‘It’s very interesting,’ muses Duane Silverstein. ‘Anu and I are the same age – not to the same day, but the same year – and it’s just bizarre to think that one boy grew up in the suburbs of New York, and another grew up as a poor farmer in Sri Lanka. And now here we are, working together on this really important project. It’s amazing to me.’
Silverstein is executive director of Seacology, a California-based environmental conservation organisation which has launched over 250 projects in 55 nations since 1991, especially marine and island habitats. ‘Anu’ is Anuradha Wickramasinghe, chairman of Sudeesa, a Sri Lankan NGO. As Silverstein mentions, the two men have spent the past two years working together on a $3.4million conservation project – to make Sri Lanka the first country in the world to entirely protect its mangrove forests.
‘Mangroves are the roots of the sea,’ says Wickramasinghe. Growing up in rural Sri Lanka, he studied and worked with the local, small-scale fishing community operating around Sri Lanka’s network of 48 lagoons, which led him to understand the immense importance of mangrove forests – the ‘sacred trees’ as the fishing community calls them. ‘They are traditional fishermen,’ he continues. ‘They rely on the lagoon fisheries, because of the mangroves. The mangroves are there, so the fish are there. People see that fish are coming in from the sea for breeding purposes, and this enables them to catch the fish.’
However, the mangroves have also been a scene of conflict. Competing with the lagoon fish farmers are shrimp farmers, whose relationship with the mangroves is based more around tearing them down in order to create space to build shrimp farms (see the June issue of Geographical for more on this story). ‘They need the cash, they don’t care about the mangrove resources,’ sighs Wickramasinghe.
When the shrimp farmers destroy the mangroves everyone, especially the fish farmers, suffer. ‘Without mangroves, there’s no livelihood for the fishing folk. Losing your livelihood means the children and the women are affected,’ continues Wickramasinghe. He quotes figures that reveal one in six women in Sri Lanka is a widow, and that one in eight children are not going to school. Without the opportunities provided by the mangroves, these problems only get worse.
It is estimated that Sri Lanka now only has a quarter of the mangrove forests which it had in the 19th century, with much of the destruction caused by the civil war which raged in the country from 1983 to 2009, killing over 70,000 people. The country is now home to 21 different species of mangroves, making it a hotspot for biodiversity.
The benefits which Sri Lankan mangroves provide, both locally and globally, are plentiful, making them ‘critically important’, according to Duane Silverstein. ‘Their root systems are the nurseries for many species of fish that go on to populate coral reefs,’ he explains. ‘They greatly ameliorate the damage caused by natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tsunamis. And, perhaps most importantly, they sequester orders of magnitude more carbon than other kinds of forest and for much, much longer. In the case of mangroves, it will be millennia.’ Mangroves store carbon in the anaerobic, oxygen-deprived peat in the water below them, and without oxygen, bacteria can’t decompose the peat, which prevents the carbon from escaping.
Hence the significance of this project. It was the combination of the global importance of mangrove forests, and the local development challenges, which led Seacology to approach the Sri Lankan government, and consequently Wickramasinghe and Sudeesa, to make the country the location for what will be their largest single project to date. The $3.4million raised in donations is following on from several years of previous collaborations between the organisations; helping with recovery from the 2004 tsunami, for example.
With the blessing of Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena, over a period of five years the project will protect all 21,782 acres (8,815 ha) of Sri Lanka’s existing mangrove forests, and replant an extra 9,600 acres (3,885 ha) in areas where mangroves have already been cut down. Furthermore, 15,000 local people living in the near vicinity of the mangrove lagoons will be given training and microloans to enable them to take responsibility to ensure that no mangroves are cut down within within their designated areas.
‘This is primarily a conservation project, but with great, great benefits for the quality of life of the people involved,’ espouses Silverstein. ‘This partnership, through Sudeesa, is providing the microloans, which will provide the sustainable incomes which will be the incentive to stop cutting down the mangroves. When you see these women who had nothing, nothing, nothing, they were war widows, the poorest of the poor. So it’s a really terrific win-win-win combination.’
He also emphasises how important the government has been in enabling the project to go ahead. ‘It provides the rangers, and is the owner of mangroves in Sri Lanka. It provides the legal foundation and the laws and the enforcement.’
Education is also hugely important to the project, teaching local, non-fishing community people who don’t have knowledge about the importance of mangroves , about why they need to protect the forests. A national mangrove conservation museum will play a central role in educating future generations about the multitude of benefits provided by the mangrove forests.
There is an optimism that the success of this project can help many other countries, for whom mangrove forests are as important as they are in Sri Lanka, to help them understand how to conserve their forests. ‘This is the model for the whole tropical world,’ says Wickramasinghe. By taking the lead on this ambitious project, perhaps this is the crucial investment Sri Lanka needs to transform into a genuine leader in the region.