MAC: Mines and Communities

Tsunamis and Reckless Resource Extraction - The Unknown Link

Published by MAC on 2005-01-15

Tsunamis and Reckless Resource Extraction - The Unknown Link

Salimah Valiani

January 2005

Northern American consumers - whether in coastal cities in the winter or prairie towns far from the sea - have in the past ten years enjoyed affordable frozen shrimp, no matter the season. Few of these consumers know that this has been due to the rise of shrimp farming in mangrove forests of Asian and Latin American countries, where governments have opted for quick export industry development. Even fewer know the link between this type of intensified resource extraction and the immense impact of recent tsunamis in Asia.

According to the Mangrove Action Project (MAP), which has been opposing unsustainable development since 1992, great losses in human life and suffering could have been averted had healthy mangrove forests, coral reefs, sea grass beds and peatlands been conserved along the tsunami-devastated coastlines of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

Scientific simulations show that the destructive force of a 15 meter tsunami is greatly dissipated if it passes through coastal zones containing coral, sea grass and mangroves. These zones act as natural buffers protecting land, coastal communities and wildlife from the brunt of storms and waves.

Corroborating this scientific evidence are the tsunami experiences in India. About 300 km south of Chennai, in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu, six village hamlets located within 100 to 1000 metres of the Pichavaram mangrove wetlands did not face any tsunami damage due to the physical protection offered by the mangrove. As a fisherman of the hamlets explains, "We saved the mangrove by restoring it and it saved our life and property by protecting us."

A report of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation of Chennai further explains that the velocity of the tsunami water was greatly reduced due to friction created by the thickness of the mangrove forest. Additionally, the tsunami water was distributed to canals and creeks throughout the mangrove, thus reducing its impact. The experience of the six hamlets protected by the mangrove - comprising a population of about 6191 - differs significantly from that of the five hamlets located on or near to the open beach, which were totally devastated. A total of 17 hamlets were making use of the resources of the Pichavaram mangrove wetlands, which occupies an area of some 1400 hectares.

Besides being 'greenbelts of protection', mangroves play a vital role in reducing sedimentation and shoreline erosion. They also enhance fishing and farming communities with wild fisheries, marine life, medicines, fruit, honey, lumber, fuel wood, tannins and aesthetic beauty. But unlike the Pichavaram mangrove in India, mangrove forests in Southeast Asia have been lost, along with over half of the world's mangroves.

MAP's co-founder Pisit Charnsnah, of Thailand's Yadfon Association explains, "The mangrove is the supermarket for the coastal poor, and that market has been replaced by another man-made enterprise whereby the goods produced are earmarked for export, and the local communities suffer the consequences of reduced wild fisheries and increased threats from natural disasters." In addition to industrial shrimp aquaculture, mangrove forests and corral reefs have been destroyed or diminished through the expansion of tourism, mining and logging industries - all of which has been encouraged by international financial institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

"Mining is one major reason for coastal degradation in the Philippines" says Clemente Bautista of Kalikasan, the People's Network for the Environment. Denuding of mangrove forests has been caused by soil erosion and heavy siltation (i.e. fine earth and sand carried by water), which in turn are occurring due to intensified mining and logging since the early 1990s.

Similarly in Aceh, Indonesia - the area closest to the epicentre of the earthquake which caused the recent tsunamis - where over 100,000 have been killed, petroleum and shrimp exploitation for export have been central to government development policies.

Just prior to the earthquake in late December, the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry increased the annual allowable cut for Indonesia's forests by 400 per cent, without providing any ecological justification. Policy makers and advocates in Indonesia and around the world would do better to demonstrate they have learned from the recent catastrophe by incorporating the analysis of WALHI-Friends of the Earth Indonesia. Given that inappropriate development made the impact of the tsunami worse in areas where coral reefs and mangrove forests were destroyed, WALHI points-out, "it is essential that reconstruction plans and activities do not repeat these patterns, or create other negative environmental impacts."

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