Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Super Trees, To the Rescue!!!

January 10, 2012

Story By Aly Heare

“If you cant go around it you have to go through it. Squish….squish…..squish.” An old childhood song plays in my head as I forge the path through the muck separating me from the mangroves. As I sink deeper and deeper into the black muck of the mangrove forest I realize that I may have gotten in over my head (figuratively speaking, not literally) as I sink deeper and deeper into the soil. But the song keeps its tune in my head and my feet move to the lyrics. With a few hints from the local boys I make it across to the other side, covered in mud, but back on solid ground.

Once back on the gloriously solid path I realize the cliché does apply “The grass is greener on the other side” for I have forged the path into a young mangrove forest. The two dominant species in this coastal region is the melaleuca and rhizophora mangrove with roots that go every which way, like a spider that is just waiting to run. The trunks are a hard wood that splits over and over again pushing their own path to the sky, fighting for their fair share of the every evasive sunlight. The number of trunks from a single rhizophora is dependent on the amount of sunlight (photosynthesis) the tree receives while still young, the more sun the merrier. The forest is still very young but already the competition is fierce for the coveted sunlight.

About fifty years ago many of Vietnam’s mangrove forests had to replanted due to the dual effects of the local deforestation and the American War (what we call the Vietnam War). During the war the US destroyed nearly 160,000 hectares with harmful chemicals such as Agent Orange and Napalm in an attempt to seek out the Viet Cong. The effects from these chemicals on the forest were so devastating that the country thought it would take over 100 years to regrow the mangroves back to their previous glory. But do not doubt the soil of Vietnam, for it is better than any Miracle Grow I’ve ever seen. There is now an estimated 295,447 hectares of forested land in Mekong Delta.

Mangroves are the super power of Vietnam, the saving grace against some of the issues presented by climate change. Mangroves grow thick and long along the coast providing a buffer zone to tropical storms. Mangroves also provide a prime protective alcove to many species increasing the biodiversity of the area. But the magical powers of the mangroves don’t stop there, the mangrove forests prevent soil erosion and the acidification of topsoil and surface water. Mangroves are not the whole solution for Vietnam but they are a major step in the right direction.

Replanting of the mangroves is in the works but so is a huge dike along the coast. This wall of concrete is meant to buffer tropical storms and hold back some of the projected sea level rise but at the expense to the expansion of the mangroves. The wall is too big a barrier to cross to expand their number and to do their super power like jobs. So where should the line be drawn between human made solutions and the ones offered by nature?

As I stand under the thick canopy of the melaleuca and rhizophora mangroves covered from here to there in their nutrient rich mud I speculate how big their role will be in Vietnam’s approach to climate change. Dr. Be, a professor from Can Tho University, stays positive in his outlook on mangroves and their ecological effects. Even now their super powers are being better incorporated into the livelihoods of the Vietnamese people with new aquaculture practices. As I stand beneath the sun-blocking canopy I am comforted by the realization that there is so much hope for the mangroves and Vietnam as a whole when addressing climate change, for they have a super hero on their side.

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