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Various ecological theories have been floated in the wake
of last week’s lethal tsunami, which killed more than 150,000 people and left
areas of South and Southeast Asia unimaginably devastated. Some have blamed
the severity of the earthquake-spawned waves on global warming and its effects
on the Indian Ocean’s sea level; others have targeted the U.S. Navy’s undersea
sonar experiments for the intensity of the earthquake itself. But while the
current level of the Indian Ocean can be debated (some argue it’s actually lower
than usual this year), and the earthquake-generating power of sound in the ocean
is dubious, there is no question that one human activity on the region’s developed
coastlines contributed to the death toll: the cultivation of cheap shrimp, for
which vast swaths of protective mangrove forests have been claimed and cleared.

According to a December 30 report by the Science and Development
Network in India, the tsunami did less damage and swept away fewer lives in
the Pichavaram and Muthupet regions in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu
than it did in the Nagapattinam District. The difference: Pichavaram and Muthupet’s
forests have been kept intact, while Nagapattinam’s had been replaced by more
than 200 shrimp farms. (Most of them were illegal: India bars shrimp farming
within 1,500 feet of the coastline, but the law is often ignored.) Similar reports
resonated in the days following the disaster from around the Indian Ocean rim:
On Penang Island in Malaysia, according to the international environmental organization
Friends of the Earth, the Penang Inshore Fishermen Welfare Association acknowledged
that mangrove forests reduced the impact of the tsunami; environmental activist
Hemantha Withanage of the Sri Lankan Centre of Environmental Justice noted that
forested areas suffered little damage compared to their clear-cut surroundings.

Mangroves, the diverse, salt-tolerant forests that grow in the
intertidal zone between land and ocean, once covered three-fourths of the earth’s
tropical coastlines. They typically provide coastal areas with two stages of
protection, first with a lower-growth area where sediment collects in roots
and gives the ocean floor a shallow shape that slows incoming swells, next with
a layer of taller trees that break the force of the surf. Less than 50 percent
of the forests that were present in 1960 remain, according to Alfredo Quarto
of the Washington state–based Mangrove Action Project. Quarto calls mangroves
“the rainforests of the sea,” but unlike rainforests, mangroves are
disappearing without much public attention — as Quarto points out, governments
have until recently considered them wastelands. And while tsunamis are infrequent
enough that no one could have predicted the effects of the December 26 disaster,
scientists in the recent past have noted the consequences of other natural disasters
on coastlines stripped of their mangroves. In 1991, tropical Cyclone Marian
struck Chittagong, Bangladesh, sending up a massive “tidal bore” that
claimed 138,000 lives; eight years later, a “super-cyclone” in Orissa
on India’s east coast killed 10,000 people. In both instances, scientists around
the world blamed the human toll on regional deforestation. Tom Spencer of the
Cambridge Coastal Research Unit at Cambridge University, in an interview with
New Scientist, claimed that the destruction of Orissa’s mangroves
“left it wide open to attack by the wind and waves of the cyclones that
regularly lash the coast of eastern India and neighboring Bangladesh.

“I am quite sure,” he said, “that the loss of the
mangroves was a contributory factor in the
extent of the damage. In the past [they] would have dissipated the incoming
wave energy.”

Those mangroves were mostly cleared for cheap shrimp: “Prawn
culture” has been a burgeoning industry in both Orissa and Chittagong in
the past 15 years. Four protesters were killed in Orissa in a 1999 demonstration
against what Quarto calls a “boom and bust industry” that leaves “devastating
ruin in its wake.”

Like Orissa, Thailand also specializes in the tiger prawns so
popular in this country, and many of its own mangroves have been sacrificed
in recent years to the 250,000 tons of shrimp the country produces for the world
every year. At the time of the tsunami, shrimp farms dotted the coastal provinces
of Ranong, Phangga, Phuket and Krabi on Thailand’s coast. The region’s coral
reefs have also deteriorated along with the mangroves, disturbing another protective
barrier that, where it remained, saved lives. In the Surin Islands off Thailand’s
west coast, where coral reefs remain largely intact, very few people died, even
though the islands were directly in the tsunami’s path. Thai marine environmentalist
Thon Thamrongnavasawadi told Andrew Browne of The Wall Street Journal that
“most scrambled to safety as the first wave exploded against the coral.”
Coral demonstrated the same buffer effect in the Maldives, an island only three
or four feet above sea level, where reefs were said to have broken up the tsunami.
The death toll in the Maldives was 69.

No one is arguing that mangroves and coral could have stopped
the tsunami’s devastation altogether, and no one is willing to speculate as
to just how many lives could have been saved by virgin forests and undisturbed
reefs. But tourism and cheap shrimp have both been cited before by conservationists
as devastating to local ecologies and economies for less dramatic reasons: Both
pollute local waters and distort small economies. Alternatives to both exist,
such as farming the shrimp away from the coast, and vacationing in environmentally
responsible resorts. But the best solution now may be for humans simply to reduce
their consumption of shrimp — and understand that, even if you camp in the rainforest,
there’s really no such thing as environmentally benign tourism.