Student Blogger Study Abroad

Love Among the Mangroves – More from Emily in Ecuador

A sturdy wooden walking bridge leads through a dense thicket of green mangrove trees in Ecuador.

Boardwalk through the mangroves. (A recent earthquake destroyed the far end of this path, though it didn’t break a single mangrove tree).

Each semester, one student from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Emily Bruell will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Community Internships in Latin America program this fall semester. Emily is a junior at Carleton College, majoring in English Literature and minoring in Spanish. Click here for Emily’s first post.

I did not plan to love the mangroves.

In the weeks leading up to our field trip to the mangroves, we collected an assortment of hints about what the trip would be like, gathered from offhand comments by our host families, professors, and the program information packet — and none of them were promising. So much mud, my host mom warned, and the information packet agreed. Rain boots are absolutely necessary. A guest presenter told us it was hotter than the jungle, but not so many bugs — except for the millions of mosquitoes. Crabs, too, according to Libby (another HECUA student whose friend completed the program the year before).

I planned to think of it as an educational experience, which is to say I planned to suffer through four hot, muddy, crabby days and emerge with a constellation of bug bites, a renewed appreciation for Quito’s climate, and a vague sense of having broadened my perspective.

I did not plan to love the mangroves.

But what I learned about them — what you have to understand — is that they’re so alive it almost hurts. Driving into our base town, San Jacinto, the landscape was filled with bare branched trees, part of the ‘dry woods’ that shed their leaves in the dry season. But the mangroves are green. They’re overflowing with it. A chaos of leaves and trunks becoming branches becoming roots, grounding the forest in brackish water and mud at the mouth of the river. And the birds! We must have seen hundreds. Egrets, pelicans, kingfishers, sandpipers, ibises, hawks, and more that I can’t remember. They filled the trees, the water, the sky.

A wooden sign stands at the end of a boardwalk leading out to the open water. In Spanish, it reads: "This isn't the end of the path... it's the beginning of the marine life."

This sign reads: It’s not the end of the path, it is the beginning of marine life.

And, for the record: mangroves are fun. In just two days they were the site for a mud fight, an epic slide, and a spa session with make-your-own mud masks — and after all of it, the river was there to escape the heat and wash off the mud and float downstream. I could have stayed in that forest for weeks.

But at least for me, the excitement of exploring the mangroves was mixed with the sobering thought that — as we’d learned in class that week – this incredible habitat is disappearing all too quickly. Over 250,000 hectares of Ecuadorian mangrove have been clear cut to make space for large scale fish and shrimp farming operations that export their product worldwide. Making matters worse, these companies also suction water from the mangrove ecosystem, and release harmful chemical agents into the water supply (such as fertilizers and pharmaceutical products used to treat the fish). This is happening worldwide —over 35% of the world’s mangroves have been clearcut.

Mural on the side of the wall Bahia de Caraquez Wall: "Take care of the trees, they're the lungs of the city"Mural on a Bahia de Caraquez Wall: “Take care of the trees, they’re the lungs of the city.”

And, of course, this isn’t just bad news for tourists and wildlife. Many local communities depend on the mangroves for food and livelihood fishing, as well as a source of fresh water — the mangroves absorb salt and purify the water of the estuary where they grow. They also act as a buffer zone for natural disasters, interrupting the force of a hurricane or tsunami and decreasing its impact on inland areas. In fact, a major reason why the recent Indonesian tsunami was so grave, with a death toll of over 1,300, is that the island of Sulawesi had clearcut all its coastal mangroves to make way for development and shrimp farming.

The good news, or at least the better news, is that people are increasingly recognizing the importance of these ecosystems and fighting to protect them. World Wildlife Foundation is partnering with governmental and non-governmental organizations around the world to promote the conservation of mangrove areas. The government of India has established a committee for the conservation of the country’s mangroves.

It’s a fight on a smaller-scale level as well; the community tour company Manglar de Isla Corazón y Fragatas, just outside the town where we stayed, has worked out a method of reforesting barren areas, cultivating shoots of mangrove until they sprout roots and then planting them directly in the mud. We got to help with this planting process as part of our tour with the company! And projects like this have seen real results — since 1999, reforestation efforts have restored ten thousand hectares of mangrove in Ecuador.

Writing this in the back of the bus, as we wind our way through the mountains and back to Quito, I have mixed emotions. I’m angry at the corporate greed and consumer shortsightedness that threatens the mangroves, and worried about this ecosystem and the communities that depend on it. But I’m also so grateful —  for the chance to see this incredible area, and for the efforts of people like our guides at the Manglar company to protect and restore the mangroves, and to  establish a tourism industry based in respect for them.

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