The Humble Coastal Tree That Could Save Us All
Now, before I launch into this diatribe I have a confession to make; I have never liked mangrove forests or mangrove trees in general. From afar they look fabulous but get up close and personal and, once inside that forest is a bit like stepping into one of those awful places one sees in fantasy movies. !
Mangroves are coastal trees and grow in muddy soil or, lets call a spade a spade, they grow in swamps and, when the tide is out, the mud that makes up the swamp’s floor smells somewhat dank, in keeping with its gloomy surrounds. If that wasn’t enough, every mangrove forest I have been in is mosquito central and, if one is not wearing six gallons of repellent, a full body suit and a bee – keepers outfit these little bastards will drain all of your blood before you can even utter the word mangrove.
However, I have lately discovered that for all of these years I’ve been giving the humble mangrove rather a bad rap for, as it turns out, these hardy trees are vital to our very existence.
I read a fascinating piece by Erin Craig recently that changed my attitude and has made me realize that without these trees I might just have to invest in a set of robust floaties or even a rubber raft.
Mangroves it seems are the climate superheroes of the arboreal world. They grow in swamps along the coasts: thin trunks and tangled, spidery roots submerged in dark, briny water. The roots filter saltwater and can expand and protect eroded coastlines. These hardy trees create natural storm barriers and protect agricultural land from saltwater infiltration. And on top of everything else, mangroves are atmospheric, giant vacuum cleaners, pulling in unparalleled amounts of carbon dioxide from the air.
“The organic carbon stocks stored in mangrove ecosystems are three to five times larger than other forest types,” confirmed Sigit Sasmito, a researcher with the Center for International Forestry Research and Charles Darwin University in Australia”
Here in Bali we also have Mangrove palms, also called Nipa palms, which are a unique part of the mangrove biosphere: they are the only palms that have adapted to salty coastal waters. While not as effective as regular mangrove trees, mangrove palms are still efficient carbon-dioxide filters and protect the shoreline from storm damage and erosion. Their feathery, fronded tops rise high above the water, creating a dense forest where locals make a living from their catches of small fish and squid.
Now the reason I am talking about trees today (not a subject I am well versed in and in fact with this article I am perhaps walking on thin ice) is that Mangroves at the moment are rather a hot topic here on the island of Bali. Any visitor travelling to and from the airport will see massive signs bearing the words “tolok reklamasi’ which translated means, deny the reclamation.
Seems that one of Indonesia’s largest developers in conjunction with a Chinese consortium are hell bent on clearing a huge swathe of mangrove forests in order to build yet another five star resort and a golf course for the up market punters.
The Balinese, usually the most non – confrontational people on the planet, have decided that enough is enough and basically taken up arms to fight the developers all the way to the highest court in the land to block this development. However, Indonesia being Indonesia money it seems speaks very loudly and it looks like the development will get signed off pretty soon. This is a typical case of short- term gain for long term pain.
This is not a phenomenal confined to Bali or Indonesia as the clearing of these trees is happening all over Asia. Vietnam for instance has lost more than half its mangrove forests since the 1940s, largely to aqua farming and urban development. It’s the eternal conundrum of environmentalism in developing economies: eat now or breathe later?
Clearing land for shrimp farms might be beneficial in the short term, but intact forests are hugely profitable to the fishing industry at large: by keeping salinity levels in check, mangrove forests promote tremendous biodiversity, which means more kinds of fish to catch.
Some of the doomsday predictions are that if these forests continued to be cleared at their current rate, the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s breadbasket and one of the world’s most prolific rice-growing areas will be underwater by 2100! Not only that 35% of Ho Chi Minh, (Vietnam’s second largest city) will suffer the same fate.
I have restricted my reading on this subject to S.E. Asia but I am sure, in fact I know that this mindless clearing of mangroves is happening in most of the tropical and sub- tropical areas around the globe.
I wish I had an answer or a solution but sadly I don’t but I will continue to ponder on this subject while I take my swimming lessons.
My heartfelt thanks to Erin Craig whose stats I studiously pinched for this piece.
Paul v Walters is the best selling author of five novels and when not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he scribbles for several international travel and vox pop journals.