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.
"The government is not managing, people are not planting," he said.
Back on Robinson Island, Birkigt, who has no scientific background, admitted that her plants do not always prosper.
"We just plant any species to see what takes. We've tried some places and we failed," she said.
But she is determined to continue, and is now seeking official protection for the island.
Her community-based association also runs a nursery school, has sponsored eight village children through university, and is building an eco-tourism venture to help sustain some 500 locals.
After writing numerous letters to nearby salt works, Birkigt finally convinced one firm to allow her to replant mangroves on its land.
Local Margaret Ngala, whose land was taken over when the salt works moved in more than a decade ago, now breaks salt blocks in the blistering heat.
But whenever she has a free moment, she plants new mangroves under Birkigt's guidance. Together with her brother Furaha, she has planted more than 200,000 seedlings.
"Every time I wake up I go out with my family to plant mangroves," Furaha said.
China took advantage of the vacuum left behind when US carriers stayed out of the western Pacific Ocean due to COVID-19 outbreaks on several US Navy warships. The Chinese government is solidifying its hold on artificial islands in the South China Sea by moving in missiles and surveillance equipment, and formalizing its occupation by creating two municipal districts in the region under Hainan Island’s Sansha — Xisha District on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) to administer the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) and Nansha District on Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑島) to administer the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) —
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