May 14th, 2009

Among giants

By KENNEDY WARNE

Today I walked among the giant mangroves of Majagual.

They are indeed remarkable trees. Though not especially broad—I could have wrapped my arms around the trunks of most of them—they soar to heights of 30 and 40 metres. Prop roots spring in every direction from the trunks, the largest forming massively thick buttresses that hold the trees aloft in the soft soil. From the canopy, long dangling tresses of lichen hang down, and the roots and trunks are studded with bromeliads. Some were in flower—a scarlet splash amidst the green and brown of the mangroves.

Communing with the patriarchs.

KENNEDY WARNE
Communing with the patriarchs.


Yet even in this cathedral of nature Big Shrimp casts a cold shadow. In 1993, a 600 ha shrimp farm was established nearby, with some of its ponds built right up to the boundary of the forest reserve. The dykes and channels of the farm have disrupted the hydrology of the area. The mangroves of Majagual may not survive the changes.

Florencio Nazareno, our guide, pointed at the mud beneath the boardwalk and said it should be sticky and wet; instead, it was dry enough to walk on without even sinking. Only the very highest tides now reach the roots of the trees. Because of the reduced salinity, alien species such as fern and strangler fig have invaded the forest. As we walked, Florencio slashed at head-high fern with a machete. In places, it had reached across the boardwalk and was blocking our path. More importantly, the aggressive fern chokes the ground and stops regeneration of the red mangrove seedlings that are the future of Majagual.

Changes in water flow as a result of a nearby shrimp farm have allowed an aggressive fern to invade the forest. Florencio Nazareno can do little to counter the inavder, except chop it back where it blocks the boardwalk.

KENNEDY WARNE
Changes in water flow as a result of a nearby shrimp farm have allowed an aggressive fern to invade the forest. Florencio Nazareno can do little to counter the invader, except chop it back where it blocks the boardwalk.


When the shrimp farm went in, Florencio was one of those who resisted. Like others in the fishing village of Olmedo, which has custodianship of the mangroves, he understood the threat the farm posed. “For generation after generation it has been passed down that mangroves are our life,” he said. “If you kill the mangroves you kill us.”

He participated in protests against the shrimp farm, and for his efforts became a marked man. He fled inland to the Amazon, where he worked in an oil palm plantation. Six months later, when he felt it was safe to return, he took up a job as a ranger in the mangrove reserve, though his main livelihood is still fishing. He feels sure that if a mangrove reserve had not been formed in 1995 to preserve Majagual and other mangroves in the Esmeraldas, the forest where we were standing would now be a shrimp pond. (I’ll have more to say about the mangrove reserve in a future post.)

Like an island of life, one of Majagual’s mighty mangroves supports an array of perching bromeliads.

KENNEDY WARNE
Like an island of life, one of Majagual’s mighty mangroves supports an array of perching bromeliads.


Whether the Majagual mangroves are the tallest in the world I can’t be certain, though to my eye they seemed no taller than mangroves I have seen in other places. But the question of supremacy is surely irrelevant. To be in the presence of such remarkable trees is a gift to the spirit. And to learn that these forest patriarchs are under threat is a deep sadness.

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