Mona is a veteran writer, educator, and coach. She is presently affiliated with Enrich Magazine and Pressenza
We’ve lost 80% of our mangroves in the past century and globally, only 50% of mangroves still exist.
To understand why that’s so tragic, we’ll begin with a story of the monstrous 1991 volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in Zambales, which released a small, gray mound in Sasmuan, Pampanga 86.05 km. away. This mound naturally formed into a mangrove forest that saved the lives of all the people from two barangays during typhoon Glenda in 2014.
Extreme eruption, a gray mound, and a storm surge
An extreme volcanic eruption by Mt. Pinatubo, Zambales in 1991 resulted in a total death toll of 722 people. The mud fall also landed a 405-hectare grayish mound in Sasmuan, Pampanga. The locals called it “Pulung Malapad'' which literally translates to “fallen flat”. Actually, the pieces of the mound fell and accumulated as the mud flowed down the Pasac River.
This mound grew through the years to become a mangrove, attracting up to 50,000 birds who left their old home behind due to cold weather. The tropical weather and presence of the mangrove caused birds to congregate, using it as a resting stop where food was plentiful and there was space for nesting. This was their pit stop en route to their final destination. There were so many different kinds of birds that by 2012 bird watchers came by to see them. It all went very well until typhoon Glenda hit in 2014.
A mangrove is a group of trees and shrubs that grow where the ocean meets land. The mangrove tree has a complex root system that is grounded and rooted in the bottom of the sea. They then rise above the waters, a curious netted configuration supporting trees, and spread along the coastline. Sometimes the trees emerge from the middle of a body of water, like a small “forest island” in a stream.
Mangrove shrubs and trees live along estuaries, rivers, and shores in tropical and subtropical climates. They are exceedingly strong. Their root system thrives on muddy soil, sand, partially decayed vegetable matter, and coral rock. They do very well in water that is 100 times saltier than most plants can endure.
Mangroves prevent soil erosion and offer protection from storm surges. They also protect seagrass and corals by removing stormwater pollutants. Sasmuan is a fishing village and the people benefit because mangroves create a habitat that nurtures various commercial fish and shellfish.
The Philippines ranks among the most vulnerable countries to flood damage caused by typhoons. For certain, Filipinos will benefit greatly if destroyed mangroves are rehabilitated and existing mangroves are preserved.
From 2005 to 2015, some 56% of Philippine property damage was blamed on typhoons and storms. Another 29% was the result of floods. Typhoon Haiyan caused some 6,000 deaths and over US $2 billion in damages. Mangroves can do their share to protect people and property from these natural disasters.
Strategic locations for mangroves
The Nature Conservancy, IH Cantabria in Spain, and WAVES worked together to identify where mangroves in the Philippines could provide the most protection benefits.
There is a need to restore the distribution of mangroves to their levels in 1950. This would give added benefits to some 267,000 Filipinos yearly, with 61,000 below the poverty level. Our country would be spared the US $450 million yearly in damages. As for the country’s frequent storms, mangroves can provide protection.
Bird and fish life
Mangrove trees allow migratory birds to rest en route to their final destination, which is halfway across the world. Birds leave a habitat because of the oncoming winter season, or because the habitat has few food sources and useful nesting areas.
The birds are present in Sasmuan because it provides a rich food source, and there is room for many nests. Mangroves don’t just shelter birds. They are a rich ecosystem where bees and other wildlife thrive.
The trees in the Sasmuan mangrove include Avicennia rumphiana, and the common Sonneratia alba. They shelter young fish species, mollusks, and other marine life that live in estuaries.
Even a dead mangrove is a good mangrove because many bird species prefer to nest in dead mangroves with tree holes in their trunks or termite nests, rather than build their own nests on top of tree branches. Dead mangroves help these bird species to breed and grow their numbers, including critically endangered bird species.
Some endangered birds in the SBMCHEA must be protected such as the spotted greenshank (Tringa guttifer), Nordmann’s, the black-faced spoonbill (Platalea minor), the Chinese egret, the Philippine duck, and the southeastern curlew (Numenius madagascariensis).
The near-threatened Malaysian plover is also found in Sasmuan. These traveling birds are declining in numbers because there are fewer nesting places for them, affecting their ability to breed.
Some agriculture activities that destroyed mangroves are the setting up of palm oil plantations, rice planting, growing rubber trees, and other agriculture.
The mangroves in Sasmuan are now a site for ecotourism, called the Sasmuan Bangkung Malapad Critical Habitat Ecotourism Area (SBMCHEA).
Mangroves aren’t sexy, but when you think about the wonderful ecological benefits they provide to both habitat and humanity, you may fall in love with them. After all, love is oftentimes blind.
To see the mangroves, you must travel to the municipality of Sasmuan. Upon arrival, you must get endorsed in the municipality for a booking for a 30-45 minute boat ride with a bangkero and some barangay officials.
They’ll lead you to a 300-meter boardwalk that is heightened so you might see a few of the 50,000 migratory birds that were counted in 2020. They come between October to January. There is also a view deck that offers breathtaking views of the mangroves, the coast of Sasmuan, and Bataan province.
For lunch, the Women’s Group of Sasmuan will cook their specialties, namely a seafood lunch. The Sinigang sa Palapat, a fruit produced by the mangroves, is as tangy as tamarinds. For dessert, they’ll offer palapat candy.
What is being done
Recognizing its value to the ecosystem, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu (DENR, May 8, 2017, to Feb. 2021) issued a DENR Administrative Order to protect the Sasmuan Bangkung Malapad Coastal Wetland. Its 405 hectares will remain a critical habitat and ecotourism space from 2021 to 2036, under the supervision of the government and the local government.
Dumping harmful waste isn’t allowed, nor can one occupy this critical habitat. Activities like burning, forming fishponds, illegal fishing, logging, mineral exploration, quarrying, and dumping hazardous wastes within the SBMCHEA are illegal.
We’re happy with Sasmuan’s success, but we know it’s an uphill climb since the Philippines lost 80% of its mangroves. Rehabilitating these mangroves is a must for the safety of society.
Threats and illegal mangrove clearing
The IUCN said that mangroves are globally at risk of extinction. In the Philippines, only 20% of our mangroves are left. Globally, 50% of mangroves still exist.
If the world were to lose all 70 mangrove species, it would devastate the economy and the environment. Coastal communities will be particularly hard hit. Right now, 11 mangrove species are at high risk of extinction. They may disappear before the next decade unless existing protective measures are enforced.
If humans destroy mangroves, they will lose aquaculture and commercial fish farming that thrives there. Destroying mangroves will harm their livelihood.
Mangrove clearing was banned in the Philippines in 1975, but it’s still being done. Mangrove destruction occurs when waterways are diverted for irrigation, or the swamps are paved over for roadways, changing the natural flow of water and affecting the habitat of mangroves that are made to respond to tidal fluctuations.
Humans change coastal waters into assembly halls, golf courses, resort dockyards, wharves, and boatyards. Mangroves have been destroyed to give way to them.
Pollutants from development will harm and kill either individual trees or entire mangrove areas. Buildings, waste, noise, and human and motor traffic stress plants and animals that inhabit these riverine ecosystems.
Mangroves are being chopped off and used for charcoal, and its timber is an important cottage industry for many coastal communities. Mangrove wood is a building material for construction and fuel. Its byproduct is high-quality charcoal.
In areas where fishing has fallen below subsistence levels, many people have no choice but to produce charcoal for their livelihood. This further engenders habitat loss and the decline of fish.
Ironically, the IUCN classifies the Philippines as the "center of the center" of marine ecosystem diversity, because out of 70 known mangrove species globally, over half of these species are in the Philippines.
Hopefully, we’ll focus not just on preserving existing mangroves, but on rehabilitating lost mangroves as well. We will accrue many benefits from the mangroves if we do.
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