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The Caribbean mangrove forest that defied destruction

By Jose Alison Kentish29th March 2022.

On a sweltering summer day in 1994, an ancient mangrove forest on Union Island was ripped apart.  A foreign investor had started the foundation work for a hotel, marina and golf course in Ashton lagoon on Union Island, one of the 32 Grenadine islands which dot the clear, blue waters of the southern Caribbean Sea.  The sounds of birds chirping and waves crashing against the intricately woven roots of the mangroves was replaced by the noise of excavators and cement trucks, cutting the trees to make way for culverts and concrete pillars.  Poorly-sized pillars collapsed, cutting off tidal flow in the 10-acre (4-hectare) lagoon. More mangrove trees began dying. The clear water turned putrid and yellow. And what was once the most ecologically diverse lagoon in the region became a barren eyesore and mosquito breeding ground.

Matthew Harvey, a local fisherman and campaigner, was 37 years old at the time and recalls watching the destruction. His home in the nearby coastal community of Ashton provides a panoramic, aerial view of the site. That view, which had brought him immense joy, began to leave him sad. The hurt was personal: for three years Harvey had protested the development. He knew it would destroy the mangroves and in turn, a fishery that provided the fishermen of Union Island and nearby islands with sea bass, herring, snapper, lobster, conch and shrimp. Harvey had warned that giving investors rights to the mangroves could mean unprecedented ecological disaster for the island. But like similar projects in the Caribbean, promises of development and tourists were too alluring for a government eager to attract foreign investment and reduce unemployment.  "I tried, I protested," Harvey told me as we stood outside his home in January 2020. "Mangroves are important to survival on Union."

Mangroves on Union Island support a fishery that provide fishermen of Union Island and nearby islands with sea bass, herring, snapper, lobster, conch and shrimp. (Credit: Alamy)

Less than a year after dredging began, the Valdetarro Construction Company declared bankruptcy. Grace Deagazio, who formerly worked for the company as a secretary and public relations officer, says an environmental impact assessment was carried out before works started.

"The assessment was done at the time for the mangroves and there was no problem with regards to the coral reefs," she says. "There would have been no major environmental damage to the island itself, but our company went bankrupt due to an unfortunate series of financial problems. Union Island unfortunately got stuck right in the middle of the company’s bankruptcy; the project got frozen and it’s unfortunate."

Future Planet also contacted members of the former leadership of the company but received no reply. The company declared bankruptcy in 1995.

Ashton Lagoon's story is part of a sadly familiar wider picture. Despite their key role providing coastal protection, supporting local livelihoods and storing huge amounts of carbon, mangroves are disappearing, destroyed for coastal development. Globally, the area of mangroves decreased by over a million hectares (3,860 sq miles) between 1990 and 2020 – an area larger than the island of Puerto Rico. The economic fallout, including the loss of fisheries, has been calculated as greater than $40bn (£30bn) a year.

But Ashton Lagoon is not among those statistics, because its mangroves and fisheries are now thriving. The story of how that happened provides a blueprint for how other degraded mangroves around the world could one day be revived.

Young red mangroves grow in Ashton Lagoon (Credit: SusGren)

Mangroves live where most plants would die. Of the almost 400,000 plant species, only 1,500 are tolerant to saltwater. Some of these halophytes, as they are called, prevent salt from entering their roots, a process known as exclusion. Others excrete salt from special glands in their leaves. Ashton Lagoon has three of the world's 80 mangrove species: the red, which are excluders, and the black and white, which secrete salt. Today, the dark green, pointy leaves of black and red mangroves mingle with the round, light green leaves of the white to make a thick canopy. Its clear, emerald-green waters reveal submerged roots mooring the forest to the ocean floor. Mangroves are essential to our livelihood, especially for us fishermen – Matthew Harvey The area is a critical habitat for many species. Mangrove flowers attract birds like the egret, heron, bullfinch and hummingbird. Other birds, such as the brown pelican and the endangered West Indian whistling duck, use the forest for food and nesting. Fiddler and mangrove tree crabs scurry through the maze of roots, which also provide refuge to leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead and the rare green turtles. Near the ocean floor, the ecosystem is home to large fish, like snappers and parrotfish, and juvenile fish, like the grouper, which can remain in the mangrove nursery for more than five years. "Mangroves are essential to our livelihood, especially for us fishermen," Harvey says. "Before the damage, there were nurseries for all marine life: conchs, lobster, fish, sharks. We fed our families and sold them to residents and businesses." Harvey, now 62 years old, is fit and slim, a man always on the go. His toughness and strength were key to what happened on Union Island after the tourism development failed. In 1998, four years after the company declared bankruptcy, two Canadian researchers, Stephen Price and Purnima G Price, declared that Ashton Lagoon was "ecologically dead" in a report for the Union Island Association for Ecological Preservation. Mangrove forests are a notoriously difficult ecosystem to bring back once disturbed, they said, although damage to the lagoon system could be reversible "to some extent". In an effort to reverse the damage, Harvey, who was at the time president of the Union Island Eco Tourism Movement, teamed up with Orisha Joseph, director of local conservation agency SusGren, Lisa Sorenson, a conservation biologist and head of BirdsCaribbean, as well as officials of the Eastern Caribbean Coalition for Environmental Awareness.

The causeway cut off natural water circulation in Ashton Lagoon, causing eutrophication, as seen in this 2004 aerial photo of the lagoon (Credit: Michele Kading/BirdsCaribbean)

Steel bulkhead in Ashton Lagoon that was removed during the mangrove restoration (Credit: Lisa )Sorenson/BirdsCaribbean)

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