Mangroves under Threat

There once was a beautiful tropical island afloat in the pale blue waters of the Caribbean called Bimini, immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in his well-known novel “Islands in the Stream.” Luxuriant coral reefs and mangroves provided safe refuge for bountiful marine life including a myriad of fish, sharks, sea turtles and sea birds. Its quiet beaches and laid-back residents lent Bimini a special flavour of a place where sports fishermen such as Hemingway went to catch marlin and bonefish. Then everything changed as industrial-style tourism had come to Bimini.

The island is now replete with five-star hotels, condos, restaurants, golf courses and marinas, all meant to attract the wealthy tourists. Large swaths of mangroves were cleared, shorelines extended by using land fill, threatening corals and sea grasses, marine life and a way of life for the local people.

For more than 20 years the Bahamas government has pledged to turn large parts of Bimini into a Marine Protected Area. To its shame, it has failed to act on its promises. This is rather typical of the multi-national corporate/mangrove/government conflict which all too often plays itself out in the Caribbean.

Mangroves – victims of “development”

In South and South-East Asia, tourism again has left its indelible mark upon the coastal areas, endangering life and livelihood for millions of coastal residents. Extensive clearing of mangroves to build seaside resorts and restaurants, marinas and golf courses left many coastal areas barren and vulnerable to the ravages of nature, such as cyclones and storm surges. The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 should have provided proof enough for the owners of resorts, restaurants, bars or shops to move further back from the coast, restore the mangroves that they had earlier cleared and recreate that more protective living buffer that mangroves provided. However, soon after the tsunami, the same resort owners that should have known better rebuilt their businesses within the same red danger zone, simply because it was easier and less costly to do so, whereby again immediate gratification of easy profits outweighed long-term risks from future and expected natural disasters.

Worldwide, industrial-style tourism has taken a heavy toll. Lack of effective local government regulation spurred on by graft and collusion feed the industrial tourism machine, allowing uncontrolled tourism development, irreversibly affecting the environments, the wildlife and local communities.

Back in the early 1990s, mangroves were seen as useless, smelly, muddy, mosquito infested swamplands. At that time few people in the global North knew much about mangroves, and fewer cared about these intertidal forests that were remote and for most inaccessible. Mangroves lacked formal protection and were being rapidly lost to development from shrimp farming, tourism, and urban and agricultural expansion. Though mangroves were lauded for their services as marine nurseries and for their varied uses as local fuel wood, building materials and for charcoal production, mangroves valuations early on were as low as USD 780 per ha, much less than the commercial values attributed to shrimp farming or tourism at the time.

Coastal protection and disaster prevention

It wasn’t till the terrible devastation inflicted by the tsunami of 2004 that mangroves jumped a huge notch in value as Nature’s bio-shields or living coastal buffers against tsunamis. After the tsunami, economists and ecologists started affixing a higher monetary value to mangroves, surpassing other competing uses by thousands of dollars. One might say that the tsunami was a wake up call for all of us as to the immense value these forests have for our sub-tropical and tropical coastal areas, e.g. in lessening the effect of hurricane winds and storm waves.

Valuable carbon sinks

Then around eight years ago mangroves again moved upscale in importance because of their value in combating climate change. The mangroves remove carbon from the atmosphere and fix it in the mangrove soils, where it can remain securely stored for millennia. Unlike terrestrial forests, marine ecosystems are constantly building carbon sinks, storing large amounts of so-called “blue carbon” in highly organic sediments. Estimates are that mangroves account for 15 percent of the total carbon accumulating in present day marine sediments. Highly productive systems, they take up vast quantities of carbon each day and store up to five to ten times more carbon per unit area than tropical rainforests.

Conserving and restoring mangrove forests would deliver significant benefits in reducing greenhouse gases, improving food security and livelihoods of coastal communities, increasing resilience in the face of sea level rise and extreme weather events, and improving habitat for many vulnerable species along extremely biodiverse tropical coastlines. Towards this end, Mangrove Action Project (MAP) has for the last 25 years been working to raise public awareness, educate the next generation of decision makers, and help communities restore mangroves.

Eco-tourism to protect mangroves

Following the lead of community-based eco-tourism programmes developed in recent years in the Cayman Islands, in San Andres and Cartagena in Colombia, and in Suriname, the MAP “Marvellous Mangroves programme” is teaching eco-tour guides in understanding the true value of mangrove ecosystems through hands-on explorations. Sensibility and sensitivity in eco-tourism will ensure a future for the areas where tourism takes place, ensuring the future for the mangrove ecosystems and those benefiting from tourism.

Alfredo Quarto is the international Program Director, Martin Keeley, international Education Director of Mangrove Action Project (MAP).

Further information:

First published by tourism watch.

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