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Sri Lanka success whets international appetite for mangrove conservation

  • Published at 02:29 am August 5th, 2016
Sri Lanka success whets international appetite for mangrove conservation
Sri Lanka’s pioneering nationwide program to save its damaged mangrove forests is bearing fruit a year on, prompting the US conservation group backing it to look for another island country to launch a similar effort. Duane Silverstein, executive director at California-based Seacology, a non-profit that protects island habitats, said he was planning to visit a candidate island state in the Caribbean in the next month. “This project, if it happens, is most definitely inspired by the success (in) Sri Lanka,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, declining to name the potential project site as negotiations were ongoing. From the late 1980s into the 1990s, the destruction of Sri Lanka’s mangroves had official sanction, as the government handed out public land to large companies to clear for shrimp farms along the northwest coast. “We were helpless - there was nothing we could do. Earth movers would come in and clear tracts overnight that had taken hundreds of years to grow,” said Douglas Thisera, director of conservation at the Kalpitiya-based Small Fishers Federation of Sri Lanka (Sudeesa), which is partnering on the mangrove scheme. Hundreds of acres of ecologically important mangroves in northwest Puttalam district - around 40 percent of the area’s forests - were cleared and replaced by large ponds, Thisera said. But the threat ended last year when Colombo designated more than 37,000 acres (some 15,000 hectares) of coastal mangroves as protected, making it illegal to cut down the delicate forests. “It should have been done a long time back,” said Thisera, popularly known as the “Mangrove Master”, surveying large craters left by shrimp farms dotting the Puttalam lagoon now abandoned due to disease or business failure. Improving local lives Mangrove trees grow in saltwater, forming a vital part of the natural cycle in coastal lagoons. Fish and other marine creatures like prawns use the deep roots as breeding areas. The forests protect coastal communities from abrupt tidal shifts and storms, while slowing shore erosion. Mangrove swamps also store carbon, helping to curb planet-warming emissions - another reason to keep them intact. Sri Lanka’s countrywide protection initiative, praised as the first of its kind in the world, has gained momentum in the past year, experts say. “Sri Lanka is showing the world that it is possible to conserve mangrove forests while also improving the lives of local people, restoring wildlife habitats, and helping to ameliorate climate change,” said Dhammika Wijayasinghe, secretary-general of the Sri Lanka National Commission for Unesco, at the opening of a flagship mangrove museum on July 26.