Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
colbartn.gif (4535 octets)
Paper from: "Science & Technology in Asia and the Pacific
Co-operation for Development"
This Collection, conceived, compiled and edited by Penelope Gobel, Office of the ADG/SC, is based on the contributions of many staff members of UNESCO, both active and retired, at Headquarters and in the field

The UNESCO Mangrove Programme

The success or value of any project, be it the construction of the pyramids of ancient Egypt or the nursing of a baby, can only be gauged after as long a time as possible; the pyramids have endured centuries of weathering and man's destructive activities, the health of the grown up human being is greatly the result of infant care.

The productivity of any ecosystem is taken for granted, until when the system begins to deteriorate and perceptive people sound the alarm. This happened with the mangroves; as early as the seventies UNESCO sounded the alarm. It took some ten years of persuasion to convince funding agencies that mangroves far from being wastelands, provide directly and indirectly for the livelihood of millions of people of the coastal area of the tropical belt. Obvious and hidden services and benefits provided by the mangrove ecosystem had always been taken for granted by the local people, but the same mangrove swamps had been hotly condemned as hazards to navigation and unhealthy places for humans, by the early European navigators of the age of discoveries and others after them.

Implementation of the UNESCO/United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Mangrove projects started in January 1982 and were officially concluded in December 1990. The 538 pages long Report of the first project was released in March 1987 and it honoured its title: "Status and Management of the Mangroves of Asia and the Pacific". The Final Report of the second project entitled "Research and its application to mangrove ecosystems management in Asia and the Pacific" was released on 15 October 1991. The second project banking on the achievements of the first, had enlarged scope and greater geographic representation.

During implementation of the projects world wide awareness was elicited on the important ecological role that mangroves play, especially the hidden benefits they offer free of cost to mankind, though these benefits are difficult to quantify. UNESCO worked with National Mangrove Committees, institutions and national scientists, professionals, decision makers, health officers and, above all, the coastal dwellers themselves.

Noted scientists specialized in particular fields of knowledge related to mangroves, such as microbiology, nutrient cycling, palynology, hydrology, remote sensing, social studies and others were also invited to offer lectures, give training for field work, contribute papers, offer advice and discuss mangrove matters with other professionals, decision makers, the media and, above all, the villagers themselves. With time a multidisciplinary integrated approach for a better understanding of the structure and function of mangrove ecosystems for sustainable use and management gradually took shape. This approach was tested by a two year long programme of research and field work at Ranong, Thailand.

One of the most noticeable successes of UNESCO's Asia and Pacific Mangrove Project is the interest that they elicited in the mangroves of the world. Country reports, specific studies of mangrove areas and assessment of mangrove resources, experiments on use and management appropriate to each site, seminars, symposia, lectures, active involvement of national mangrove committees, improved legislation, national and international training courses have mushroomed over the past ten years or so, world-wide. Awareness of the ecological cost of destructive uses has to some extent been successful in restraining harmful practices; for instance in the island of Bali, Indonesia, conversion of mangroves to shrimp ponds is now forbidden by law. In Thailand, the establishment of an "International Coastal and Marine Biosphere Reserve" which includes the mangroves of Ranong, has been discussed and approved under the Regional Participation Programme of UNESCO and with the invaluable aid and support of the Royal Forest Department and other Thai bodies, such as Fisheries and Agriculture Departments, Local Government, Wildlife Sanctuaries and World Heritage Areas.

As knowledge of the significant role that mangrove ecosystems play in the tropical coastal zone grew world-wide, it also became clear that mangroves are marginal ecosystems, vulnerable to sudden or drastic changes in the environment. Mangroves do not recover spontaneously after the impact of natural or manmade catastrophic events such as cyclones or total felling of the mangrove forests.

Mangrove ecosystems throughout the world have in common only the fact that they are tidally inundated by brackish or saline waters at regular intervals that may vary from twice daily to seasonal flooding in monsoonal areas. Practically all other ecological and socio-economic factors vary from place to place, and socio-economics can be regarded as a measure of human ecology. Only few species of higher plants have over the course of geologic time, become adapted to demanding conditions such as ample fluctuations of water and soil temperature and salinity, of air humidity and temperature; thus, because it is the forest that creates the mangrove ecosystem and the forest is constituted by only a few species at any site, the system as a whole is marginal and fragile, vulnerable to sudden or drastic changes. On the other hand, developers saw only the negative aspects of those dreaded swamps; total clearing, or turning the mangroves over to agriculture, for instance sugar cane after building sea walls to cut out encroachment by sea water, was seen as improvement, without realising that after felling the forest, degradation sets in, quickly followed by desertification, productivity of the waters decreases, and fish and shrimp larvae and fry find no nursery facilities for their growth.

Mangroves totally converted into fish and shrimp ponds
Photo Dr. M. Vannucci
Pakistan: A thriving nursery in the desert. The Avicennia seedling beds appear to be dead, but they are alive and growing; their colour is due to the reflection of sunlight from the silvery underside of the leaves. Photo: Dr M. Vannucci

The second project set itself the difficult task for proving the point that over and above the obvious benefits, the hidden benefits are substantial and may in the long run be even greater than those that could be obtained by "development". Benefits are sustainable over decades and centuries, as experience shows in many places of south and south-east Asia, if the swamp is left undisturbed or if it is appropriately managed according to local environmental determinants. Man-made engineering structures and aquacultural high energy input farms on the other hand, have a short life of a few years at most. By the time shrimp farms stop being economically viable, the irreversible damage caused by indiscriminate felling of forests for ponds or timber extraction becomes visible, it grows at an alarming rate and remedial action is at best time and money consuming, if not impossible.

During the second project the activities of the first project were continued; in addition a unique project was launched that became known as the "Ranong project", or, the "Ranong experiment", from the place in Thailand where it was located. It was entitled: "Integrated multidisciplinary survey and research programme of the Ranong mangrove ecosystem". An area near Ranong city was designated by the National Research Council of Thailand to be the experimental area, with the purpose of developing recommendations for rational sustainable use and management of mangroves. We also aimed at developing a model that would enable decision makers to estimate the potential returns of a well managed mangrove ecosystem including forestry, captive and capture fisheries and other human activities. We hoped that this would help compare returns from the natural system with returns sought from development of the same area.

Needless to say, we could not, as desired, develop a model that could become a world model for the use and management of mangroves. Obviously well developed, highly productive forests growing in suitable environmental conditions would produce much more than others growing under stress in extreme environmental conditions of temperature, dryness, lack of sediment input, pollution or other stressful conditions. Scrubby mangroves might produce nothing more than some fuel wood, some coastal stabilisation or some fodder for cattle and camels, shelter for fish and crustaceans or even only some of this in a reduced quantity, sufficient or not to satisfy the needs of local men and animals. Nevertheless, because mangroves grow where nothing else grows, they are always useful, even where they cannot be managed as productive forests. The enrichment of brackish and coastal waters provided by the mangrove vegetation may be substantial and should not be overlooked.

How did the UNESCO programme work? Through regular introductory and specialised training courses and workshops on topics as varied and important as palynology, remote sensing, microbiology, nutrient cycling, human health and others as applicable to the understanding of structure and function of mangrove ecosystems. The UNESCO Mangrove Programme started with 8 countries, and by the time it was concluded in 1990, there was a well knit network of 22 countries. The programme contributed efficiently to develop a binding sense of responsibility among people interested in mangroves in one way or another.

It worked by publishing reports, manuals, nine specialized "Occasional Papers", detailed reports, totalling over 40 publications and a book for the general public. The second project worked essentially along the same lines except that much effort was concentrated in the 2-year long Ranong project. This was possible thanks to the foresight of Professor Sanga Sabhasri of Thailand, of the logistic support given by the National Research Council of Thailand and the financial support offered by Thailand, of about US$700 000, the Royal Forest Department and Chulalongkom University also participated actively in the programme. Senior and junior scientists from Thailand and the other countries of the project worked along with renowned scientists from the international scientific community who freely participated in such an enterprise. Two special reports, two of the "Occasional Papers", the "Manual for Fish Eggs and Larvae from Mangrove Waters" were the outcome of the Ranong Project. The Reports are a short concise 16pp "Executive Report" and a longer more detailed 183pp "Final Report". In addition, scientific papers based on the Ranong work are being published in scientific journals.

There were many hidden benefits from the project; they are enduring benefits from which we are still reaping fruits, as could be witnessed recently at Hat Yai where about 150 persons gathered to discuss the most important theme of the whole exercise: the "Significance of mangroves for coastal people", under the aegis of the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems, the Prince of Sangkla University, the National Research Council of Thailand, the Royal Forest Department of Thailand, and the Non-Governmental Organizations Assistance Division, Economic Co-operation Bureau, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

During the second project, in Ranong, over a period of two years specialists in relevant disciplines of science and management worked together for mutual training and understanding. As we could witness in Hat Yai, the best way of doing research in the mangroves - the interdisciplinary holistic approach - is not only still alive, but is becoming stronger and stronger.

Malaysia: Spontaneous regrowth on a prograding beach.
Photo: Dr. M. Vannucci

At present, two books on mangroves, one with over 30 papers from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, and another giving line drawings and description of the development stages of over 60 species of mangrove fish, are under press and will be released soon by UNESCO. The International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems publishes a Technical Series, a series of Proceedings of professional meetings, and tries to keep the series of Mangrove Occasional Papers alive in spite of financial constraints.

During the UNESCO projects, the greatest and most valuable contribution came from each and every participant, and others involved, school teachers in villages, university professors, students, scientists, researchers, media persons and many mangrove dwellers are all responsible for the success of the project. Time is the best test of quality and value; this was obvious at the seminar at Hat Yai (20 August 1996) and in the enthusiasm of all present, many of them "old timers" of the "good old days". It was especially rewarding to see a large number of young people actively engaged in mangrove matters, many having worked as volunteers for replanting an area selected for the purpose by the Centre for Mangroves at Satun, near Hat Yai, and many more participants belong to local or national non-governmental organizations.

But the UNESCO project was not without hazards, one of our best lecturers, field worker and devoted companion and colleague, Dr. G. Thanikaimoni fell victim of international terrorism while on a flight from India to New York, to discuss with other palynologists the work that he was doing for the posthumously published Palynology Manual. He left behind him a first class work that is a benchmark for the identification of pollen from species of mangrove plants of ages past, and many fond memories full of respect and appreciation.

One of the most important achievements of the UNESCO projects was that it made sure that the progress accrued should not end abruptly when finances were drained: on 23rd August 1990, the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems was formally inaugurated in Japan thanks to the unremitting efforts of a few persons participating in UNESCO's project. At present the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems has about 700 individual and institutional members and great financial problems for the simple reason that there is so much to be done.

Maybe this is the greatest success of this story: faithful to its raison d'Ítre, UNESCO identified a major problem, worked towards understanding the root causes of the problem, proposed remedial actions and stimulated willing people, institutions and governments to endorse the action needed to face the perilous situation of the tropical coastal zone. Recommendations and management plans continue to be improved upon, refined, adapted to specific places, ecological and socio-economic conditions; this we call eco-eco-use and management practices, meaning ecologically sound and economically rewarding use and management of mangroves. But, in a changing world and under intensive environmental exploitation and degradation, we know that there is no reason for complacency, it will always be an upward task and we must keep at it with no pause. The International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems follows on UNESCO's footsteps, faces the challenges and requests the help of all willing people, institutions and funding agencies.

The International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems is an international non-governmental organization and many of its members come from countries that do not have mangroves, a sure sign that people are now aware of the ecological significance of mangroves world-wide. The Okinawa Prefectural Government, where the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems is based, covers the running costs of the Secretariat and has sponsored several activities at home and abroad. Also several Government and non governmental organizations of Japan have sponsored many of the Society's activities and projects in many countries. To quote but one now coming to an end, in Pakistan, was a project to combat coastal desertification due to over exploitation, reduction of Indus River water flow and pollution that ran over a period of three years and has successfully reforested an area of 1 800 ha. of coastal land. The project was funded by the Ministry of Post & Telecommunications of Japan with well over US$200 000 since 1994. Most of the projects that the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems runs in the field, have, the value of experiments that can be applied elsewhere in the world in addition to their intrinsic value for the improvement of local ecological and socio-economic conditions of the coastal people, the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems continues UNESCO's tradition of publishing technical papers for the benefit of professionals and of holding workshops for discussion of specific aspects of rational use and management. Thanks to financial support from JICA (Japan International Co-operation Agency), the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems yearly holds two-month long training courses at the Okinawa International Centre. Japan Fund for Global Environment contributed about US$200 000 since 1993 for slides and video programmes to enhance public awareness of the ecological and socio-economic role of mangrove ecosystems. None of this, and much more however, would be possible without the understanding and support in kind and space, and above all in time, expertise, experience and collaboration of so many persons from so many countries; Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and other Asian countries, Fiji and Pacific Ocean nations, Senegal and other African states, Brazil and other Latin American and Caribbean countries, as well as Australia, France, the United Kingdom and other European countries, and so many others who individually and collectively are contributing towards the greening of degraded tropical coastal areas.

Projects come to an end either because the planned task has been completed or because funds are exhausted. Projects in the biological and ecological field cannot come to a close , because all living systems are in a continuous irretrievable process of evolution, often difficult to predict in its outcome and best analysed periodically as time progresses. For this reason the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems was created and opportunities such as the Hat Yai Conference are sought for exchange of information, for updating techniques and to redress what may have gone astray.

Our reward comes in glory when a smile of mutual understanding shines on the faces of villagers of all ages who now agree, against traditional habits, to fence camels off natural regrowth areas and for purposes of rotation forestry. Local people are the most thorough co-workers, happier even than ourselves with whatever success we reap in the field. UNESCO was born and nurtured to take care of the people of the world through education, science and culture: the mangrove programme is an important brick contributing to the strength and durability of the edifice.

The story of the UNESCO Mangrove Programme was contributed by Dr. M. Vannucci of the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems and former UNESCO staff member at the UNESCO New Delhi Office.

For further information contact:

Secretariat of the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems
c/o College of Agriculture
University of the Ryukus
Okinawa 903-1
e-mail: mangrove@ii-okinawa.ne.jp
Documentation and Information Centre
1 rue Miollis
75732 Paris Cedex 15, France
fax 33 (0) 1 4568 5808
e-mail: csi@unesco.org
  Introduction    Activities   Publications     word
Wise Practices   Regions   Themes