By Amantha Perera
KALPITIYA, Sri Lanka (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sri Lanka's pioneering nationwide program to save its damaged mangrove forests is bearing fruit a year on, prompting the U.S. conservation group backing it to look for another island country to launch a similar effort.
Duane Silverstein, executive director at California-based Seacology, a non-profit that protects island habitats, said he was planning to visit a candidate island state in the Caribbean in the next month.
“This project, if it happens, is most definitely inspired by the success (in) Sri Lanka,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, declining to name the potential project site as negotiations were ongoing.
From the late 1980s into the 1990s, the destruction of Sri Lanka's mangroves had official sanction, as the government handed out public land to large companies to clear for shrimp farms along the northwest coast.
“We were helpless - there was nothing we could do. Earth movers would come in and clear tracts overnight that had taken hundreds of years to grow,” said Douglas Thisera, director of conservation at the Kalpitiya-based Small Fishers Federation of Sri Lanka (Sudeesa), which is partnering on the mangrove scheme.
Hundreds of acres of ecologically important mangroves in northwest Puttalam district - around 40 percent of the area’s forests - were cleared and replaced by large ponds, Thisera said.
But the threat ended last year when Colombo designated more than 37,000 acres (some 15,000 hectares) of coastal mangroves as protected, making it illegal to cut down the delicate forests.
“It should have been done a long time back,” said Thisera, popularly known as the “Mangrove Master”, surveying large craters left by shrimp farms dotting the Puttalam lagoon now abandoned due to disease or business failure.
IMPROVING LOCAL LIVES
Mangrove trees grow in saltwater, forming a vital part of the natural cycle in coastal lagoons. Fish and other marine creatures like prawns use the deep roots as breeding areas.
The forests protect coastal communities from abrupt tidal shifts and storms, while slowing shore erosion.
Mangrove swamps also store carbon, helping to curb planet-warming emissions - another reason to keep them intact.
Sri Lanka’s countrywide protection initiative, praised as the first of its kind in the world, has gained momentum in the past year, experts say.
“Sri Lanka is showing the world that it is possible to conserve mangrove forests while also improving the lives of local people, restoring wildlife habitats, and helping to ameliorate climate change,” said Dhammika Wijayasinghe, secretary-general of the Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO, at the opening of a flagship mangrove museum on July 26.
Sudeesa, which is hosting the museum at its main office in Chilaw, plans to conduct tours there for at least 20,000 school children who will come to learn about the nearby mangroves, as well as conservation training for adults.
“We hope that other countries with mangrove forests will follow Sri Lanka’s lead and replicate the success of this model,” Wijayasinghe added, speaking on the first International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem.
According to Seacology, which partners with the government on the mangrove program, around half the island nation's identified mangrove forests have now been surveyed and marked out with posts, up from zero when the project began.
Those who live alongside mangroves say no value was given to the forests in the past.
“People would go in and just cut them to use as firewood,” said widow Anne Priyanthi, 53, who lives near Puttalam lagoon.
Thisera said the destruction was partly due to lack of awareness. “But poverty also played a big role,” he added.
A survey by the Fisheries Ministry some two years ago found the average monthly income among fisher families was around $16, while just over half lived below the national poverty line.
Thisera said that without tackling poverty, efforts to protect mangroves would be futile, “because people just look at them as free cooking fuel”.
Since the conservation scheme began, the government has enacted laws and provided manpower to protect the forests, with the navy sending personnel to plant over 36,000 mangrove trees.
The plan aims to set up 1,500 community groups to look after existing mangroves, and to replant around 3,000 hectares within five years.
Seacology has launched an island-wide push to reforest degraded areas, raise public awareness, and provide economic assistance to local people to raise them out of poverty.
It aims to help more than 15,000 people, half of them widows and the rest school dropouts, living close to the 48 lagoons where mangroves thrive.
In the last year, more than 190 women have received micro-loans to start small businesses.
Priyanthi from Puttalam is one of them, setting up a pig farm with an initial loan of LKR 10,000 ($68.70). She then applied for a further LKR 75,000, and now earns about LKR 25,000 per month, which is enough to pay for her children’s education.
The women and others benefiting from the project also act as community leaders in conservation work.
Silverstein said the success of the Sri Lanka program so far had enabled Seacology to raise $3.4 million from private donors and the World Food Program to fund it fully for five years.
The biggest challenge was when recent floods destroyed seedlings in a nursery, he added.
Sudeesa’s Thisera said building community awareness about the advantages of protecting mangroves, after generations of neglect, was a tough task – as would be maintaining interest in conservation after the funding runs out.
($1 = 145.55 Sri Lankan rupees)
(Reporting by Amantha Perera; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)