June 28th, 2009

Wetland or wasteland?

By KENNEDY WARNE

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.

Wetland or wasteland?

KENNEDY WARNE
Wetland or wasteland?


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.

Pelicans, mangroves and the highrises of Panama City.

KENNEDY WARNE
Pelicans, mangroves and the highrises of Panama City.


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.

Viĵil, Rosabel and Karl negotiate the mangrove trash-heap.

KENNEDY WARNE
Viĵil, Rosabel and Karl negotiate the mangrove trash-heap.


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.

An unusual sight: cacti among the mangrove pneumatophores.

KENNEDY WARNE
An unusual sight: cacti among the mangrove pneumatophores.


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.

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