to Negros to see whether Wilson Vailoces' determination is still paying off. Judging from the forces that have led to their eradication, the only hope for Vailoces' - and the world's - mangroves is that more people see beyond the funny looking trees and the fast money they represent, and help restore and protect these ecosystems, as Vailoces' neighbors did.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:need protect mangroves to support the ecosystem
Author:Weber, Peter
Publication:World Watch
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:1085
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