Compendium Vol. 3 No. 2: Blessed Unrest

Compendium Volume 3 Number 2 January 2020

In continuation of the “blessed unrest” section of Compendium V3N1, the following sketches illustrate how people throughout the world are coming to recognise the enormous value of intact ecosystems, and are doing their part to protect and restore. Adopting Paul Hawken’s terminology and characterization of “blessed unrest” as a spontaneous, decentralized global social movement, we here present a diverse series of vignettes of everyday heroes. May such stories light the fire for new heroes to perpetually emerge in defense of all life on Earth.

Sri Lanka wields mangroves, its tsunami shield, against climate change, summarized from Mongabay News, September 2019

Sri Lanka is home to 82 lagoons and estuaries and is among the top five countries that will be impacted by climate risk. Thilakaratne De Silva, a 63-year old local fisherman, saw the Tsunami of December 2004 sweep off half his home village. He was among the first to join hands with other community members on a coastal natural buffer initiative of replanting the mangroves. In the aftermath of the tsunami, it became apparent that those who lived behind a thick buffer of mangrove forest were better shielded from the destructive waves.

The government and NGOs initiated the mangrove replanting, as well as implementing regulations aimed at curbing mangrove clearing, coral reef destruction and sand excavation. But after the Government and NGOs moved on, it’s been the local community’s engagement and consistency that is ensuring the success of a green belt along the south coast.

The critical goal now is to sustain the positive conservation effort already in place. Sustainable use enables gathering of edible mangrove varieties and collecting twigs and branches rather than cutting down trees and shrubs, according to Sarathchandra de Silva, an international agency worker involved in the replanting program.

Sugunawathi, a 51-year-old villager says that they are mindful of not cutting mangrove for fuelwood, though the burning efficiency of mangrove is preferred to forest wood, gas or kerosene. The frequency and extent to which communities access mangrove forest has much to do with poverty and lack of livelihood. However, growing tourism employs more rural men, creating livelihoods and boosting mangrove appreciation by the local community. A local NGO has sought to incentivize women because of their influence on children and the community on the need for the sustainable use of mangroves. The Galle success is now a model for replication, which inspires authorities to want to boost coastal buffer owning to the resilient nature of mangrove forest in climate risk, with an addition of 10,000 hectares to the existing 15,670 hectares already in place.

For one Indonesian village, mangrove restoration has been all upside, summarized from Mongabay News, September 2019

Demand for firewood in recent years led to the depletion of the mangrove forest in the Indonesia village of Paremas. For years the people’s occupations were agriculture and fishing. Depleted fish stock, poor irrigation and challenges associated with land ownership drove most of the men to work overseas in order to raise money to care for their loved ones, while some women went abroad to work as domestic servants. The women who stayed home have depended on their husbands’ remittances in addition to collecting fish and other sea life in pools.

However, about 10 years ago, the local government and environmental NGOs emphasized the significance of restoring the mangrove. With the help of the locals, everyone got to work replanting Paremas mangrove forest, which in turn now cushions the effect of tidal waves, limits coastal flooding, saves arable land from coastal erosion, reduces plastic and garbage deposit on the beach, and increases biodiversity. With the availability of crabs, vegetables and fruits, the women started making crab crackers, as well as cakes made from the flour of mangrove fruits, creating a source of income for the women to support their families. “There are many benefits now,” says Hanieti, a resident mother, “even the mosquitoes are gone.”

Coastal recovery: bringing a damaged wetland back to life, summarized from Yale Environment 360, May 2019

“It was a stink hole,” says Al Rizzo, the refuge manager of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware Bay. Humans had messed with hydrology in an ill-conceived project aimed to convert salt marsh into a large open freshwater impoundment system to attract migrating waterfowl among others. Lines of dunes and tidal gates were constructed to barricade the inflow of salt water. However, severe storms, including Hurricane Sandy, tore open gaps in dune lines, inundating the re-engineered system with salt water, killing fresh-water marsh grass, and turning a healthy riparian forest into a wasteland of dead trees.

In order to reverse the damage of this unnatural disaster, government agencies and conservation groups used the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Fund to embark on a $38 million attempt to restore 4000 acres of damaged wetland. Engineering with nature is how Rizzo and Bart Wilson, restoration project manager, describe their approach, in which they are taking cues from nature to create a more resilient ecosystem. The objective is to allow the system to adjust itself and to work based on normal coastal dynamics.

Relying on existing data, extensive hydrodynamic modeling was applied to find out what actually works. The refuge was found to have no elevation problem but rather a plumbing challenge. Work started with closing up the breaches by reconstructing the beach and dunes. The restored dunes are now 10ft high, allowing for overwash to dissipate storm and wave power. Sediments produced were cast onto the banks creating sand flats that are being colonized naturally by native grass. A neural network of channels was opened on historic waterways to let the tide flow back in and out. The result is a healthy tidal marsh with meandering channels, lush salt-tolerant grasses and mudflats that attract rich diversity of fish and birdlife. The Prime Hook is becoming a model for wetland restoration globally.

Indian temple restores sacred forest stream flow

Sacred forests/groves are not uncommon in India, especially in the biodiverse Western Ghats mountain range. These groves are community-protected patches of forest ranging in size from less than a hectare to several hundred hectares, and they are often believed to house gods [Ormsby & Bhagwat 2010]. A particular temple in the Western Ghats just outside the small town of Meenangadi in the state of Kerala owns 30 acres of forested hillside regarded as sacred.

In a clearing at the bottom of these hills, the people of the temple erected a shrine over a small stream flowing from their forest. Eventually, they built an elegant structure around the shrine with an opening in the roof to allow rain to wash onto the shrine. Praying involves touching the sacred stream water.

A few decades ago, however, in need of revenue, the temple cut a few acres at the uphill edge of their 30-acre plot and sold the wood. Following the loss of this portion of forest came a decline in the flow of the stream connecting the remaining sacred forest with the shrine. During the seasonally dry months of March and April, the stream had begun to run dry.

Concerned, temple officials went to the mayor in search of a solution to the drying of their stream. Town officials connected the temple with Kerala’s forestry department, whose mission includes increasing “the inflow of water to the reservoirs by improving the tree cover / forest cover over catchment areas,” “managing forests in such a way that it protects and enriches the social and cultural values of the state,” “protection and expansion of mangroves, sacred groves and other highly sensitive ecosystem,” and taking “Kerala to greater heights in the matter of biodiversity conservation,” among other goals [Kerala Forests and Wildlife Department website].

Given a mission such as this, the forest department knew what to do. They agreed to help by reforesting the clear-cut uphill edge of the sacred forest. Using only indigenous species, they planted some 89 different varieties of trees and shrubs, including medicinal varieties, on 1.6 hectares. This project was completed about five years ago.

On an afternoon in late January this year, as a Paradise Flycatcher darted in and out from the edge of the sacred grove to drink and bathe a few meters upstream of the shrine, a trained ear could hear another couple of dozen different bird species calling from the surrounding forest. Temple staff members said they have indeed seen more birds now that the cleared forest has been replanted. And the stream no longer runs dry, not even in March and April.

Ormsby, Alison & Shonil A. Bhagwat, 2010, Sacred forests of India: a strong tradition of community-based natural resource management, Environmental Conservation 37 (3),  

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 3 Number 2 January 2020