Why everyone should love mangroves

I came across this python last week while paddling through a mangrove forest on an island off northern Indonesia. At that time a tsunami was sweeping across the Pacific in the wake of the devastating Chilean earthquake. In the forest a connection immediately came to mind: the mangroves that fringe shallow tropical seas not only provide a home for creatures like this python but they also protect coastal communities from tidal waves and storms. I was not far from northern shores of Sumatra where the 2004 tsunami, which killed 250,000 people, struck with devastating fury. After the tsunami, satellite pictures showed that the villages which had kept their mangrove forests suffered less damage and loss of life than those that had cut them down.

When you are in a small boat is easy to see why the mangrove forest gives such effective protection. As you paddle into the forest gloom from the bright tropical sunlight, you immediately struggle to find any way through the dense thickets of roots growing up from the shallow water around you. Some spring from the water like the buttresses of medieval cathedrals to support the trunks of big trees, others rise like a set of stilts to carry a cluster of thick vegetation. These forests are full of life and you do really have to watch out for snakes. The python I saw was quite harmless except that it was in a bad temper because it was in the middle of shedding its skin which it finds painful, or so local villagers

After the python finished shedding its skin I went back to collect it. You can see the head and eyes at bottom right.

assured me. The venomous Yellow Banded Mangrove Snake is more dangerous and you’ll often see them asleep in

the branches above you. You’ll also see lizards looking at you from tree stumps, kingfishers flashing by, shy herons taking flight, monkeys progressing noisily though the tree tops and here and there strange earthen mounds rising six feet from the water. These are the homes of mud lobsters which create these mounds as they burrow through the sediment beneath, eating the rich organic matter they find there.
The richness of the wildlife provides one reason for keeping mangrove forests and the protection from tsunamis and storms another. But that is not all: mangrove forests are giant nurseries for fish, their root systems recycle nutrients, and they store huge amounts of carbon.
Still, they have been disappearing at a terrible rate, often cut down to provide space for giant ponds to breed shrimp and prawns that end up on supermarket shelves at rock bottom prices. Indonesia still has more mangrove than any other nation in the world (around 25 per cent of the total) but the loss has been severe –seventy percent of its 19,000 square miles (almost twice the area of Massachusetts) are gone or degraded.
On this trip I am hearing about how the nation is waking up to the value of mangrove forests and many small projects are underway to preserve and replant them. I am more used to writing about the Arctic and the impact of the vanishing ice, but here I’ve come across a theme familiar to me from the far north: how to make sure that the voices of local and indigenous people are heard in managing the environment that they rely on. Travelling in the forest you’ll find small brick kilns used to manufacture charcoal from mangrove wood. On a small scale it’s a sustainable way to provide local cooking fuel. And, of course, villagers rely on the fish and crabs that live and breed in or near the forests for food. So too do the nomadic sea gypsies who live on boats that move around the shallow coastal seas here and rely totally on the sea for a living. They can see most clearly the changes that have been happening as mangroves are destroyed for urban expansion and shrimp farms and the fish vanish. I read this quote from Yang Aseng, an 80-year old sea gypsy, in the New Straits Times which really says it all.

“I was born in a small dugout or pau kajang. I have lived off the sea all my life but I never dreamed that the sea around me would die in my lifetime. What surprised me was not that I have lived to such an old age, which is uncommon among my Orang Seletar tribe, but that the sea could lose its life because of callous acts by humans”

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