August 19, 2016

The Mangrove Forests: the Sentinels of Our Coastline

The mangrove forests are nature’s gift to protect the coastal areas, especially where the river deltas exist. Without them the coastline would retract as the seas would erode them away. Lack of mangrove forests to guard the coastal fronts could give rise to devastating damages in the coastal areas, due to extraordinarily high waves instigated by storms or tsunamis that could inflict extensive devastations.
The 2004 tsunami was the worst ever to hit the Indian Ocean area in modern history. Many countries, even as far away as the east coast of Africa, were affected, though the extents of damage varied. It is only natural that places further away from the epicenter suffered lesser damage than the closer ones. However, the fact that in Sri Lanka, some places suffered more than the others although they are almost equidistant from the epicenter was noteworthy. Those places that were spared severe damages and fatalities were found to have dense mangrove forests on their shorelines to guard them while those, which were hardest hit, lacked that endowment. This was evident from the fact that in one village that had an intact mangrove forest along its coast suffered only two deaths and damages to properties were minimal. Whereas, in the other village where there was no mangrove forest, the death toll was up to six thousand and the extent of damage to properties was overwhelming. This experience of Sri Lanka proved beyond any doubt that the mangrove forests are of vital importance to safeguard the coastal regions.

Mangrove forest thriving on delta’s islands in Myanmar.
Mangrove forest thriving on delta’s islands in Myanmar.

The mangroves are evergreen trees that are found in more than 120 tropical and sub-tropical countries. They are able to grow in seawater. Their strong stilt-like root systems allow them to thrive in swamps, deltas and coastal areas. These root systems act like shoring that support the trees, making them sturdy and withstand very strong waves and wind, rendering them as in-penetrateable barriers. The stilt-like root system also served as nurseries for various species of fish and shell fish, such as shrimps, prawns and crabs that go on to populate the surrounding seas. Healthy fish populations, sustained by healthy mangrove forests had provided lively-hoods and foods for millions of small scale fishermen and their families for generations.
The mangroves can sequester the carbon from the atmosphere more efficiently than other kinds of tree and thus play important roles in reducing carbon emissions, which are the main instigators of global warming and climate changes. Apart from protecting the coastal areas and providing foods and lively-hoods for communities on the coastal areas, the mangrove forests are bio-diverse and thus they should be conserved at all cost. Sri Lanka had been earnestly rehabilitating the mangrove forests and has become the first country in the world to implement such project on the country-wide scale.
In Myanmar, the mangrove forests are found in the Ayeyawady Delta, some places in the Rakhine and in the Taninthayi areas. It is learnt from some reports and research papers that more than fifty per cent of the mangrove forests, world-wide had been destroyed during the last century and our country is no exception. According to the reports and the research papers by the NGOs and other foreign institutions, the mangrove forests in our country had been reduced by 64.2 per cent during the past three to four decades. Some reports blamed the depletion of the mangrove forests on the concessions granted for paddy growing.
However, my opinion is they were being abused in numerous ways for decades since our Independence. The mangroves from the delta were being felled for the purpose of selling them as timber or fire wood. The bulk of those woods were shipped to Yangon until some years ago. The clandestine charcoal kilns that once dotted the mangrove forests were also consumers of the mangrove wood. In the old days, boats laden with fire woods, logs or charcoal baskets were common sights along the waterways all over the delta region and especially in the Twantay canal, headed for Yangon. The salt pans and shrimp or fish farms are also responsible to certain extents for causing the mangrove forest shrinkages. This I know for sure, as I had seen them with my own eyes, some forty years ago, in the lower Ayeyawady Delta. In those days I had traversed that area from east to west and vice versa with a ship that I commanded. As required by the nature of my duty, I had to pass, criss-crossing, the labyrinth of narrow creeks, streams and estuaries through dense mangrove forests. During such trips, I had observed clearings in some places in the forest where they were used for evaporating the sea water to produce salt and a few abandoned paddy fields. Also on many occasions I had seen charcoal kilns with smoke bellowing out of their stacks with nobody in sight, as they must be hiding on hearing the roaring engine sounds of my ship. Those places were very remote and as there were still insurgents in some areas, the concerned authorities might have difficulties going into those forest areas to check. However, in those days there were no shrimp or fish farming in those areas and the practice was not widespread as yet.
In those days, I had been to very remote places inside the mangrove forests. The mangroves were still intact in many places and in such places we could not see more than a few yards through the thick forest on both sides of the narrow streams that were barely a few feet wider than the width of our ship. As far as I can remember, the areas around the river mouths below Dedaye, Pyapon, Bogale, Mawgyun, Labutta and Ngaputaw were covered with dense mangroves. The mangroves were so thick that in some places they provided safe havens for smugglers, who were rampant in those days. The most notorious place was on the Mingyikyun, close to the sea, where the smuggling boats returning from the neighbouring countries used to rendezvous with their accomplices to off-load their contraband goods. Sometimes, even fishing boats from a neighbouring country entered those areas to load fishes and shrimps that the local fishermen sold them. The dense mangrove forests provided the perpetrators good opportunities to conduct illegal trades unnoticed, as the authorities had no control of those areas at all times, because of the difficulty of access. These were the conditions of the mangrove forests that I remembered from those days.
However, after I came across an article that mentioned the alarming rate at which, our mangrove forests are being depleted I was compelled to learn more, as those places used to be my old stomping grounds. Thus I made a quick research of my own. It may not be comprehensive as it was not done in the field but on the Internet.

“The success of any conservation project depends on their awareness of the importance and necessity of the mangroves”

What I did was, to download a satellite map of the Lower Ayeyawady Delta and some research papers and reports related with mangroves. To my dismay, apart from the Meinmahlakyun, a protected reserved forest and a wildlife sanctuary, other places where there used to be dense mangrove forests are now almost barren. I also noticed many salt pans, shrimp and fish farms and large clearings devoid of mangroves that used to cover those areas in the past, close to the sea shores. I assumed those large tracts of clearings to be abandoned paddy fields, because due to their proximity to the sea there could be high rate of salinity in the soil and the paddies could not prosper well in those areas. Thus, the yields would not be good enough to justify the hard labour that the farmers had to invest. I had seen such abandoned paddy fields in the areas south of Kyauktan in the Yangon Region close to the sea, while we were volunteering to help the farmers to harvest their crops, in 1980.
In the old days, places like Amar, Kadonkani and Ayer, just below the Meinmahlakyun were bestowed with lush green mangroves. Also the Thanhtaik area below Dedaye and Pyapon, Pyinsalu, Theikpankongyi, Chaungwa and the Hainggyikyun areas were covered with dense mangrove forests. Those forests were so dense and bountiful in food that they attracted wild elephants, tigers, deer, crocodiles, wild boars, wild buffalos, bisons, many varieties of reptile—such as snakes and lizards, different varieties of small mammals and birds—both native and migrant species. Now as the forests had drastically been depleted, the habitats may no longer exist and the wildlife, too, may have disappeared today.
After studying the research papers and reports by concerned departments and UN organization, such as the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and some NGOs, I came to realize that the mangrove forests, if left neglected without proper conservations would disappear altogether, in a few decades, as some experts predicted. However, it was a great relief to learn that the responsible state departments, UN sponsored organizations and NGOs are endeavoring to rehabilitate and conserve the mangrove forests.
Here, I would like to discuss what caused the shrinkage of the mangrove forests. There are many opinions and outlooks on that matter. Some blamed the concessions granted to grow rice in the forest areas, emergence of fish and shrimp farming and salt pans and indiscriminate cutting down of the trees for fire wood and for making charcoal. These are visible points even to casual observers. Another factor, which is silently causing the destruction of the mangrove forests, that only the experts knew, is the excessive depositions of sediment in the lower delta regions in the recent years. The Ayeyawady River had been bringing along sediments and depositing them in the delta region for centuries without affecting the environment. In recent years, due to extensive deforestations in the upper and central parts of the country, excessive amount of sediments were being brought down and deposited in the lower delta region, causing rapid shrinkage of the mangrove forests. According to the experts, that effect coupled with the encroachments of the mangrove forests, if left unchecked, would cause them to disappear in a few decades.
However, the good news is—the conservation works are in progress, thanks to the endeavours of the departments concerned, FAO, NGOs and some local communities who are participating in the conservation programmes. It is undeniable that the agricultural and aqua-cultural industries in the mangrove forest areas would provide livelihoods for the rural populations in those areas who are living under the poverty line and raise their living standards somewhat. However, great care and considerations should be taken, not to disturb the environments or the ecosystems when granting such concessions. According to the experts, if there had been a healthy and intact mangrove forest on the coastline of the delta during the Nargis Cyclone, the 3.5-meter waves might not be able to create havoc of such magnitudes as it had done. So, let us conserve the mangrove forests for the future generations with the participations of the rural populace of those areas. The success of any conservation project depends on their awareness of the importance and necessity of the mangroves.


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