Saltwater crocodiles track their next meal through twisted forests of mangroves – dripping knots, labyrinthine roots, a golden layer of fallen leaves. All over the world, mangroves lay the foundation for complex ecosystems that support a wealth of irreplaceable species. But deep within the wild mangrove swamps of Belize, a silent ecological drama plays out.
Coastal mangrove forests represent one of Belize’s most invaluable natural resources, and the deterioration of these forests presents an increasingly large problem for this small Central American nation. In the last 30 years, Belize lost approximately 3,900 acres of mangrove forest and witnessed minimal natural regrowth. Compared with the mangrove devastation experienced in Indonesia and other countries, Belize has suffered trifling losses. Nevertheless, Belize’s mangrove swamps are dwindling persistently. Without preventive measures, many rare and endangered creatures that depend upon mangrove systems will vanish in quick succession to their natural habitat.
Conservationists and commercial enterprises remain at odds with one another while the nation’s fragile coastal ecosystems hang quietly in the balance. Each year, shrimp harvesters encroach further and further into the mangroves and developers clear more swampland to create coastal access. These irresponsible human activities threaten to squander Belize’s natural shield against the elements.
Covering an estimated area of 184,000 acres, the mangrove forests of Belize serve as a protective barrier surrounding the low-lying areas most vulnerable to fierce Caribbean hurricanes and tropical storms. Anchored by their tangled roots, mangroves absorb wave energy and stand up to the weather, mitigating the catastrophic effects of tropical storms on coastal regions. Other Central American nations withstand severe damage from violent weather; if Belize fails to preserve its sheltering mangrove forests, they too will endure serious shore erosion and the devastation of coastal communities.
Can you even put a price on this invaluable natural fortification? Turns out you can. Recent estimates from the World Resources Institute approximate that mangroves provide shoreline protection services worth an astounding US $111 to $167 million. That should justify the cost of any measures necessary to preserve the mangrove forests of Belize.
These mangroves don’t merely defend Belizeans from the elements. Mangroves naturally perform functions that have positive implications for everyone on Earth. As one of the world’s foremost carbon-storing plants, mangroves aid in reducing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, effectively putting the brakes on global warming. Carbon emissions, meet the mighty mangrove. However, as mangrove forests shrink, this amazing ability to offset harmful emissions becomes moot.
A host of distinctive qualities allow mangroves to fashion homes for themselves in seemingly inhospitable environments. Firmly entrenched in the mud, the roots of the mangrove can’t fetch oxygen by themselves, but these incredible plants harness oxygen through their bark and transfer this oxygen internally to reach the root system. A natural filtration system takes salty seawater and processes out the salt, secreting it via special pores embedded in the leaves. These resilient trees grow where other plant species cannot; their unique adaptations permit them to thrive in both brackish and freshwater. But the mangrove’s hardy nature is of little help in the battle against human encroachment.
Mangroves create an ideal environment for numerous marine and terrestrial species. Where can a baby grouper go, if he’s still too small to join the harsh game of survival on the reef? He can take shelter among the mangrove’s roots. A flamingo stands in the mangrove swamp shallows, waiting to dazzle a lucky onlooker. You can meet the bulging eyes of a crocodile as he winds his way through the twisted trunks. You came to Belize hoping to see amazing creatures in the wild, creatures you had only ever seen in zoos. As the mangrove forests disappear, so do your chances of meeting these characters.
Call them the tree of life. Mangroves are more than coastal shields. They are more than carbon-footprint erasers. They do more than provide homes for Belize’s native species. Mangrove forests stage our wildest travel experiences. They offer us the thrill of discovery. They hum with life and invite us to explore. And they demand our protection.