The Richness of Mangroves

01 Dec 2015

Bangladesh—the name of the country that, according to forecasts, will be increasingly hit by the effects of climate change. From now until 2030, in fact, the rise in sea level will swallow up 8% of its land currently above the water, 10% by 2050 and 16% by 2100, probably forcing the exodus of tens of millions of climate refugees.

There are multiple reasons for this increasingly precarious balance, some of them attributable to Bangladesh’s geographical and hydrographical conditions. The country is at the junction of seven great rivers, among which the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, and 200 minor watercourses, which collect 92% of the water that flows down from the Himalayas. Almost half of Bangladeshi territory stands less than ten meters above sea level and is hence particularly vulnerable to massive flooding from monsoons and melting glaciers.

This precarious situation is also driven by human activities. To make room for intensive shrimp farms, for example, most of the mangrove forests have been cut down, thus depriving the country of an important natural defense against flooding. Shrimp farms use immense quantities of fishmeal and heavily pollutes the surrounding waters; in many parts of the world, they are responsible for the destruction of vast swathes of mangrove forests. These important ecosystems protect the coastline from hurricanes and tsunamis, as well as sheltering a rich biodiversity of animals and plants. In Bangladesh, the industry was launched in the 1970s, and an increasing area of territory has been reserved to it since then. The consequences are very serious indeed, not only for the environment but also for the survival of local communities.

Elsewhere in the world, a comparable situation recurs on the mangrove estuaries along the coastline of Ecuador (through which the equator runs), as the women of the National Coordination Association for the Defense of the Mangroves of Ecuador (C-Condem) testify. The Association often organizes get-togethers for communities of women food gatherers on the Ecuadorian coast. The aim is to promote collective reflection on food sovereignty, the mangrove ecosystem and the struggle of the women to defend their source of sustenance.

“Living conditions are tough. Reaching the settlements is difficult, sometimes grueling. Some areas have schools, but sooner or later, teachers feel discouraged and apply for a transfer. Education is neglected and children are left to their own devices. Food resources are becoming increasingly scarce. The mangroves have started to thin out with the arrival of large artificial nursery tanks for shrimp farming. Small farms are just a memory. People leave in search of a better life, but they invariably return because gather, fishing and growing food is all they know. The struggle to protect Ecuador’s mangroves didn’t start overnight. Debate has always raged on how sources of food, jobs and land are being lost; the destruction of the primary forests; aquaculture; and now the arrival of large eucalyptus, sugar cane and oil palm plantation.”

“Many wouldn’t trade their mangroves for anything in the world. Sometimes decent wages are offered to lure locals elsewhere, but the communities prefer to stay where they are. Mangroves give them all the food they need. All the members of the community live off the food produced by the mangroves and local fish. Products of the area are used to make excellent dishes such as tapados (stews), encocados (steamed seafood with coconut), ensumacados (shellfish soups), secos (pot roasts), refriteados (crab meat sautéed with herbs), and sudados (steamed fish). All these recipes go well with the montecitos (officinal herbs) that can still be picked in courtyards and small farmyards.”

In this case too, in an increasingly devastated environment and deprived more and more of the means of sustenance that traditionally ensured them food and happiness, local communities are enduring suffering and hardship.

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