From: Michael Casey, Associated Press
Published September 7, 2006 12:00 AM

Tsunami Spurs Interest in Asian Coasts

CHEME, Thailand — For much of his life, Viroj Dedsongprak paid little attention to the mangrove forests that surrounded his Thai village. He thought nothing of it when neighbors chopped down trees for firewood or plowed them under for shrimp ponds.

Then came the 2004 tsunami. Viroj's village was largely spared while more exposed communities down the road were devastated. The 46-year-old fisherman credits the spidery network of mangrove trees, nipa palms and malaleucas for saving his home, and is now doing what he can to preserve his region's biodiversity.

"Before the tsunami, we really didn't understand the importance of mangroves," said Viroj, who is among nearly 40 people from three villages taking part in a World Conservation Program to plant up to 10,000 nipa palm and mangrove seedlings on an abandoned charcoal kiln.

"Since the tsunami, there is an increased awareness about mangroves and people are getting more involved in protecting them," he said. "We know that they are important to protect us from the waves and other natural disasters."

Conservationists say Viroj's newfound enthusiasm is catching on in many Indian Ocean communities hit by the December 2004 tsunami, which killed more than 216,000 people and leveled hundreds of fishing villages. Environmentalists say the tsunami has prompted many governments to reconsider how they manage their coastal ecosystems, with many looking to strike a balance between development and preservation.

"The tsunami brought an understanding that the ecosystem is a lot more fragile than people thought," said Austin Arensberg, a World Conservation Union official who is part of a team working on a $240,000 Spanish-funded project to restore mangrove forests in Thailand and Sri Lanka. "People took them for granted a little bit."

The World Conservation Union is teaming up Monday with the United Nations Development Program to launch the biggest program yet for mangrove conservation in Asia: a five-year project to fund ecosystem restoration and sustainable development in 10 countries affected by the tsunami.

The two agencies estimate it will cost $62 million and will hold a donor conference Monday in New York to raise the funds. The program, called "Mangroves for the Future," will help governments address long-term problems -- including reckless development, shrimp farming and industrial pollution -- that have resulted in the loss of 25 percent of the mangrove forests in Indian Ocean countries.

"Right now, mangroves are being devastated. The urgency to do something keeps growing by the day because coastal development just presses ahead," said Sergio Feld, a Bangkok-based U.N. policy adviser who helped draft the mangrove strategy. "These ecosystems need to be valued for the services they provide."

The campaign aims to recover coastal areas -- estuaries, brackish lagoons, beach forests and mangroves -- that scientists credit with providing crucial protection from storms, along with important nurseries for fish and habitat for birds, reptiles and mammals.

Officials say involving coastal communities is key, not only because they depend on the ecosystem for fishing and crabbing but also because they will determine whether a project succeeds.

Within weeks of the tsunami, planting mangroves became the rage among non-governmental organizations, including Oxfam International. Seeing it as an easy way to promote the environment while employing tsunami survivors, NGOs planted tens of thousands of seedlings. Most died because the NGOs lacked any understanding of where and when to plant the fragile plants that grow in fresh and brackish water.

Since then, conservation groups have stepped in to provide the expertise and launched a number of programs in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Among them is the Green Coast project run by Wetlands International, the World Conservation Union and others. Since last year, it has spent nearly $2 million from Dutch charities on more than 100 projects in tsunami-hit countries to assess the impact of the disaster, change government land use policy and rebuild damaged coastal regions.

The projects range from a mangrove nursery in India, coral reef cleaning in Indonesia and an educational campaign in Sri Lanka to increase awareness of mangroves among tsunami survivors.

"When you see a portion of your village destroyed, it really brings about how much you have to conserve them," Arensberg said of the mangroves. "It's not just rebuilding houses but looking at the natural environment and finding a way it can come back for them."

Source: Associated Press

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