Where have all our mangroves gone?

Posted: 21 March 2001

Author Info: Henrylito Tacio is People and the Planet correspondent in the Philippines.

Henrylito Tacio reports on the destruction of the Philippines valuable mangrove forests, and the latest efforts to restore them.

Fortunato Balaoing, 66, gazed at the last standing mangrove trees in the Philipppines' Dasol Bay delta that would soon be no more. In the next few days, the area would be dyked and converted into fishponds.

Having benefited from the fishing ground for ages, Balaoing, like most residents, knew it is a priceless treasure that should not be desecrated. In the past, fingerlings of bangus, malaga and talakitok used to roam around the virgin mangrove forests. Crabs, lobsters, and other crustaceans also once abounded the area.

"The residents have asked various government agencies to intervene to protect this national reservation, but their pleas have been met by officials with indifference," Yolanda Fuertes, a correspondent of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, reported in 1997.

The Dasol incident is not an isolated case. All over the country, mangroves are cut down for various reasons. "Mangrove forest cover in the Philippines has declined substantially during this century," wrote Alan T. White and Roy Olsen D. de Leon, of Coastal Resource Management Project and Silliman University Marine Laboratory, respectively.

AquacultureThe two authors said that only 150,000 hectares of mangroves remain of the 450,000 hectares reported in 1918, the most rapid decrease occurring during the 1960s and 1970s when government policies encouraged the expansion of aquaculture.

Today, fishponds cover about 289,000 hectares, most of which are in areas once covered with mangroves. This expansion occurred largely during a period when real prices for fish and shrimp were steadily increasing. Despite a 1980 government ban on further conversion of mangroves to fishponds, the reduction of mangrove area since that year through 1991 continued at the annual rate of about 3,700 hectares in the following decade. This decline parallels the increase of fishpond area, approximately 41,000 hectares per year over the same period.

The conversion of mangrove areas to fishponds is the final step in a process of destruction that started with over-harvesting of mangroves for fuelwood, frequently by persons other than those who ultimately built the fishponds.

"Cutting of mangroves for fuelwood, charcoal making and construction is probably the second most pervasive intrusion on the resource," White and de Leon claimed. Small bakeries, for instance, prefer mangrove wood. The demand for these products leads to illegal cutting, over harvesting, and subsequent degradation of the habitat and ecosystem. "This, in turn, contributes to the decline of nearshore fisheries. Degraded areas are more easily reclassified as disposable lands, which makes conversion more likely," the two noted.

The economic boom has also contributed to the denudation of mangrove forests. "Mangrove areas are the site for reclamation for urbanization and human settlements, expansion of highways, ports, and factories and tourism and recreational facilities," said Prof. Rodolfo B. Baldevarona, of the University of the Philippines-Visayas (UPV). "As human settlement, mangrove is preferred because of its proximity to the sea and the fisheries along the shoreline."

Mangrove trees grow into complex forms which some find sinister. Credit: IUCN/Nigel DudleyIn other parts of the world, mangroves are disappearing because throughout history people have regarded them as sinister, malarial wastelands. From their travels in the Gulf of California in the 1940s, John Steinback and Edward Ricketts reported that the locals avoided these tidal swamps. In Sea of Cortez, they wrote: "(In the mangroves) it was like stalking, quiet murder. The roots gave off clicking sounds, and the odour was disgusting. We felt that we were watching something horrible. No one likes the mangroves."

Actually, mangrove is a delicate, complex and dynamic ecosystem located between mass and marine waters along the tropical and the subtropical coastlines of the globe. There are about 86 species of vascular plants, trees, shrubs, palms, vines and herbs which are adapted to the marine environment.

Mangroves offer a wide array of multifarious benefits. For one, they are important sources of both major and minor forest products. The major forest products include timber, firewood, charcoal, and pulp and paper, whereas the minor products derived are extractives (tannin and dyes), nipa sap and nipa shingles, oil, medicine, resin, tea, and livestock supplements. Timber products from mangroves are poles, house post foundation, pilings, bridges, ship planking and mine timber props. Wood quality is excellent for making furniture and tool handles.

BenefitsIn rural areas, firewood and charcoal from mangroves are used in cooking, heating, and ironing. "Bakuan" (Rhizophora spp.) is considered the best for charcoal making compared to those derived from any Philippine hardwood species because of its high calorific value and emission of very little smoke. "Bakuan" is also excellent for firewood.

The leaves of "nipa" (Nypa fruticans), a non-timber species that grows on mangrove forests, are made into thatching materials, bags, baskets, hats and raincoats. From the nipa's stalk, sap is extracted and made into alcohol, vinegar, wine and sugar. Kernels of young nuts of nipa are made into sweets and preserves.

Mangroves also offer permanent and secured homes for birds, insects and animals. These animals utilize the mangrove forests as their temporary place to roost, breed or take shelter from strong wind or heat of the sun.

The crown of mangroves also offers human beings a cool shade and clean air to breathe. The stumps are used as driftwood for ornamental purposes. Beautiful flowers and orchids can also be collected from the forest.

The mangrove trees also stabilize the coastline and provide a self-repairing barrier against the sea during storms. In Bangladesh, death tolls from coastal storms would likely be much lower if the Bangladeshis had not converted large expanses of mangroves into rice paddies.

Fishery supportBut most importantly, mangroves serve as nursery grounds for fishes and other fishery products. "Mangroves support the natural food chain by forming a link between the land and the sea," Prof. Baldevarona wrote in his article, The Role of Mangrove in the Philippine Coastal Environment. "They serve as the sanctuary of both aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. Other forms of life are extremely dependent on mangroves."

"Mangroves help a great deal in the recruitment of fish and other fishery products because the mangrove ecosystem is a part of their habitat," Prof. Baldevarona said. In fact, mangrove area gives a positive correlation with shrimp and prawn yields.

Despite the various benefits that mangroves offer, they are indiscriminately exploited, distorting their existing ecological balance and stability. "The rate at which people destroy the mangrove resource is alarming," Prof. Baldevarona declared.

This deterioration of mangrove resources has stimulated various responses to slow and reverse the process. In the Philippines various laws have been passed protecting mangroves, but none has prevented their decline.

Success storyThe mangrove decline has stimulated experiments in reforestation using contracts with local communities, giving stewardship agreements and encouraging communities to protect and manage the resource in their own ways.

One success story involves Wilson Vailoces who started planting mangrove trees on the island of Negros in the early 1980s. His neighbours made fun of him at first, but Vailoces was resolute. In his 50-some years, he had watched people cut down the mangroves and dynamite the coral reefs offshore, and he had seen his fish catch fall. For Vailoces, the connection was clear. His livelihood as a fisher depended on the fish spawned in these coastal ecosystems. To restore his fish catch, he had to do something to restore the coastline. He searched out the only remaining patch of mangroves on his island, gathered the trees' finger-length shoots, and took them home to plant.

His commitment paid off. Today, as Peter Weber of the Worldwatch Institute reported, "crabs, shrimp, mussels and other creatures clung to the mangroves' broom-like roots or scuttled below in the mucky soils. The revitalized coastal wetland was restocking Vailoces' fishing grounds, improving his catch."

Another success story is that of the Buswang Mangrove Reforestation Project in Kalibo, Panay. Here, the government contracted Kalibo Save the Mangrove Association, an organization with 26 family beneficiaries, to replant 50 hectares. Four years later after the project started in 1990, the organization was able to harvest and earn from the nipa leaves on five hectares of the area. The environment department awarded the organization with a 24-year Forest Land Management Agreement in 1995.

Meanwhile, Prof. Baldevarona urged that reforestation and restoration of mangrove forests must be given top priority. "People who are dependent on the resource must be given the right of ownership over their planted mangrove area to provide them maximum benefits," he said. "Abandoned and non-productive fishponds shall be planted with new trees. There must be an immediate and concerned effort both by the public officials and the common people to preserve the natural heritage for future generation."

See Mangrove Action Project