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Okinawa playing major role in protecting world's mangrove forests

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-06-27

The International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems (ISME) is responsible for educating people about the importance of mangroves, and also initiating conservation techniques for the sustainable use of mangrove forests. Officially inaugurated in August of 1990, the non-profit organization has grown to include 670 individual supporters from around the world and also over 35 private institutions. Many private Japanese companies help sponsor their work, and they are supported by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), an agency of the United Nations, whose main goal is to promote sustainable resource management of tropical timber. The ISME is headed by Sanga Sabhasri, a Senator of the Parliament of Thailand. Other officers also represent various mangrove organizations from different nations. Although an international organization, the ISME's main office is located at the University of the Ryukyus here on Okinawa, and is managed by Deputy Executive Secretary Dr. Shigeyuki Baba, an Associate Professor at the University of the Ryukyu's College of Agriculture.

Mangroves are an important part of the marine eco-system, and recently more scientists have begun to scientifically study the mangrove forests of the world. They are located in the inter tidal zones of the tropic and subtropical regions, where fresh water mixes with salt water, and land meets the sea. "We are doing research on how to protect the eco-system itself. There are many people living in the mangrove forests, therefore we need to also focus on them too," explained Baba. The relationship between the mangrove forests and the marine life in the surrounding ocean is critical to the survival of many forms of marine life. The decaying leaves of the mangrove forests provide nutrition for many small crabs, shrimp and other marine creatures, who are all part of the food chain, continuing up to larger fish in the sea. They also provide food and resources for many people living within, or near the forests. "We have a saying that simply says; No forest on the land, no fish in the sea. If we cut the mangrove forests down, we are destroying important feeding areas for different organisms and nurseries that protect small fish," said Baba.

The ISME has extended the work of UNESCO, who from 1983 until 1990 implemented a mangrove preservation and study project that encompassed about twenty Asian and Pacific Countries. "After termination of the project, many countries were eager to continue the work, so we formed ISME," said Baba. The organization has helped different countries, such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Fiji to develop nurseries for mangrove tree re-planting projects, and they have worked with the local population to educate them on the economic and environmental value of mangrove forests. They have also organized international seminars, and have published and distributed several reports, books, and videos for educational purposes.

The work of the ISME is becoming increasingly important, as mangrove forests around the world begin to disappear at an alarming rate. In Thailand alone, over 50% of the nation's mangrove forests have been lost. One of the main reasons behind Thailand's decline of mangroves is the lucrative shrimp farming business. Huge areas of forest are cut away to provide space for artificial ponds to raise shrimp for the world's seafood markets. Coastal development is another major cause for the disappearance of our world's mangroves.

There are about 17 million hectares of mangrove forest in the world, which are home to over 100 species of plants. Although Okinawa only represents a small population of the world's mangrove forests, about some 500 to 600 hectares, they are an excellent place for doing the research work needed to learn more about their function. Baba explained that plant life existing in salt water is something that is still a mystery to scientists. "Before I came to Okinawa, I was always taught in school by my teachers that plants could not survive in the sea, so when I came to Okinawa I was very surprised to see these forests growing in the sea." He is currently also doing genetic research on the existing plant life of the mangrove forests. "No one knows why the trees can survive in the sea with its high concentration of salt. If we could find the particular gene that is responsible for the survival of plants in salt water we could possibly form other strains of grains or rice to be grown along coastal areas," remarked Baba.

Baba's research here on Okinawa has been also coordinated with JICA, which brings scholarship students from around the world for technological training. He coordinates different training courses that help to develop more effective management of mangrove forests. He has been to Iriomote, which is home to the largest mangrove forest in Japan, over 200 times. Baba has also visited several foreign countries to study and research mangroves.

Okinawa's mangrove forests are very healthy according to Baba, but he worries about other underdeveloped countries that are having trouble protecting their own mangroves. "We must preserve the remaining mangrove forests of the world through sustainable resource management," said Baba.

Anyone interested in ISME, or wishes to attain more information on Mangrove forests can contact Dr. Baba at the ISME Headquarters. The phone number is 895-6601. Most of the material is printed in English and Baba also speaks English very well.

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