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May 28, 2008

Contributing to the damage inflicted by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar recently was the Southeast Asian nation’s loss of mangroves over the last four decades, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization. The mangroves, wetland forests of salt-tolerant trees and shrubs, were destroyed to make way for large-scale shrimp and prawn farms, rice fields, and human settlements. Serving as a natural buffer against coastal storms—the trees’ trunks, branches, and roots lessen the impact of wind and waves—mangroves also stabilize sediments, reducing the risk of shoreline erosion.

I got a firsthand look at mangroves not long before Cyclone Nargis hit. Back in April, they were featured on a tour I took on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. The thick patches of green with their labyrinthine root systems were a thing of wonder.

In the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the role mangroves play in protecting coastal areas had already been made clear: Sri Lankan regions with mangroves suffered less damage than those without. As noted in an essay in Current Biology, “the mangroves acted like an insurance policy against storm damage, nature’s insurance policy, with no premiums charged to anyone.” Sounds like we’re being offered a bargain.

Learn more at mangroveactionproject.org.

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