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I can’t believe that it was more than 18 months ago that I last updated this blog, saying “See you in September.” Well, that didn’t happen, did it! I was unable to raise the necessary funds to visit the mangroves of Thailand and Indonesia, so I pressed ahead with the book based on the research I had already done. Then came the global recession and a general slowdown in book publishing, and publication of my book was delayed for close to a year.
BUT HERE IT IS! Looking lovely in hardback, and available now from online booksellers such as Amazon and Fishpond. You will notice that the book has a new name—not “Last Stands,” which was my original title, but “Let Them Eat Shrimp,” which the publisher felt would make a stronger connection with American readers. And a great title it is, too, casting shrimp farming as the Marie Antoinette of seafood industries.
For more information about the book, see http://letthemeatshrimp.org/, which redirects to Island Press’s website. The publisher will be putting up reviews and announcements on that site over the coming months. There is the possibility of an author tour of the US later in the year, and I’ll post about that if and when it happens.
Thanks for being part of the journey, and I hope you enjoy the book.
The Last Stands blog is standing down for a month or two. With the Americas trip over, I’m taking care of immediate business (writing magazine features, editing, doing a fortnightly radio segment called “Off the Beaten Track” on New Zealand’s national radio program “Nine Till Noon”) until late September, when I plan to spend some time in the mangroves of Thailand and Indonesia. After that, I’ll be sequestering myself in front of a computer screen to write the Last Stands book manuscript.
To keep alive travel memories of Latin America, I’ve taken to making pan de yuca (or pao de queijo, as it’s known in Brazil). These chewy, cheesy rolls are standard breakfast fare, but they’re also great with soups in winter — which is just as well, since it’s the middle of winter in NZ). They’re also incredibly easy to make. Here’s the recipe:
Pan de Yuca
2/3 cup (160ml) milk
1/3 cup (80ml) Canola or similar vegetable oil
2 cups (450g) tapioca flour
6 ounces (170 grams) of hard cheese (Cheddar, Parmesan)
salt and pepper to taste
1. Mix the milk and oil together into a pan, and boil until a white foam appears.
2. Gradually add flour to this hot mixture; mix well to form a firm ball with no lumps.
3. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes.
4. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
5. Mix in the eggs and the cheese (plus the salt and pepper) to the dough. The dough will become sticky and wet. If the dough is too wet, add more flour and cheese in order to make firmer balls.
6. Grease your hands, and form small balls 1 - 2 inch in diameter.
7. Place the balls on a greased baking tray or in mini-muffin tins
8. Cook for 15 - 20 minutes, until the top begins to brown.
Ron Rutowski, Professor of Biology at Arizona State University and a lepidopterist whose major area of study is how insects produce and use visual signals in their lives, has sent this link about the snake-mimicking spicebush swallowtail caterpillar. He notes: “Although the resemblance and its potential advantage appears obvious it has never been confirmed experimentally.”
Having just learned how to put PowerPoint presentations on the blog, I am providing two such slide shows created by Candy Feller. The first concerns Pelliciera rhizophorae mangroves, and the second sounds the alarm re the impact of development on mangroves in Belize.
As arranged, Karl, Rosabel and I show up at the camp by the river at Juan Diaz at seven. High tide is heaving the flotsam of trash in slow rhythmic waves. The Bay of Panama should be called the Bay of Garbage. It floats down the rivers and the tide distributes it along the beaches and up into the mangroves. We walk through it up to our knees to get to the canoe, a stumpy dugout that looks in danger of capsizing even before we get in, let alone once we start across the channel.
Viĵil paddles us to the opposite shore, where we set out to find the old crab collector. We follow a trail under the roosting trees of pelicans, cormorants, frigate birds and vultures. The undergrowth is so spattered with guano it looks like someone with a paint gun has run amok. The stench of ammonia is intense. Pelicans hoist themselves off the swaying branches and wing across the bay, rising and falling against the distant skyscrapers of downtown Panama.
We slosh through the mud, the mangrove breathing roots and the trash. We are at least a hundred metres from the shore now, but light bulbs, soft drink bottles and flip-flops lie in drifts amongst the trees. On a patch of higher ground I am surprised to find cactuses growing among the mangrove roots.
Antonio finds a path that winds through tall canal grass—an introduced species that looks like ordinary grass on steroids, growing head-high on thick stalks—and we reach the crabber’s hut. Embers are smouldering under a cooking pot, but the crabber is nowhere to be seen. Viĵil and Antonio whistle and call, but there is no response. They conclude that he has gone off hunting.
It isn’t possible to wait for his return. So quickly does the tide fall on the Pacific coast that we would be stuck here until evening. Even on the way back to the canoe the sea has retreated by hundreds of metres, leaving a brown silt soup below the wrack line.
And so ends my visit to the mangroves of Panama and my journey among the mangroves of the Americas. Seven weeks, six countries, dozens of communities visited, hundreds of people met. It seems appropriate to be finishing up in a mangrove forest that is both a cornucopia and a rubbish heap. Juan Diaz epitomises the mangrove problem: treasured by the few, trashed by the many.
I don’t see much hope for the rainforests of the sea until their true value gains wider recognition. I don’t mean just a price per hectare, but their intrinsic worth. Karl Kaufmann mentioned something that has stuck with me: the need for a new narrative about land use. It is no longer legitimate, he said, for us to think of land as private, discrete assets. “From the point of view of the earth, my plot of land isn’t separate from everyone else’s. We all have a stake in what’s left.” This is a big topic of discussion, one I have I only started to get my head around. Smarter minds than mine have written about the need for a transition from an environmental metaphor of infinite wilderness, inexhaustible and impervious to human desecration, to one of the “house of nature,” finite and vulnerable, which each resident shares with everyone else.
As I see it, my task with Last Stands is to help establish and promote the intrinsic worth of mangroves, and to make connections between one resident in the house (eg the consumer of unsustainably farmed shrimp) and another (eg the cockle collector who relies on healthy mangrove stands). A shared sense of values surely leads to a shared desire to preserve. Or as Jacques Cousteau once put it: people protect what they love.
With the afternoon high tide lapping at our ankles, Rosabel’s husband Karl Kaufmann and I are poking around in a patch of mangroves in a suburb of Panama City called Diablo. It’s in the former Canal Zone, a corridor of land that extended five miles on either side of the Panama Canal and was controlled by the US until 1979. It’s a leafy neighbourhood of spacious weatherboard duplex houses that were characteristic of the zone—an entity that ended in 1999 when the canal passed to Panamanian control.
Karl, who has lived in Panama for 30 years and works as data manager at the Smithsonian lab, tells an amusing story about the city being unhappy with the name Diablo and changing it to Altos de Jesus, “Jesus Heights.” But the residents objected, and signs with the new name kept disappearing, until eventually the name change was given up as a lost cause. (So it is now accurate to say that the Panama Canal lies between the devil and the deep blue sea.)
We’re in an area of boatyards, boatsheds and rickety wharves. Karl remembers seeing Pelliciera here in the past, and, sure enough, as soon as we start looking we spot the distinctive pointy leaves and star-shaped flowers. Here on the Pacific coast, the flowers of Pelliciera are much pinker than they are on the Atlantic. Candy Feller wonders if they are distinct species.
There’s something special about finding a treasure like Pelliciera in a neglected backwater in a place called Diablo. It’s partly why I became interested in mangroves in the first place. They’re maligned, they’re marginalised, they’re considered uncharismatic. Documentary makers aren’t beating a path to the mangroves. Their eyes are on terrestrial rainforests and coral reefs. I’ve got nothing against those habitats, but they’ve become ecological celebrities. Mangroves are underdogs. I like the idea of showing what they’re made of.
I turn to see a container ship slipping past, leaving the canal. The canal is being expanded at the moment, with the predictable attendant loss of mangrove forest. Karl asks me a question: Is there anywhere I’ve been on this journey where mangroves are held in high esteem by a majority of people? I can’t think of any.
In the evening Karl and Rosabel take me to the visitor centre at Miraflores Locks, where we watch the electrified “mules”—vehicles on rails on each side of the locks—towing ships through the canal. “The next TV you buy may have spent some time on an old mangrove site,” he says. “Panama grew up on the edge of mangroves, but today’s city is turning its back on them in favour of golf courses and recreational areas.”
The mangrove outlook isn’t all bad. Along with the recent protection of coastal land along the Bay of Panama, resolutions have been passed that attempt to put a price on mangrove loss. Where mangrove removal is deemed a “public necessity” the land is valued at $20,000/ha. If part of a commercial project the price goes up to $150,000/ha. If mangroves are removed illegally, the fine is $300,000/ha.
Karl sees a problem with this approach. “If you put a dollar value on mangroves it’s an incentive to sell. You’re taking a public asset—the goods and services that mangroves have provided for hundreds of years—and putting it up for grabs in a one-time sale. And it isn’t even the people who get reimbursed for the loss of the asset, it’s the government.”
The correct approach, Karl thinks, is that for every hectare of mangroves taken, a hectare should be replanted. That way the public good is perpetuated for future generations.
Rosabel and her colleagues are working to develop a conservation strategy for the Bay of Panama protected area, which they hope will be incorporated into the management plan. They expect battles ahead. Nearly half a million hectares of land near the protected area is under consideration for mining, and a further 40,000 ha just offshore is subject to applications for the extraction of rock and sand. The protected area is going to need sharp legal teeth to fend off developers. It will be interesting to see how the city balances its commitments.
How does a city live with its mangroves? How does it accommodate growth without irreparably damaging its natural assets? Or is that an impossibility? These are questions I am trying to address while in Panama.
Today Rosabel Miró wants to show me a new area of coastal development, at a place called Juan Diaz, on the eastern fringe of the city. To get there we drive past the crumbling rock walls of Panama Viejo, Old Panama, sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671. Then through the upscale residential area of Costa del Este, then past a sign announcing “Santa Maria Golf and Country Club” to the development site itself, where bulldozers are at work.
Rosabel has shown me a newspaper article with an aerial photograph of the site. It shows a dramatic juxtaposition of intact mangrove forest, a recent residential development and a great scar of development in progress.
She is concerned about this new development because it is within an area that was declared a protected area in February of this year, and because the continued nibbling away of mangroves poses a threat to shorebirds. As director of the Panama Audubon Society, she has a vital interest in the welfare of those birds.
“The Bay of Panama is the most important stopover for migratory shorebirds in Central America,” she told me. Two million shorebirds of more than 30 species, including plovers, sandpipers and whimbrels, use the area. One reason they stop here are the huge tides on the Pacific coast—up to seven metres difference between high and low. When the tide goes out it exposes up to 70 km of mudflat—a huge open-air buffet.
Mangroves are important to shorebird ecology not just because of biological interactions between mudflat and mangrove forest but also as safe roosting areas at high tide and a security buffer between the birds and urban areas inland.
After looking at the site we drive to the end of the road, where a cluster of ramshackle huts stands on a scrap of land between the mangroves and a sheetmetal works that is turning out sections of tailrace tunnel for a hydroelectric project.
We brush past banana palms and papaya trees and introduce ourselves to Antonio, Magdalena, Lisbeth and Viĵil. They’ve drifted together, along with a few others, by happenstance and word of mouth. They have fashioned a simple, if not entirely idyllic, existence on the shores of the bay, drawing from land and sea for their sustenance. The fact that they wake in the morning to the sound of arc welders and angle grinders is a small price to pay for a life close to nature.
We swing in hammocks in the shade of an almond tree and they talk about their life here. A crocodile tried to eat one of their dogs so they shot it and dined on crocodile for a good while after that. They grow vegetables in what looks like pretty fertile soil. Magdalena shows off a huge pumpkin which will be used as crab bait in the ingenious spring-door traps they set out at low tide.
Rosabel is enjoying herself, singing to a parakeet that is perched on her finger. She grew up with parakeets—“they were all called Juanito or Juanita”—and she and the neighbouring kids used to go adventuring in the mangroves next door to the house. So she has a warm feeling for this little band of outcasts living their Swiss Family Robinson life. (When I offer the bird my finger as a perch, it pecks me with a grip that could crack a macadamia.)
Like all subsistence communities, they know the bounty that each season brings. November is when the iguanas come, for instance—“cooking time,” Viĵil says with a grin. Antonio walks a few steps into the mangroves and uses a table knife to show how he digs up shellfish from around the trunks of the trees. It isn’t the mangrove cockle, but a much smaller bivalve that lives in sandy conditions. It looks like you would need a lot of them for a meal.
Mounds of empty soft drink and beer cans are scattered through the camp. When the scrap metal merchant comes they’ll get a few dollars for the aluminium. Lisbeth, an older woman, says she collects parakeet chicks in the mangroves during the breeding season, raises them to fledging size and sells them in the city, three dollars each.
They tell us there’s an old crab collector living alone, deep in the mangroves on other side of the river, and offer to take us to meet him at high tide the next morning. It’s a deal, we say. We’ll show up with breakfast and they’ll paddle us across the river to meet him.
Before we leave I ask if anyone from the new development has visited them, perhaps to tell them they’ll have to leave. They say no, and clearly hope that it stays that way. I hope for their sakes it does.
White smoke swirls around a man who is shoveling soil onto a perfect conical mound. He shovels and then pats down the black peat, working his way round the mound. The wind changes and blots him from view for a few moments, then he reappears, still shoveling and patting.
He is a carbonero, a charcoal maker, and he is sealing up the ventilation holes in an earth kiln, lit just hours ago. The mound will smoulder for six days, and when it is opened the chunks of mangrove timber inside will have been transformed into charcoal.
The work is happening near a town called Chame, 50 km south-west of Panama City. In this region many rivers spill into the Pacific and the coast is thick with mangroves. The majority of people here depend on mangroves. They earn a living by cutting mangrove poles for construction or converting the timber into charcoal, and they sustain themselves by fishing and collecting shellfish from the mangrove forests.
In 2004, Panama’s environmental authority (ANAM) became concerned about pressure on the mangrove resource. Three hundred families in the region were found to depend on mangroves for their livelihood. At least 100 charcoal kilns were in operation, each consuming 15 to 20 mangrove trees per month. Pole cutters were taking 100 trees per month.
“The forest could not support so many people cutting so much,” ANAM’s José Berdiales told me.
With financial backing from the International Tropical Timber Organisation, ANAM began a project to manage and conserve 4000 ha of mangroves in the Chame region. Some areas were placed off limits to cutting, some were slated for replanting, and some were to be used in agroforestry.
Now, five years later, the project is in full swing. Near the charcoal mounds, I saw a small nursery of young mangrove seedlings. Reforestation began in 2005, and the resulting stands are already more than two metres tall.
Many of the initiatives have been implemented by Juliana Chavarria, a young ANAM staff member who explained some of the challenges to me.
“Some of the people weren’t happy to have any restrictions placed upon them,” she said. “They believe the mangroves will never end.” Juliana realized she needed to find ways to create a win-win outcome for the communities and their forests. For communities, the “win” that would have the biggest impact was more money in the pocket.
One pilot scheme that has shown great promise has been the production and marketing of “eco-charcoal.” Ordinary charcoal sells for a pittance. Carboneros get $2 for a 35 lb sack from a distributor who on-sells the product to restaurants and other users in Panama City. Juliana negotiated with a supermarket chain and found that the same sack of charcoal would sell for $13 if it were repackaged in 8 lb lots. “Everyone benefits,” Juliana said. The carboneros get more money, the supermarket stocks a quality product and the consumer has the satisfaction of supporting a sustainable harvest.
The new product, developed with just one of the Chame communities, is about to be launched, and if successful will be rolled out to four other communities in the area.
The Chame project is Panama’s first mangrove conservation effort. But mangrove protection is by no means the norm in Panama, as the next few days would show.
Annette Aiello, an entomologist with the Smithsonian, has provided me with the following excellent information concerning the caterpillar we found in the Pelliciera forest of Peninsula Valiente (see June 22 post).
“My guess is that your spectacular caterpillar belongs to the moth family Sphingidae, the sphinx moths, which include the well-known ‘tomato horn worm.’ Several sphingid genera are snake mimics, and in most of the cases I’ve seen so far, it is the ventral surface of the body that is displayed to resemble a snake. You can see that in the attached photograph of a species of Hemeroplanes. The head, mostly hidden, forms the blunt nose of the snake, then behind that you see the ventral surface of the thorax with its three pairs of true legs folded against the body, and the large, dark, false eyes (that can be opened and closed with blood pressure) on the sides of the third thoracic segment.
“Continuing back, you see the first three pairs of false legs (prologs), which are the large black structures on the ventral surface of the abdomen. The larva is holding on to the substrate with its fourth pair of prologs. In contrast, your caterpillar presents its dorsal surface during the display. The only record I can find of a similar caterpillar is Pholus labruscae, shown figure d, plate xiii of Miles Moss (1912) publication “On the Sphingidae of Peru,” Transactions of the Zoological Society of London 20(2): 73-134. Moss describes the final stage larva as ‘Remarkably snake-like, either end appearing as the head of a snake.’ He reports that the caterpillar eats members of the grape family (Vitaceae).”
John Christy, a fiddler crab expert I met in Panama (more about his work in a later post), adds the following comment:
“Kennedy – that is an amazing (!!) caterpillar, complete with liverwort-like patterning. It would seem to be highly specialized. You may well have something new. I wonder if the pattern mimics a particular snake? A quick google search produced Liophis cobellus as a “mangrove snake” of South America. It is a colubrid and looks vaguely like the caterpillar.”
For a lot of people, spotting a green vine snake on the road, looking for all the world like a length of discarded ribbon, wouldn’t be a big deal. But when you come from a country without snakes, it’s a “Stop the car!” moment.
I was on my way to a town called Chame, about two hours south-west of Panama City, to see a community project which aims to improve livelihoods and preserve mangroves—the kind of win-win scenario that all mangrove-rich developing countries should be seeking.
With me were Rosabel Miro, director of the Panama Audubon Society, and two people from ANAM, the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente or national environmental authority, who were running the project. We had just driven to the top of a hill with a panoramic overlook of the Chame mangroves. Or at least it would have been panoramic if low cloud hadn’t blocked much of the view.
I had missed seeing the snake on the way up (looking out the wrong window, as usual) but in between us going up and coming back down the obliging reptile returned to the warmth of the asphalt. And then it paused in the roadside grass to which it retreated, allowing me a shot of its elegant head.
Two other photo ops during the Chame journey:
1. A group of environmental volunteers holding banners and giving out posters and pamphlets on the Pan-American highway.
2. Stopping for cheese-filled empanadas and chicheme, a refreshing cold drink which is basically corn kernels floating in sweet, thickened milk.