"Since the end of the second world war, we've lost about 50 percent of our mangroves worldwide. Which means, we've got about 13 million hectares left." This was the sobering statistic that began my interview with Martin Keeley, education director for the Mangrove Action Project in China's sweltering southern province of Guangdong last week.
I had arrived in the province via China's most southern mainland city of Zhanjiang, to explore the mangroves of the Leizhou Peninsula, a jut of land extending from the mainland into the South China Sea. It is home to China's largest mangrove reserve and is at the forefront of fighting the battle to protect the country's remaining mangroves from multiple threats in the region.
Found in the form of swamps and forests in tropical and sub-tropical regions, mangroves are characterized by their ability to thrive in saline coastal areas. It is this unique characteristic that, until recently, has seen them flourish in places such as estuarine regions, i.e. the regions where rivers empty into the oceans. Unfortunately, many of these areas have also been the locations of major cities which has resulted in the mass clearance of mangroves for industrial and infrastructure development, as well as trade.
"More recently, the primary cause of mangrove loss in Asia in particular, is the development of shrimp farming and shrimp ponding to feed the European and North American shrimp market," explained Mr. Keeley. "The reason mangroves are so successful as a habitat for wildlife is because they have a very rich nutrient base. In fact they have the most biodiverse nutrient base outside of the rainforests. The nutrient base on which everything lives is very rich, which makes for such good farmland. So, if you clear the mangroves and create shrimp ponds, you have a very rich nutrient base from which shrimp can grow. So, you breed shrimp in that nutrient base but you're not replenishing it because there are no mangroves left."
Driving through the countryside of the Leizhou peninsula, it was easy to believe I had slipped slightly back in time. A lack of development in the region gave the area an untouched feel. As my car bounced along pot-holed roads around shrimp ponds near the coast, I spied water buffalo ploughing fields, guided by farmers wearing conical shaped hats, more typical of China's South-East Asian neighbors. What development there has been however in the region, has already had a severe impact on the peninsula's mangroves.
"In the 1950's our mangroves reached their peak", began Shu Fanghong, Vice-Director of the Zhanjiang Mangrove Nature Reserve. "At that time our mangroves were 14,000 hectares in area. In the 1980's however, we only had 5800 hectares of mangrove, basically because they were destroyed by humans. We are still facing historical problems such as local people developing shrimp farms and we cannot effectively manage local people as they collect seafood in the mangroves."
This crisis led to the creation of the Zhanjiang National Mangrove Nature Reserve in 1990, set up in collaboration with partners from the Netherlands, in an effort to respond to and manage the rapidly disappearing mangroves in the region. Now, the reserve has cordoned off and protected large swathes of the peninsula's mangroves. It has brought success, although there are still many challenges hampering the center's efforts. "Recently, our mangroves have almost reached 10,000 hectares in area", Mr. Shu proudly stated. "However, our reserve management have many reasons why we cannot protect mangroves well enough. We have a large area that we need to manage and we don't have enough staff. Some of our local staff's quality is not good enough. All of these influence the result of mangrove protection."
Education, however, is an area the center considers to be the future for the protection of mangroves.
"About a year and a half ago, we were contacted by the Zhanjiang reserve saying we are interested in working with you," recalled Mr. Keeley. The reserve had become frustrated in their early attempts to engage the education system in the area, so they decided to reach out to the Mangrove Action Project, an organisation with a proven track record of effectively engaging children, teachers and the public in education about mangroves in countries around the world including Sri Lanka, Brazil and Honduras.
"The idea is to find a way through practical, hands-on activities to help students not only understand the scientific structure of wetlands and their importance but also the social significance and economic value", explained Mr. Keeley. "You have to start on a school level and keep trying to educate people about environmental values. That's not just for mangroves, that's for any environmental values."
As I sat through one of the training sessions, it was clear that he was a man of extraordinary passion for the mangroves and intent on communicating to others how to pass on this enthusiasm to others. The session welcomed the first group of teachers from local schools who were being trained to act as 'leaders', in order to road-test the programme and hopefully train others in the future.
In a breakaway from the normal didactic teaching methods found in China, i.e. memorization and regurgitation of facts and figures, this new 'hands-on' way of learning, was proving to be a revelation for the teachers present.
The seeds of change have been planted in Zhanjiang, however there is still a very long way to go in the ultimate aim of widespread protection of mangroves in southern China. With industrialization increasing in the country, what little mangroves are left desperately need to be protected.
"So how do we protect what we've got? Not just for wildlife value, but also the economic value for the people that live there and still provide the infrastructure for the development of the country. You've got to find a balance," concluded Mr. Keeley. This may be the hardest challenge in a country desperate to 'catch up' with the west and industrialize so quickly.