May 2nd, 2009

Return to the mangroves

Kayaking down Belize's Rio Grande—from the rainforests of the land to the rainforests of the sea.

Kayaking down Belize's Rio Grande—from the rainforests of the land to the rainforests of the sea.

A cold rain is drumming on my roof in Auckland as I write this first post to the Last Stands blog. In a few days I’ll be leaving the chilly temperatures of a New Zealand autumn for the sticky heat of tropical mangrove forests in Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s a journey that has been four years in the making, and I’m excited to be sharing it with you.

The idea kicked off in 2005, when I was researching mangroves for a story for National Geographic magazine. I spent six weeks wading, wallowing, boating and diving my way through mangrove forests in Belize, Bangladesh, Brazil, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malaysia and Eritrea. I got to see some of the amazing creatures that live in mangroves (including deer and a tiger in Bangladesh – more about that in a later post). But even more importantly, I visited communities of people who rely on mangroves for their food and livelihood. Their world is disappearing. And that tragedy is the catalyst that made me want to write a book about mangroves. Now I am—and that’s what this Last Stands journey is all about.

It’s going to be an incredible trip. Here are just a few of the things I’m looking forward to:

Giant mangroves of the Esmeraldas

Giant mangroves of the Esmeraldas

  • visiting the giant mangroves of the Esmeraldas, in Ecuador—some of the tallest mangroves in the world
  • meeting the Ecuadorian concheras—the women and children who gather cockles from the mangroves, and whose livelihoods are taken from them by the encroachment of shrimp farms
  • taking part in a shark-tagging survey in the mangroves of Bimini Island, in the Bahamas, where an environmental battle is raging between developers and mangrove conservationists
  • discovering how the indigenous and Afro-Brazilian culture in Caravelas has incorporated mangroves into the art, dance and music of the region
  • traveling to Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands wildlife refuge by airboat with an expert in mangrove mapping
  • catching up with Candy Feller, a mangrove scientist who started her career drawing illustrations of marine life underwater—yes, underwater!—before falling in love with mangroves and going on to spend her life researching them
  • seeing a very special species of mangrove in Panama which has flowers as big as magnolia blossoms that are pollinated by hummingbirds

It’s often the case when traveling that the things that aren’t in the itinerary turn out to be the most memorable. When I was in Belize, I heard about an organization called TIDE, which helps people get out of unsustainable fishing and mangrove logging and into ecotourism. On a whim, I traveled to Punta Gorda, in the far south of the country, and met Carlos Cofias, a former hunter and fisher. At the age of 57, with a wife and 12 children to support, he had decided to invest in a couple of sea kayaks and was offering trips down the Rio Grande. I spent two magical days with him, paddling downstream from the rainforests of the land to the rainforests of the sea, camping in the jungle and listening to the shrieks of the howler monkeys in the treetops.

I’d like to say that Carlos was ecstatic about his new vocation, but the truth is he had mixed feelings. He resented the way developed countries were piously telling poor nations like his to save their forests in the interests of preserving the planet’s climate. Carlos told me, “Gringo is destroying himself, so he tells us ‘Don’t cut down your trees so we can breathe.’ But what do we get out of it?”

Carlos Cofias on the Rio Grande.

Carlos Cofias on the Rio Grande.

It’s hard to support a dozen children on the proceeds of kayak tours. On the other hand, Carlos knew that there was no future—for him or his children—in pillaging the mangroves and harvesting the sea to extinction. “The mangrove is a house for nature,” he told me. I doubt I’ve heard a better or more succinct explanation of the importance of mangroves.

Part of what motivates me to make this journey is to find out how people are balancing their economic needs with preserving “the house for nature.” I’ll keep you posted on what I learn!

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