Mangroves have got a bum rap in the past. As early as 1667, an anonymous traveler's account of mangroves read 'Wild boars and other savage beasts live in them...The roots gave off a clicking sound and the odor was disgusting. We felt we were watching something horrible. No one likes mangroves.'
Steinbeck was wrong. The Central American nation of Belize loves its mangroves. "Belize is one of the smallest countries in Central America and yet outside of Mexico, we have the third largest reserve of mangrove in the region." boasts George Hanson, the government mangrove officer for the country. Belize has placed nearly 20% of its mainland mangrove forests within some sort of reserve.
The term "mangrove" refers to a salt tolerant group of plants which dominate the world's tropical and subtropical coastlines. It has only been within the last decade that their importance to the marine environment has been widely accepted by scientists. As recently as the 1970's, a Florida land use survey referred to mangroves as "...freaks of nature...and a form of wasteland...". Today mangroves are recognized as contributing four major functions toward the health of the environment; in soil formation and the stabilization of coastlines, as filters for upland runoff, as habitats for many marine organisms, and as highly productive ecosystems.
There is nothing magical about how mangrove work. Mangrove trees store the energy of the sun and the nutrients in the silt carried by the upland rivers within their leaves. Mangroves produce leaves year around, shedding and growing new leaves on a continual basis. As the leaves fall, the leaf litter provides the foundation for nearby marine and terrestrial food chains. With this huge supply of food, the mangrove swamps are a nursery ground for most sport and commercial fish species. As a result, mangrove based energy and nutrients are exported to surrounding coral reefs and grass beds.
"Mangrove forests also serve as protection for coastal communities against storms such as hurricanes," says Dr. Karen Mckee, a researcher out of Louisiana State University studying the chemistry of the Mangrove communities. It has been suggested that the 500,000 lives lost in the 1970 typhoon in Bangladesh was partly due to the destruction of coastal mangroves for rice paddies.
Despite the mounting evidence for the critical ecological importance of the mangrove community, many people still view them as mud filled swamps, which are better off being filled and developed. Housing, tourism and industrial developments have all had a significant impact on coastal mangroves in Belize since the onset of the accelerated economic growth of the mid 1980's. Much of this development is due to ignorance of the importance of mangrove to the environmental health of the nation.
By far the greatest cause of mangrove clearance to date has been the Government of Belize, sponsoring housing projects around Belize City. This is inevitable as the location of the country's largest population center is at the tip of a mangrove peninsula. Due to increasing awareness of the importance of mangroves, the government is now encouraging development on higher land away from the mangrove. Since 1989, all mangroves in Belize are protected from everything except selective trimming by permit.
"Conservation of mangrove ecosystems depends on the education of Belizean citizens," says Dr. Candy Feller, one of a handful of specialists studying mangrove biology. "They must understand the essential function of mangroves and how it relates to the vitality of their fishing and tourism industries, the integrity of their shoreline, as well as sustenance of their biodiversity."
To address this problem of awareness and education, Dr. Feller along with Belizean counterparts in the Forestry and Fishery Departments, created a mangrove workshop with support from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. "The objective of the workshop is to provide Belizean educators with information and first hand experience in mangrove ecology," explains Marshs Sitnik, the Smithsonian project coordinator.
The initial 8 day workshop brought together a team of experts from around the United States and Belize to explain such topics as the importance of mangroves as a nursery for fishes, management and legislation and the economic value of mangrove communities. Local resource personnel were drawn from a pilot workshop given in 1992. Attendees to the workshop included biology teachers from high schools, educators from the University College of Belize and Belize Technical College, as well as representatives from Government ministries.
"I am able to look at mangroves from a different perspective now," remarked a high school teacher attending the course. "With the information and resources gained from this course, I will be able to explain to my students how important mangroves are to Belize and our future. Hopefully my students will go home and tell their families the same thing". The course provided the students with hand outs, slide shows, and textbooks to take back to use in their own classrooms.
The results have been encouraging. The Government of Belize has given full backing and logistical support to the workshop. Public awareness rose 35% following a single year of the campaign. The program has now become an annual event.
Dr. Feller reports that other countries experiencing mangrove destruction have expressed interest in similar programs. Sitnik and Feller are looking at the possibility of expanding the program to Malaysia. "Belize is really quite fortunate" says Feller, " most of its ecosystems are still intact and healthy. Conservation in Belize means conserving what they have, not restoring what they have lost". Perhaps Steinbeck didn't understand when he called the mangroves something horrible, for often with understanding comes beauty.
Images courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography
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