Thu, Jun 07, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Kenyan activist fights for island mangroves


Standing in a muddy expanse of gnarled remains of dead mangroves, Guddy Birkigt sighed and began explaining that her long fight to replant the watery forest was far from over.

"I came here as a tourist before it was destroyed and there were mangroves everywhere. Then, when I came a few years later, I couldn't believe what I saw," said Birkigt, staring across the bleak landscape just a few hundred meters from the pristine white beaches and coconut trees of nearby Robinson Island, off Kenya's northeastern coast.

"It was this picture that motivated me," the half-Kenyan, half-Sikh activist said.

Beyond the damaged mangrove trees and across shallow basins of water, mountains of salt sparkle in the distance.

Since squatting on the island more than 20 years ago, Birkigt has fought a running battle with local salt works which razed acres of mangroves and let out highly salty water that pollutes rivers and continues to kill the coastal forests.

She is also battling government officials seeking to take over the land for development.

Birkigt, who was named UN Kenya Person of the Year in 2003 for her conservation efforts in Robinson Island, has since led the replanting of more than 1 million mangroves with the help of UN funds.

Her efforts are one of only a handful of Kenyan projects aimed at sensitising coastal dwellers of the need to protect the sources of their main building materials and fuel and the value of a balanced ecosystem.

Mangroves are an important breeding ground for fish as well as a means to fight coastal erosion. Scientists say they can offer protection from typhoons and even tsunamis.

The mangrove forests provide homes for crustaceans, and according to some experts, havens for about 40 percent of the 1,092 bird species in the country, including migrant birds.

Mangrove planting and management has a long history in Southeast Asia, where hundreds of forests have been destroyed by aquaculture.

But in Kenya, and the rest of Africa, efforts to restore mangrove forests remain minimal, with officials and inhabitants slow to pick up on the need to protect the country's 54,000 hectares of coastal forests.

"Efforts however need to be made so that countries in the WIO [Western Indian Ocean] region do not go the Southeast Asia way," warned Johnson Kitheka from the UN Environment Program.

Kenyan environmental officials say mangrove management is currently confined to controlling activities which harm the environment, such as unsustainable harvesting, pollution and ecologically damaging salt mining practices.

But critics say the government is not doing enough.

"The challenge is to balance the conservation and the need for economic growth," said environment official Stephen Katua, pointing out that industries which damage mangroves, such as salt mining, also boost the local economy.

"When it comes to [environmental] education, there are quite a lot of gaps to be filled," he said.

Down the coast from Robinson Island, south of Mombasa, is Kenya's only mangrove-dedicated institute, including a project to replace mangroves cleared by a lime production facility.

James Kairo, who heads the Mangrove Rehabilitation Program in Gazi Bay set up in 1991, said he faced an uphill task.

"It is very difficult to convince somebody that the fish they eat on the table breeds in mangroves," he said.

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