There is something about water that draws humans and other living beings. Could it be the fact that up to 60 percent of the human body is made up of water? When people say that water is life, the meaning goes deeper than the fact that water quenches our thirst, refreshes us and generally feeds us. It also refers to the fact that water provides the environment for aquatic species to thrive and generally for a vast variety of fauna and flora.
One of the tree species that gives an unforgettable presence once your eyes lock on them is the mangrove. If you are fisher, the sight of a mangrove forest signifies the abundance of fish. No matter who you are, the stately and entangled stilt roots lining a coastline, with a dense canopy of branches and leaves, are captivating pictures to behold.
The pull of the endless expanse of the sea and the pull of the terrestrial verdant mangrove canopies on the coastline engage in continuous battle of who would hold captive the coastline communities as well as the fishers. This push and pull gives creative impetus to fishers who sing as they row out into the sea and as they row back with their catch to the expectant reception of families and friends. What would life be in a Niger Delta without mangroves?
The generous aesthetics and socio-economic pull of the mangrove environment along the Nigerian coastline got Jerry Chidi, a documentary photographer, to make the journeys along the banks of our major rivers as well as along the Atlantic coast from Badagry to Bakassi over a period of ten years. His output is a testament to focus, tenacity and high crafts from a man who sees photography as medium for awakening of consciousness. He describes his photography as a “medium for inspiration and social awakening… not only to entertain us but to also arouse in us feelings of empathy and deep connection to other beings, places or social issues and ultimately to move us to action.”
Chidi memorialised his photographs in the book, Man and Mangroves – An Environmental Awakening. The book, a catalogue of visuals that demand responses and actions, in 146 photographs, documents the beauty of the mangrove, the foods and the livelihoods they support. Importantly, it shows the severe damage and mindless despoliation that reckless exploitation of the environment has brought about.
The book sets before our eyes incontrovertible evidence of the great ecological devastation and economic ruination visited on the Niger Delta by oil and gas exploitation as well as by the illegal activities of some community persons. The book shows how poverty gets entrenched in a region drowning in wealth. There are sections in the book that show before and after images of the same location and starkly illustrate the sharp deterioration that has occurred in a short span of three to five years.
Man and Mangroves illustrates the wealth that Nature has bequeathed to coastal communities. The pictures can speak for coastal communities whose mangroves have been devastated for touristic infrastructure or for industrial activities including forms of aquaculture across the tropics. Some of the photos echo the destruction of mangroves in Asia that exposed communities to devastating impacts of cyclones as well as in a place in Brazil which fisherfolks call the Cemetery of Mangroves due to destruction of mangroves there by hydrocarbon pollution and fires.
Mangroves are rightly considered as an important source of life and protector and supporter of coastal towns and communities. They are important place-markers and add to the identity, traditions and cultures of the peoples interacting with them.
Mangroves are trees or shrubs mostly found in tropical regions and which grow in tidal, coastal swamps. They grow in brackish or saltwater marshes and swamps and do well in harsh environments that other plants can hardly tolerate. The point to note here is the fact that although mangroves tolerate brackish or saltwater, they do also grow in freshwater swamps. There are many species of mangroves, but the most common are of the red or white varieties.
The mangrove forests in Nigeria are the largest in Africa and the third largest in the world. While they can be found all the way from the western (Badagry) to eastern (Bakassi) extremities of the Atlantic coastline of Nigeria, 60 percent of them are found in the Niger Delta.
They have roots that grow above the ground and often form intricately tangled forms that only Nature can weave. The roots are not above water for mere aesthetic effects. They are above water because the plants breathe through pores on them. The roots help the trees to breathe because the muddy soils in which they grow are poorly aerated. The trees shoot their roots into the air, literally to avoid suffocation. It is like they hold their breath in high tide and take in as much air as they can in low tide.
This breathing strategy fails when there is an oil spill. The pores through which they breathe get clogged by crude oil and the trees actually begin to suffer from loss of air and some literally suffocate. If trees could talk, they would cry out they can’t breathe! Besides being breathing roots, the stilts also help to stabilise the trees as they get older and bigger and have to contend with fairly unstable soils. The trees provide materials for construction, boat building and fuel. The leaves are medicinal and are also used for livestock feed. They help to cool the planet by serving as efficient carbon sinks.
Many fish species find the tangled mangrove roots as good places to lay their eggs and for the juveniles to thrive in. The mangroves are thus natural nurseries for fisheries. About 75 percent of global fish catch come from mangrove ecosystems. They make up about 4 percent of the vegetation on earth but provide nests for most marine life. Aquatic species found in the Niger Delta mangrove ecosystems include crabs, clams, shellfish, crayfish and shrimps which are caught at low tide. They also include species like the West Africa manatee, sea turtles and pygmy hippopotamus.
It is estimated that for every 0.4 hectare (1 acre) of mangrove forest destroyed there is a loss of about 300 kg of marine harvest. We often say #FishNotOil. Considering the fundamental importance of mangroves, we may also say #MangroveNotOil. Absorbing two to four times more carbon than other trees, mangroves certainly help to cool the planet while fossil fuels set the planet on fire. The mangroves are incubators of economies, cultures and overall wellbeing. On the other hand, fossil fuels pollution destroys livelihoods, build despondency and ignite conflicts.
Mangroves are important, indeed vital, for both aquatic species and for humans who depend on them. They reduce the vulnerability of coastlines to sea level rise, hurricanes, cyclones and storms. The loss of mangroves along the Nigerian coast is one reason coastal communities exposed to unrelenting sea waves are losing ground. Coastlines with less disturbed mangrove forests suffer less damage from storms and tsunamis than the coastlines that have been taken over by infrastructure including luxury resorts. In other words, faulty business activities lead to exposure of vulnerable communities to harm.
According to Devinder Sharma in an article, Tsunami, Mangroves and Market Economy, “Mangrove swamps have been nature’s protection for the coastal regions from the large waves, weathering the impact of cyclones, and serving as a nursery for three-fourth of the commercial fish species that spend part of their life cycle in the swamps. Mangroves in any case were one of the world’s most threatened habitats but instead of replanting the mangrove swamps, faulty economic policies only hastened its disappearance.”
He writes that mangroves provide double protection at shorelines, with the first layer of red mangroves absorbing shock from waves using their flexible branches and tangled roots. Adding to this first line of defense is a second layer that is made up of taller black mangroves that “operate like a wall withstanding much of the sea’s fury.”
Seeing that the largest mangrove forest in Africa is in Nigeria, their destruction translates to a major threat to fisheries on the continent and to the economies and wellbeing of coastal communities and fishers. In the words of Professor Olanrewaju Fagbohun, “It is our collective responsibility …to ensure that our presence in the environment does not alter its eco-dynamics. A destabilised mangrove would have dire social and environmental consequences in the short and long run.”
A word of wisdom from Desmond Majekodunmi: protecting our mangroves is a step towards halting the ongoing infanticide and ecocide in the Niger Delta.
Nnimmo Bassey is Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)