Fighting Against Time, Thousands Are Rebuilding Senegal's Mangrove Forests


See a slideshow of mangrove reforestation in Senegal

BIGNONA, Senegal -- I was eager to post this earlier, but when you're in Casamance, in southern Senegal, you've a catalog of good excuses.

There are the obvious ones: jet lag, culture shock, the intense heat. And then the roads are broken, their poorly-laid asphalt so riddled with holes and cracks that the dirt along the sides is often preferable. Power outages seem to always happen just when you need to charge your batteries, which turns out to be very often. Internet access is broadband, but that disappears with the power. And because of occasional violence by a small independence movement, military checkpoints sometimes keep you detained overnight, as happened to us. (We eventually got home, but not before a long string of phone calls.)But sometimes cell-phone service goes out too. That means, for instance, that when you need to reach someone, one of your hosts might volunteer to walk a mile to find them. It's also the rainy season, which means that relief from the heavy heat comes only from Earth-rumbling thunder and debilitating rainstorms.

Add to all this a very liberal approach to time - a necessity given all of the aforementioned inconveniences - and you have a recipe for serious delays.

But in spite of hurdles like these, the people I've met here aren't waiting. They're moving quickly, charged with an urgency that both the developing and developed world needs to learn from.

Tens of thousands of villagers across the Casamance region are part of a massive effort to restore the remarkable mangrove tree to its central place in the area's ecosystem, in the hope of providing a vital habitat for fish stocks, fortifying coastal areas from erosion, and creating a model for future environmental protection.

From Devastating Loss, An Exponential Comeback
Since it started to disappear during a dry spell in the 1970s, the mangrove was thought lost, due to drought and cutting for heat and construction. The loss hasn't been confined to Senegal, but extends to tropical climates across the globe, from Costa Rica to India; it's estimated that 30 percent of the world's mangroves have died since 1980.

And it's been a terrible loss: besides providing direct benefits to ecosystems and economies, the mangrove is a powerful carbon sequester, sucking up the gases that are helping to spur the sort of drought that hurts the mangrove itself. In Casamance, that irony has hit hard, leaving fields dried up and sending farmers trudging off in droves for Ziguinchor, or the overcrowded capital up north, Dakar.

A Network of Tree Huggers, No Internet Reqiured
Efforts to replant it were small and uncoordinated. But in 2006, Oceanium, the Senegalese aquatic center-turned-NGO led by the indefatigable environmental activist Haidar El Ali, went all out: it began a pilot project in one community, Tobor, launching a massive publicity campaign and enlisting local chiefs and politicians to organize youth in an effort that would plant 60,000 trees.

Word spread and the network of seed-pickers and planters grew. Without the Internet, Oceanium and locals have built a sandlenet 70,000 strong; last year, the NGO estimated that over 30 million trees had been replanted, a world record that bests China's "green wall." This year, after the three-month planting season that ends late this month, they expect to reach 60 million trees.

A small group of bloggers, visiting as guests of Danone, one of the project's sponsors, have seen the desiccated marshes that tell just how serious the problem is, and how great a challenge it is. You can't easily build a network of thousands if you can't get between villages, or can't easily contact your local coordinators. But no one expects this to be easy.

And yet, no one I've met here, among the dozens of local coordinators and the legions of unpaid volunteers, complained to me about the grueling work of picking mangrove seeds and replanting them.

"The youth are doing this because they know that if in ten years, we don't do anything, the salt will destroy everything," said Paulin Diatta, a local youth coordinator. "The hardest part is moving fast enough [to keep up with the loss of the mangroves]."

Diatta and others, who have long given up on the state's help, are grateful for the assistance that Oceanium and other local NGOs have provided. And rather than making excuses for the past, they're fixated on fixing the present for the future.

He says that the major challenges now - that there aren't enough seeds to plant, that the water is too salinated, that they need more volunteers - are problems that only they themselves can solve. And the more they work to solve them, the stronger their ecosystem can become, and the stronger their network of caretakers can become too.

"I'm very optimistic," said Diatta. "We're seeing real progress. And it's very important that people know the impact we are having."

Tags: Africa