Mangroves Lost to Development may be Replenished as Natural Wave Barrier
Jan. 15BANDA ACEH, Indonesia Bambang Atarikasa, an environmentalist, sees something else missing when he looks out at miles of shorefront swept nearly clean of people and houses by the South Asia tsunami.
The clumps of mangrove trees that used to line the shore are gone too, but not because of the wave. The trees were torn out by man to make way for shrimp ponds and congested neighborhoods where thousands of people lived before Dec. 26.
In the wake of the disaster, scientists, government planners and activists are debating whether mangrove forests formerly along Asia's coastlines could have absorbed some of the tsunami's force, lowering the death toll inland.
While some doubt anything could have cushioned against such a wallop, Bambang and others note that far fewer people might have been living right along the shore had the mangroves not been cut back, often in a hasty skirting of rules prohibiting it.
"We had been warning the provincial government," said Bambang, who found himself interim director of the Aceh province chapter of his group, Friends of the Earth Indonesia, after the tsunami killed a colleague.
Scientists and ecologists are just now trying to understand the impact the tsunami had on the coastlines it ravaged. The day of the disaster, an environmentalist was one of the first to report the extent of the devastation after flying along the Sumatra island coast in a small plane.
Marine biologists worry about harm to coral reefs off Indonesia and Thailand that are popular with scuba divers. Already depleted by pollution and perhaps global warming the reefs' ability to survive could be threatened by the wave's backwash of debris and filthy water.
Sea turtles have washed up dead. Fresh water sources were contaminated with salt water far inland. So was the soil beneath rice paddies and other fields, some of which might not be fertile again for years.
"We might wait one or two years, but I'm not sure we can plant anymore," said Azimah, who uses one name, a 40-year-old farmer and mother of six children. "Our land is already like a beach."
Environmentalists worry the tsunami could lead to secondary damage as well. Among the concerns is intensified logging on Sumatra island to provide wood for reconstruction. Illegal logging already threatens the habitat of orangutans and other animals living in the island's forests.
Activists also worry about where authorities will dump the tons of refuse left behind. And they warn about thousands of bodies, junked cars and toxic material like batteries being buried too close to sources of drinking water.
While acknowledging that environmental concerns take a backseat to the human tragedy, scientists underscore that the two are always linked in many ways.
Some are exploring whether nature could provide human beings future protection from tsunamis. They cite anecdotal evidence of wildlife fleeing targeted areas well before people knew what was happening, or the mangroves' and reefs' potential to shield areas where people live.
In Banda Aceh, the first priority for environmental groups after relief and resettlement efforts are completed is to encourage the government to get serious about restricting housing development near the coastlines and replanting the mangroves, Bambang said.
Coastal residents say the mangroves began to be cut in the 1960s as the government encouraged construction of ponds for cultivating shrimp and fish and people came looking for work.
"The price of prawns was very good," said Mohamad Nur, 46, a fish peddler.
Weeping, he estimated that nearly 4,000 people from his neighborhood in Banda Aceh died when the tsunami struck, including his wife and all but two of his children.
On a tour of the coastline, Bambang was approached by residents who seemed to be aware of the problem without prompting. A few standing mangrove trees still dotted the landscape of shattered homes.
"Because this was a natural disaster, we have to fight it with something natural, like rebuilding the mangroves," said another Mohamad, 40, who had worked building houses and fishing camps around the ponds. "At least 1,500 meters from the coastline needs to be all mangrove."
Bambang and others blame Indonesia's culture of corruption for allowing all the house-building near the sea. The environmentalists thought they had persuaded officials to relocate coastal dwellers, but no action had been taken.
"Before it was a social issue. So many people were living there, and the question was what to do with them," Bambang said. "Now we can say, 'Look, this is the impact of what we did to the mangrove.'"
Across the region, environmentalists cite areas that appear to have come through the disaster better because they still had a mangrove barrier. One example was a resort hotel in Phuket, Thailand, that had been built strictly to environmental standards and set back from the beach.
One university study, however, showed that mangrove forest cover in Thailand had been reduced by half between 1961 and 1996, the same period that tourists began flocking to the beaches and Thais streamed in to work in the resorts.
In Banda Aceh, at least one government official acknowledged that it was a "mistake" to cut back the mangroves, even though he agreed with many Muslim Indonesians that the tsunami was sent by God and little could have stopped it.
"If there had been mangrove, there would have been fewer victims," said Hasballah Daud, chief of Aceh province's Office of Environmental Management.
"I hope the government will be paying attention now to the planting of the mangroves. And the solution is not just planning but executing the plan," he said. "I'm afraid if we don't observe closely, corruption can happen again."
Hasballah, a large man sitting barefoot on the porch of a friend's house, lost his wife, his children and his house to the tsunami. He thought the government should also build a wall along the coast.
Budi Adiputro, a deputy vice president sent from Jakarta to be chief of emergency relief operations, said the federal government planned to address the seafront issue. Exactly how was still to be studied, he said.
"We will start with special planning, where part of the city cannot be used for development, something like that," he said. "Of course, we will relocate people to special areas."
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© 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.