The environmental community has long proclaimed the importance of keeping mangrove forests and coral reefs intact as a means of buffering coastal villages against the impact of severe storms. Sadly, the recent tsunami has provided vivid and gruesome proof of how correct this warning was.
The environmental community has long proclaimed the importance of keeping mangrove forests and coral reefs intact as a means of buffering coastal villages against the impact of severe storms. Sadly, the recent tsunami has provided vivid and gruesome proof of how correct this warning was. Consider this comment from Seacology Prize recipient Anuradha Wickramasinghe of Sri Lanka: "Due to mangrove vegetation, the tsunami damage to my village is not severe like other nearby villages that cut their mangrove forests down to make room for industrial shrimp farms." Or this comment from Dr. Felix Sugitharaj of the hard-hit Andaman Islands: "Mangrove forests saved my village from the sort of destruction experienced at the nearby nation's capitol of Port Blair. Compared to Port Blair, human loss and house damage have been minimal."
The news media is now also reporting on the important buffering effects of intact coral reefs and mangrove forests. Somewhat surprisingly, on December 31, 2004, The Wall Street Journal led this charge when it published a comprehensive article detailing the increased damage and loss of life to those villages that no longer had healthy reefs and mangroves near their shore. This is lesson number one from the recent tsunami: you can't cut down mangrove forests or destroy coral reefs in the interest of short-term financial gain without paying a horrific price sooner or later. Try as we might, you just can't fool Mother Nature.
There is a second lesson to be learned from this terrible tragedy: listen to the wisdom of the local people in deciding what type of aid they need. My organization, Seacology, focuses on preserving the environments and cultures of islands throughout the globe. We have many projects in the Indian Ocean and fortunately only four of these were damaged by the tsunami. While we will stand by our projects and will pay to repair or replace them all, we realize there is significant human suffering that has to be addressed as well. This realization came all too easily, as I have visited our project sites and have met many individuals who perished during the tsunami. We knew we wanted to establish a tsunami relief program but we wanted to do it in a way that was cost effective, targeted, had no red tape, no overhead and where we knew where every single cent we raised was going. And so we targeted four villages which have hosted Seacology projects -- one in Sri Lanka, one in The Maldives, one in Thailand and one in the Andaman Islands.
We then asked our contacts who are highly respected leaders in each of these villages to identify what the local people feel are the priority needs for tsunami relief. We figure they would have a better idea than we would, sitting in an office in the U.S. The needs are as different as they are interesting. In the village in Sri Lanka, all the fishing equipment was destroyed and the fishermen can no longer earn a living. They requested new fishing nets and equipment, which is exactly what we will provide (cost per family: $95). In the Andaman Islands each family wants 20 chickens and a goat so they will have a long-term source of food and income (cost per family: $30). If someone had asked me on December 27 what the most critical needs of the impacted villages would be, I am sure that the provision of chickens and goats would not have been on the top of the list.
By and large, the vast majority of people living in the tsunami region of the Indian Ocean never advocated mangrove deforestation, yet it is they who paid the price -- in many cases the ultimate price -- for this foolhardy policy that benefited large industrial shrimp farming and other development interests. By listening to island villagers in the wake of this terrible natural disaster, we can help rebuild their livelihoods and insure that buffer zones remain intact to protect life and land in these vulnerable coastal regions.
Duane Silverstein is the executive director of Seacology, a non-governmental organization with the sole focus of preserving island environments and cultures throughout the globe.