As your boat slices through the lazy river, you take in the surroundings. Red mangroves line both sides of the waterway. Their roots reach up to the sky, meeting the tree above the surface. A wary crocodile snakes through the convoluted maze. A white ibis watches your vessel from above. The nurturing mangroves of Belize offer shelter and food to these creatures, along with dozens of other birds and aquatic animals. The land and wildlife exist because the trees exist.
The red mangrove’s signature roots, known as prop roots, reach out of the water and arch up to the base of the tree, creating a dizzying tangle of groundwork. These trees grow on the edges of land where brackish water meets the shore. In tidal areas with good soil, red mangroves can grow to be over sixty feet high. Beneath the water’s surface, coral, plants, and algae cover a significant portion of the roots.
Red mangroves impact the Belizean ecosystem in two essential ways: land creation and habitat creation. The mangrove’s seedpods (called “pencils”) rely on the salty ocean waters to stimulate their germination. The arching prop roots draw in salt and issue it a one-way ticket to the tree’s leaves. Once the leaves achieve adequate salinity, they burst into a yellow hue akin to the autumn trees of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Then the leaves drop, falling into the roots. As the leaves fall, so do the pencils. The pencils spring to life and begin to grow baby mangrove trees once they hit the shallow, sandy soil just below the surface of the water. Fallen mangrove leaves accumulate around the half-submerged mangrove roots in layer upon layer of gold, providing nutrition to a wealth of microbes which facilitate decomposition. This process enables essential minerals to continually circulate through the mangrove system. The leaves live a double life – while helping the baby tree, the leaf concentration around the roots becomes a valuable nesting and feeding ground for marine and jungle wildlife.
Without red mangroves, your boat tour of Belize would lack a certain magic. No intimidating crocodile in the salty shallows. No spiny lobster, no fragile seahorse. Why would you bother going snorkeling along the coast, if you couldn’t see the colorful coral and sponges that owe their existence to the mangrove? Red mangroves curate the Belize Barrier Reef, safeguarding this elaborate, wildly colorful web of life. A mangrove’s roots filter runoff from the rivers so that pollutants don’t flow out to the coral and destroy it. Without red mangroves, there might not even be a Belize to visit in the first place. The trees provide a vigorous shield from hurricanes and the gales of tropical storms, preventing erosion of the coastline.
The versatile red mangrove continually faces harvesting – unfortunately for the Belizean ecosystem. The leaves of the mangrove may be used to brew a robust tea. Many people use mangrove wood to build sturdy houses. A vibrant natural dye arises from mangrove bark. However, this tree’s utility as a raw material accounts for little of the overall destruction of mangrove forests.
Shrimp farmers and coastal developers raze thousands of acres every year. Mangrove forest destruction occurs at an annual rate of 3.6 percent, significantly up from .03 percent in the 1960s. Officials in Belize recognize the importance of the red mangrove, and regulations make it difficult for developers to clear mangrove-forested land, requiring permits of anyone wishing to do so. The destruction has slowed, but still it continues.
Now is the time to head out into the water. Strap on your fins and swim among the vibrant sea life. Take in the visual splendor of the coral reef. Bird-watch from the comfort of a river tubing trip. And while you’re out, respect the red mangrove. This tree nurtures into life so much of the natural beauty and diversity that exists for you to experience in Belize.