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GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts ? this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood. The grim news from Myanmar gets even worse. A hundred thousand lives lost; a million without homes or basic necessities.
Most of the deaths and damage were the result of a 12-foot wall of water that flattened everything in the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta. But scientists say much of the destruction could have been prevented ? if only the mangrove forests that protect the coast had not been cut down. Jeff McNeely is Chief Scientist for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. I want to thank you for joining us.
MCNEELY: My pleasure.
GELLERMAN: What role does the deforestation of mangroves play in the Burma disaster?
MCNEELY: I think it plays a very substantial role. Burma is an incredibly poor country, and they've been forced by desperation to clear the mangroves all the way to the edge of the Irrawaddy Delta. And the result of that has been to remove the buffer that had protected them from storms that periodically come shooting up the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea right into Burma.
GELLERMAN: Well, why clear the mangroves?
MCNEELY: Well, mangroves are worth money if you cut them down, you could make firewood out of them, construction materials, you can use the land for growing shrimp. But it's not really very economic and it's not something that is a long-term benefit. You get a very quick return from cutting down the forest, but you pay a long-term cost, as they're learning right now today.
But the mangroves typically are not owned by individuals; they're public land. And so people who are desperate, and certainly the general population in Burma is very desperate, and they've been forced to do something that they certainly traditionally would have not have done because they know the consequences.
GELLERMAN: Well, so, why did they do it?
MCNEELY: Out of sheer desperation in a country whose economy is tanking while many of their neighboring countries are prospering well.
GELLERMAN: How do mangroves protect a low-lying coastal area?
MCNEELY: Well, so you can imagine a river like the Irrawaddy with a huge watershed that drains most of Burma, and it brings down a lot of sediment. That sediment is deposited as the river slows down when it reaches the sea. The mangroves are what fix the soil as ? before it can run out into the middle of the ocean. So along the whole coastal zone of Burma, from one part of the coast to the other, is mangroves because they're able to grow in salt water.
And because they grow in salt water, they're able to protect the coastal zone against further erosion when there are storms. So they fix the soil, they protect against further erosion, and they serve as a nursery for the fisheries that provides much of the protein that goes to feed the people of Burma.
GELLERMAN: So when a cyclone moves up into an area and hits the coastal area, these mangroves basically anchor the soil and help dissipate the energy from the waves?
GELLERMAN: What do mangroves look like? Are those, those kind of trees, those evergreen trees that have the trunks growing high up into the water?
MCNEELY: Well, they have multiple trunks, you know, it's like a whole bunch of little fingers sticking out, reaching out into the soil. And that's what helps them to capture the sediments and to hold the sediments.
GELLERMAN: What about places like Bangladesh, which is not far from Burma, in the Bay of Bengal. 1991 they lost 140,000 people in a devastating cyclone there. How have they done with their mangroves?
MCNEELY: What they have done is establish a World Heritage Site called the Sunderbans, which is at the mouth of the Brahmaputra and Ganges Rivers, and it really is a bi-national site with India. So the most substantial mainland mangrove in all of Asia is there. And it's also one of the areas that is the best habitat for tigers.
So it's a place where the tigers are being conserved because the government of Bangladesh has recognized the multiple values of the mangroves: for fisheries, for storm protection, and for various minor forest products that can be harvested in a sustainable way. Improved management is basically the answer.
GELLERMAN: You studied Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. What did you learn there?
MCNEELY: The areas where there were solid mangroves, where the mangrove forests were healthy, suffered much less damage than places where the mangroves had been destroyed.
GELLERMAN: So what, if anything, can be done now about Burma and its mangrove forests. What should be done?
MCNEELY: Well I think our first concern has to be for the people. And so we've gotta find a way to get in there and help the people who are being damaged by this environmental destruction. And then as soon as we're able to stabilize the human tragedy, then we should start replanting the mangroves, implementing the legislation that's on the books but isn't being implemented, and putting it into practice to make sure that the mangroves are able to re-grow as quickly as possible. We can certainly help them to do that through the experience we've learned in working to recover the mangroves following the tsunami.
GELLERMAN: Well Mr. McNeely, thank you very much.
MCNEELY: It was my pleasure.
GELLERMAN: Jeff McNeely is the Chief Scientist for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.