Slow­ing down the warm­ing

Can­cun’s van­ish­ing man­groves hold cli­mate prom­ise.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ENVIRONMENT - By PA­TRICK RUCKER

THE Mex­i­can fa­mous beach re­sort of Can­cun, which this week is host­ing in­ter­na­tional cli­mate change talks, was it­self born from the de­struc­tion of a po­tent re­source to fight global warm­ing. Thick man­grove forests lined the canals and wa­ter­ways here be­fore de­vel­op­ers dredged the land to make way for the up­scale ho­tels that now draw sev­eral mil­lion tourists ev­ery year.

In the 40 years since Can­cun was founded, count­less hectares of man­grove forests up and down Mex­ico’s Caribbean Coast have been lost – and the de­struc­tion con­tin­ues. Now many sci­en­tists say that man­grove forests can help slow cli­mate change, and are des­per­ate to save them.

“We still have a lot to learn but the po­ten­tial is huge for man­groves,” said Gail Ch­mura, a cli­mate change re­searcher at McGill Uni­ver­sity in Mon­treal who stud­ies how much car­bon is stored in these knobby, tidal forests.

As they process sun­light into food, man­groves suck an un­com­mon amount of in­dus­trial car­bon out of the at­mos­phere and bury it deep within their un­der­ground net­work of roots. As na­tions looks desperately for “car­bon sinks” that can cap­ture and store car­bon linked to cli­mate change, man­groves are in­creas­ingly seen as a re­source worth sav­ing.

The United Na­tions may soon pay coun­tries to set aside man­groves and sea plants that sock away car­bon and those same re­serves could mean long-term cash un­der a global car­bon cap and trade scheme. With that plan, pol­luters would buy, sell and swap their right to burn car­bon fu­els un­der new emis­sions rules.

Cost-ben­e­fit tally

Cli­mate ex­perts ar­gue that the long-term ben­e­fits of con­ser­va­tion will out­weigh the short-term gains of devel­op­ment at ev­ery turn. In Mex­ico and around the world, though, the ar­gu­ments for devel­op­ment usu­ally win.

“There is more profit in tourism than con­ser­va­tion,” said Al­fredo Arel­lano, the lo­cal di­rec­tor of the Com­mis­sion for Pro­tected Ar­eas who notes that Mex­ico loses nearly 10,000ha or 1% of its man­groves an­nu­ally.

Ho­tels and beach re­sorts have been spread­ing across the ar­eas sur­round­ing Can­cun since plan­ners be­gan turn­ing a des­o­late sand­bar into a tourist hot spot in 1970.

The re­sort area is now a top des­ti­na­tion for US sun-seekers drawn to its white-sand beaches and rau­cous party scene. Tourism of­fi­cials ex­pect the area to ab­sorb more than US$4bil (RM14­bil) in for­eign cash this year.

The flow of tourist dol­lars is sim­ply more bank­able than the pos­si­ble, fu­ture in­come from sav­ing the man­groves.

“Car­bon mar­kets are too un­der­de­vel­oped to cre­ate an ap­petite for con­ser­va­tion,” Arel­lano said. “I hope that changes be­fore it’s too late.”

Be­sides their power to sponge up car­bon, man­groves serve as fish nurs­eries and buf­fers for dev­as­tat­ing ocean storms – a worth that ecol­o­gists say is lost in a short-term tally of the land’s value. In South-East Asia, home to a third of the world’s re­main­ing man­groves, shrimp farm­ers covet the rich, silty es­tu­ar­ies where those forests thrive.

A Thai farmer can rely on govern­ment sub­si­dies to pocket US$1,220 (RM4,270) a year by con­vert­ing 1ha of man­grove into a shrimp farm but the land will be so de­pleted af­ter five years that it will cost more than US$9,000 (RM31,500) to re­store, ac­cord­ing to a re­port spon­sored by the United Na­tions. The knock-on ex­pense of lost fish habi­tat and a vul­ner­a­ble coast­line will top US$12,000 (RM42,000) a year, the study con­cludes.

“We are only now get­ting a glimpse of the true value of the world’s nat­u­ral sys­tems,” said Nick Nut­tall, spokesman for the UN En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme which is cal­cu­lat­ing the bot­tom­line worth of many frag­ile ecosys­tems.

While man­groves in Asia have been chipped for scrap wood and West African man­groves are com­monly burned to ex­tract salt from sea­wa­ter, the ma­rine forests of Mex­ico are rou­tinely flat­tened for tourism.

Can­cun is now home to about 600,000 peo­ple, and of­fi­cials are seek­ing bids for an in­ter­na­tional air­port about 100km to the south near the sea­side town of Tu­lum where man­groves are still abun­dant.

Rene Gon­za­lez, a lo­cal guide, of­ten takes vis­i­tors from that quaint tourist town deep into the ad­ja­cent Sian Ka’an na­ture re­serve that cov­ers 0.52 mil­lion ha of brack­ish marsh, grass­land and es­tu­ar­ies.

“Thirty five years ago, Can­cun looked ex­actly like the bio­sphere is to­day,” Gon­za­lez said of Sian Ka’an, a United Na­tions’ World Her­itage Site.

Gon­za­lez says he has lived in east­ern Mex­ico long enough to know that ten­sions be­tween con­ser­va­tion and devel­op­ment al­most al­ways end in tree stumps and as­phalt.

“It’s work­ing its way down,” Gon­za­lez said of devel­op­ment, while zoom­ing around in a flat-bot­tomed boat through Mayan trad­ing routes carves through the man­groves. “It won’t take forty years for them to make an­other Can­cun.” – Reuters

Man­grove seedlings tak­ing root on a shore in Can­cun.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.