Mangroves Stop Tsunami

A Mangrove Seedling Sends it Roots Deep into Sand

Editor’s Note: Few places on earth are as vulnerable to ecological disruption as where the sea meets the land. On the coastlines of this world the tidal erosion, the deposition of silt and effluents from rivers and the batterings of storms create a fragile and ever-changing environment.

Not only are coastline ecosystems unusually fragile, they are crucial to the fortunes of humanity. Over a billion people reside within 100 miles of the ocean, many of them deriving their livelyhoods from the ocean, and all of them dependent on a measure of stability between sea and land.

Few people realize how dependent tropical coastal communities are on Mangrove forests; trees that grow in sand and salt water and form a buffer miles in depth between ocean storms and tidal waves and the land and human communities just inland. Fewer still realize the havoc wreaked on Mangrove forests by commercial aquaculture. In just the last few decades over 30% of the world’s Mangrove forests, covering tens of thousands of miles of coastline, have been destroyed to make room for shrimp farms.

This article by Muhammed Meshabi also examines the recommendations made by the Brandt Commission, headed by Willy Brandt in the 1980′s after he reliquished his Chancellorship of what was then West Germany. Willy Brandt was a visionary, a man of extraordinary compassion and conscience, who anticipated the onrush of global trade liberalisation, and made attempts to recommend ways to mitigate the consequences of unfettered capitalism.

While many readers may not agree with the specific recommendations Brandt and his successors have made, nor many of their assumptions, some facts are none-the-less clear. One example among countless others is the failure of the global community to protect Mangrove forests, and the catastrophic consequences of replacing these forests with shrimp farms. While obviously the impact of globalization on the environment and humanity isn’t always negative, it’s important to heed the warnings and the recommendations of those who see alternative models of globalization, models that also strive to hold the interests of humanity and the environment in harmony with economic gain. – Ed “Redwood” Ring

The response of the world public to the tsunami disaster

on December 26th, 2004 is one of heartfelt empathy and an instinctive desire to help fellow human beings in trouble. Never before have so many people, from so many countries given so much to the victims of a disaster. World governments have promised and provided far greater sums of aid than they originally intended to offer because of the sheer magnitude of the public’s generosity. The US initially pledged $15 million but in the end promised $350 million while the UK government raised their pledge to $96 million.


How many people realise, however, that many of the deaths caused by the Tsunami could have been prevented? The areas affected have been hit by tsunamis in the past, with far fewer deaths resulting, because the coastlines of South East Asia were protected by a natural defence system, composed of coral reefs and mangrove forests.

Many of the previous tsunamis were tamed by the coral reefs before hitting the coast, where they were absorbed by a dense layer of red mangrove trees. These flexible trees, with long branches growing right down into the sand below the surface of the sea, absorb the shock of tsunamis. Behind the red mangrove trees there is a second layer of black mangrove trees, which are taller and slow down the waves.

Mangrove roots form powerful limbs in open water

Thousands of miles of coastline in South East Asia were densely covered in mangrove forests, protecting the coastline from erosion, absorbing carbon dioxide and providing a breeding ground for crustaceans and fish, on which the local population depended for their livelihood. This was a fragile environment, which ecologists have long recommended should enjoy special protection. In India a Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) was created to protect a 500 meter buffer zone along the coast.

While the belt of mangrove forest still existed, the people of the area lived inland, behind it. In 1960 a tsunami hit the coast of Bangladesh in an area where the mangroves were intact. No-one died. These mangroves were subsequently cut down by the shrimp (prawn) farming industry and in 1991 thousands of people were killed when a tsunami of the same magnitude hit the same region. On Dec 26th 2004, Pichavaram and Muthupet, in South India, who still have their mangrove forests, suffered fewer casualties than the surrounding mangrove-less areas of coast.

Mangroves also acted as a barrier, helping people to survive on Nias Island, Indonesia, close to the epicentre of the Dec 26 tsunami. Burma and the Maldives suffered less from the tsunami because the shrimp and tourism industries had not yet destroyed all their mangroves and coral reefs.


Since the 1960s, the mangrove forests of South East Asia have been systematically destroyed to make way for commercial shrimp (prawn) farming and a massive increase in the tourism industry. The aquaculture and tourism industries succeeded in diluting any protective regulations that were in place, until they were able to take over most of the buffer zone. Almost 70% of South East Asia’s mangrove forests have now disappeared.

Industrial Shrimp
Action Network

Since three quarters of South East Asian commercial fish species spend part of their life cycle in the mangrove swamps the loss of these swamps has resulted in declining fish harvests. To compound this situation, the commercial feeds, pesticides, antibiotics and non-organic fertilizers used in intensive shrimp farms have generated huge amounts of pollution, destroying the remaining fish and harming the coral reefs.

As the fish have declined, desperate fishermen resorted to dropping dynamite into the reefs to drive them out. Scientists working for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) have recently compiled The World Atlas of Coral Reefs, an underwater survey. They found that one third of the world’s coral reefs are in South-east Asia and almost all are under threat. 70% of the world’s coral reefs have already been destroyed. 80% of Indonesia’s reefs are in danger. Dynamite fishing has contributed to the destruction of an ecosystem already under threat from sediment erosion caused by the loss of mangrove forests, shrimp farm pollution and untreated sewage from the tourism industry.

Global Aquaculture

Almost all farmed shrimp is eaten in the US, Western Europe and Japan, where consumption has increased by 300% in the last ten years. Today world shrimp production, in an industry worth $9 billion, is almost 800,000 metric tons and 72% of farmed shrimp comes from Asia. Hundreds of nongovernmental organizations have sprung up at local, national and international levels to oppose this destructive aquaculture industry. In 1997 the Industrial Shrimp Action Network (ISA Net) was formed, a global alliance opposed to unsustainable shrimp farming. Aquaculture corporations responded by forming the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) to counter the claims of the ISA Network. Commercial shrimp farming has displaced local communities, exacerbated conflicts, decreased the quality and quantity of drinking water and decimated the natural fish species on which the local population rely. The population of these areas ended up living right on the coast, without the benefit of their protective mangrove forests. Their coral reefs were by now eroded by pollution, dynamite fishing, tourists (who tread on the reefs) and the rising temperature of the sea.


The reason aquaculture and tourism corporations have been allowed to destroy the coastal environment of South East Asia is because the current neoliberal trade system tends to favor corporations over concerns for the environment and the people living in it. Trade liberalisation, through the World Trade Organisation, has enabled corporations to challenge the legislation of countries they want to operate in, legislation that was designed to protect the local environment.

Willy Brandt

In the 1980s Willy Brandt warned that the current global economic system, with its emphasis on profit as an overriding virtue, would lead to environmental degradation and worsening poverty in the third world. He said “Important harm to the environment and depletion of scarce resources is occurring in every region of the world, damaging soil, sea and air. The biosphere is our common heritage and must be preserved by cooperation – otherwise life itself could be threatened” How prophetic these words sound today.

Brandt set up the Independent Commission on International Development Issues to make an in-depth study of the global economy. His team of advisers included many experts in the field of international policy and economics. Their detailed report came to the conclusion that the developed nations dominated international trade and that this was unbalanced and biased in favour of large corporations based in the West. The Brandt Commission was the first major independent global panel to examine connections between the environment, international trade, international economics and the third world. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development took Brandt’s proposals regarding the environment seriously enough to hold international conferences in Rio in 1992 and in Kyoto in 1997. However America refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol and corporate power prevented any of the Brandt Report recommendations being put into practice.

The Brandt Reports called for a complete restructuring of the global economy, in order to protect the environment and meet the needs of the world population. Willy Brandt said “We see a world in which poverty and hunger still prevail in many huge regions; in which resources are squandered without consideration of their renewal; in which more armaments are made and sold than ever before; and where a destructive capacity has been accumulated to blow up our planet several times over.” He proposed a Summit of World Leaders, with the backing of a global citizens’ movement, to discuss how to meet the needs of the majority of the world’s people. This would, he recognised, mean huge changes to the international economy. He proposed a series of measures, including:

An emergency aid program to assist countries on the verge of disaster

Third world debt forgiveness

Fair trade

Stabilisation of world currencies

Reduction in the arms trade

Global responsibility for the environment

A major overhaul of the global economic system.

Brandt also recognised that poverty contributes to high birth rates and that overpopulation puts pressure on the environment. This has indeed happened all over the world, including South East Asia.

UN’s Office of
of Humanitarian Affairs

Only one organisation has the people and the close relationships with governments to make coordinated disaster aid work, the UN’s Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Yet immediately after the 2004 tsunami world leaders were in disagreement over coordination of the relief operation.

Willy Brandt recognised that the UN needed to be restructured to make it democratic and effective and all the UN agencies needed to be reformed to make them more efficient. He called for emergency programs for food, housing and healthcare to be coordinated. He recommended cutting the red tape to ensure that resources reached impoverished people directly, unfiltered through inefficient bureaucracy. He called for national projects, overseen by representatives from developed and developing nations.

Brandt recommended that instead of fighting wars, armies and navies from the developed world could be deployed to bring in the food, resources and technology needed to help poor nations reverse hunger and poverty. This has indeed been happening since the tsunami. Armies and navies have indeed been bringing food, resources and technology to the disaster areas.

Since the tsunami world opinion has shifted. People have been so moved by the plight of the people in the devastated areas that they have begun to talk about poverty and injustice in other parts of the world, such as Africa. Some of the poorest people in the world are concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa. Over the past few decades official development assistance to third world countries has been declining and few donor countries now give the internationally-agreed 0.7% of their gross domestic product. In the end it will be popular opinion which pushes governments into rethinking their aid policies. Since the tsunami, people have been increasingly questioning the amount of their countries’ aid budgets and demanding that more aid is given to third world countries.

Most of the world’s tropical coastlines have a barrier ofMangrove forests, but only about 70% of these forests remain.


In a special report to Kofi Annan at the United Nations in 2004, Jeffrey Sachs presented the “Global Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals”. This report, developed by 300 economists and researchers, reiterates many of the aims of the Brandt Reports:

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Achieve universal primary education

Promote gender equality and empower women

Reduce child mortality

Improve maternal health

Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

Ensure environmental sustainability

Develop a global partnership for development


20,000 poor people die every day from preventable diseases in Africa, partly because their governments are paying $30 million dollars a day in interest to the World Bank, the IMF and the rich world creditor nations. Currently for every one dollar that is given to Africa in aid one and a half dollars goes out to pay the interest on debts.

Third world debt today is $2.6 trillion. Between 1982 and 2003 the developing world has paid $5.4 trillion in interest. This means that the developing world has already paid back the amount it now owes more than twice. Willy Brandt called for total third world debt forgiveness. However the World Bank, the IMF and rich creditor countries were not prepared to forgo the huge amounts of interest they were receiving every year from poor, heavily-indebted countries. But over the past twenty years a groundswell of public protest has gradually been growing, demanding an end to third world debt. After the tsunami the voice of the protesters were heard again, demanding the immediate cancellation of the debts of the countries affected. As a result governments have been pressured into giving third world debt relief some serious thought.


Brandt recommended restructuring the World Trade Organisation to allow
proportional representation and decision-making by poor countries of the third world. He wanted to establish a new code of conduct for international corporations, to curb their power and prevent them from carrying out environmentally unsound practices and to improve conditions of the workers. He proposed trade liberalisation and the removal of trade barriers. Unfortunately GATT has done just that, but only in the third world. Trade barriers remain in the first world, where the rich counties spend $300 billion every year in subsidies, subsidies that prevent the poor countries having access to their markets. Brandt wanted to remove these subsidies, which give the rich world an unfair advantage.


Since Brandt’s reports the World Trade Organisation and the Free Trade Agreements have carried out a policy of perpetual trade liberalisation at any price. The result has been disastrous for the third world, which comprises 85% of the world population. Their share of international trade is only 25% because prices for everything that they export, from raw materials to cash crops, have fallen and continue to fall. Legislation designed to promote health and protect the environment in third world countries has been challenged and overruled in the name of trade


The Brandt Reports noted that the abolition of the gold standard had had a disastrous effect on the currencies of third world countries. When the US set up the flexible exchange rate system in 1971 third world currencies began to fluctuate and in most cases to fall in value. This was and is because investors could now buy and sell currencies on the world market, thus causing their value to increase or decrease at a moments notice. Rich countries such as the US and the EU were better protected against these currency fluctuations simply because they had larger amounts of money. This has led to rich people in third world countries investing their money in the US in order to protect it from the monetary instability of their own countries. This money has bolstered the US dollar, which otherwise would not be able to withstand the enormous fiscal and trade deficits incurred during the Bush administration.


Brandt wanted to stabilise world currencies and another Nobel Prize-winner, the economist James Tobin, proposed a solution. In 1971 he suggested that a tax of less than 0.5% on all foreign currency exchange transactions would deter currency speculation. Support is growing for the Tobin tax, which would reduce the volatility of exchange rates and raise much needed revenue to pay for sustainable human development.


Brandt was concerned about the huge waste of resources involved in military spending. Arms sales to poor countries contribute to conflict, increase their burden of debt and further impoverish them. As of late 2004, 24 of the 40 poorest countries in the world, mostly in Africa, continue to suffer armed conflict. The Brandt Reports recommended the conversion of arms production into civilian production, reducing arms exports, making the whole arms export business transparent and taxing
the arms trade.

British tax payers subsidise the armament industry to the tune of approximately L200 million per annum. The reason governments subsidise corporations who export weapons is because the public allow them to. Tax payers’ money benefits arms exporters, who do inestimable harm to the third world countries who buy the arms. These countries are spending money they can ill afford on armaments, instead of investing in services. The Campaign against the Arms Trade recommends putting a stop to subsidies to arms manufacturers and exporters. According to estimates from the World Bank, world poverty could be relieved by spending approximately one tenth of the world’s annual military budget.

Not everything in the Brandt Reports is relevant today but significant portions of it are more relevant than ever: those parts that refer to the necessity to cancel third world debt, reduce arms trading and to put in place and enforce international legislation to protect the environment. The world was not ready for these proposals in the 1980s but perhaps it is ready now.

Nobel Prize winner Willy Brandt had high hopes when he and his team of experts compiled their detailed reports. They had spent years researching world poverty and the best way to alleviate it. Brandt’s far reaching vision predicted many of the human and ecological disasters that have occurred since the 1980s, as a result of neoliberal economic policies. His reports laid out an alternative system of global governance, based on the principle of sharing: sharing the world’s resources and sharing responsibility for the environment. He proposed that every member of the human race had a right to food, water, shelter, clothing, education and healthcare. Only when every human being’s basic needs have been fulfilled will the world’s population stabilise. Social sustainability is the prerequisite for environmental sustainability.

Sustainable models of aquaculture preserve Mangrove
forests, leaving human communities safer from
Tsunami, and protecting fish breeding grounds

Perhaps world leaders could be persuaded to re-examine both the original Brandt reports and their updated versions to come together to discuss how to implement some of the recommendations. World opinion is calling for a more equitable and just world in which everyone has the right to food, water, shelter, clothing, education and healthcare; where the power of corporations is curbed in favour of human rights and the environment; where governments are shamed into putting a stop to arms exports and where the money currently squandered in wars is spent on raising the standard of living of the world’s poor.

About the Author: Mohammed Mesbahi is the Chair and Founder of Share the World’s Resources (STWR), based in London, England. The website of Share the World’s Resources is


United Nations Conference on Environment and Development

Mangrove Nursery Establishment & Management

One Ocean

Mangrove Action Project

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