Managing the wetlands

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has played a leading role in initiating programmes and undertaking projects that deal with global environmental issues such as biodiversity and climate change. The approach is tailored to the circumstances of particular regions.

In Asia, for example, the emphasis lies in assisting governments prepare national case studies encompassing both sustainable development and conservation policies. Afterwards, IUCN often continues its assistance with the provision of technical help in the implementation of projects, drawing in local expertise from NGOs and communities.

Tiempo talked to Zakir Hussain, Regional Coordinator of IUCN's Wetlands Programme in Southeast Asia, about their support for local efforts in formulating policies for wetland resource management.

What is IUCN's approach in Southeast Asia?

IUCN has not been as active in Southeast Asia as it has been in, say, Central America or in Africa. The regional office is about a year old. What we realized was that in this region with our limited resources we can achieve a whole lot more by acting as a catalyst rather than getting involved in projects. We can do this by supporting the publication of key documents, identifying needs, organizing workshops and training programmes and providing support for networking. In this way, resources which would be used up on a project in one country can spread to five or seven different countries. Also, in this region there is a tradition of education, and a recognition of its importance, and so there are more skilled people available locally than you would find in other parts of the developing world. The level of expertise is high. What we want to do is let these people run the show and just look over their shoulders to see that they are going in the right direction.

IUCN does provide assistance with fundraising for projects that governments in the region want to undertake and that IUCN thinks are necessary for the conservation of natural resources. We try and solicit funds from the donors. This doesn't mean that we would necessarily be involved in the execution of these projects. There are cases where we are directly or indirectly involved in training or in placing experts in countries where local expertise isn't available. At other times, we just put the government and donor in touch, maybe help the government put together their project proposal or technical reports and assist in organizing infrastructure and personnel so that they can go ahead and execute the project.

Can you give an example of how IUCN is acting as a catalyst?

We are trying to develop a number of different documents on mangroves in the region. For example, in Vietnam, there is a large body of mangrove research which is not available outside the country. So we have commissioned Professor Hong of the Mangrove Ecosystem Research Centre in Hanoi to prepare a report on the ecology and management of the Vietnamese mangrove forests. We also held a workshop and field trip in that country in April of this year.

In Thailand, there has been an excellent mangrove ecology and management book written in Thai by Professor Sanit Aksornkoae of Kasetsart University in Bangkok, one of the foremost mangrove ecologists in the whole region. I looked at it and I really liked it. It is something that can be very useful in enhancing others' knowledge of mangroves. So we'll go ahead and finance its publication in English. Chapters will be added covering other parts of the region so it will eventually be a general text book. Professor Sanit and a colleague in the Forestry Department have also put together a field guide book covering, I think, 57 species of mangrove. This document is not a taxonomic guide. Basically, it's like one of those guides for birds with colour pictures. He gives a colour picture of the tree, a close-up photo of the flower and of the fruit and a short description, making identification easy. This is again something that is going to be very useful and IUCN is funding translation and publication costs.

The guide will cover primarily the whole of Southeast Asia but then South Asia, the subcontinent, has some additional species. When the current guide is published, I will take it to my colleagues in India and Bangladesh and ask them to cover the additional ones. There are also a few species in Pakistan and Sri Lanka to be included. That will be another document that I hope will be ready in the next year or two and will be a general guide to mangrove species in southern Asia.

What other priorities have you identified as far as the region's mangrove forests are concerned?

You know that Sundarbans is very famous but there is not a single document available that describes the forest, its ecology, its history or its management practises. Very few people know that Sundarbans has been under organized management from the year 1869. There has been a forest division and a forest officer. There have been rules and regulations, and management plans written over a hundred years ago. The most interesting thing I found out was that when I went and talked to foresters managing the Bangladesh Sundarbans about what was happening the other side of the border they said Gee, we don't know anything about what they're doing. We have no interaction with them. We can't go there. They can't come here. So we don't know what they're doing. I went to the other side, to India, and, since I'm from Bangladesh, I was being asked Tell me what you people are doing on the other side. In reality this is one tract which is separated by a large river. On one side of which is India and on the other side is Bangladesh.

I decided that it was time to put together some reference documents so I commissioned a forester and a mangrove ecologist in Bangladesh to collate all the available information and give an analysis of what has happened in the Sundarbans and what needs to happen in the future. By the same token, in India I have commissioned a mangrove ecologist and a forester who has just retired. They are putting together these two documents which will hopefully cover all the relevant information on mangroves for the Sundarbans as a whole.

By supporting the preparation and publication of these documents, you're presumably starting the process of regional interaction and cooperation?

Once the Sundarbans document is ready, I'm planning to hold a small workshop and bring together perhaps ten people from India and ten from Bangladesh. They will discuss the document and other issues and that, I hope, will establish a regional link. This is what I mean when I say that IUCN should act as a catalyst. Many times, it is easier for IUCN to forge these international links than it is for the government officials themselves. Officials are often under constraints which do not apply to IUCN. So we are able to facilitate communication between different agencies and governments and promote the process of cooperation.

Are there many training opportunities available in mangrove resource management in the region?

Recently I went to Sri Lanka and found that there was no one in the forestry department who understood the dynamics of mangrove forest management or ecology. To my surprise I discovered that there is not a single short-term training course available in mangrove forest management anywhere in the region. I talked to my colleagues about the possibility of organizing a course and I contacted FAO and other organizations who are involved in resource management. They were all very encouraging and wanted to participate. So I'm now developing a curriculum, sending it out to obtain feedback, and then I will refine it. The programme will be an annual event to start with, training 15 to 20 people a year. The lecture activities will be held in Thailand. One field trip will take place in Thailand or Malaysia, where the ecology of the forests is very similar, and the other in Bangladesh or perhaps in India. I am hoping that this will be a useful exercise for people who plan to be involved in mangrove forest management.

As far as the wetlands of the region are concerned, what do you see as the major conservation challenges?

I believe that you have to consider two categories one is coastal and the other freshwater wetlands. In the case of the coastal area, the demand for shrimps and their high value is a major threat. The mangrove land can only be converted for agriculture with a lot of money and inputs so, apart from shrimp farming, there is no other use for it. There are various types of shrimp cultivation. One is very intensive where you regulate everything, your water PH and so on, and then there's semi-intensive and there's extensive where you just put a dyke around, make a pond and let the fish grow on their own. Extensive schemes are not cost-effective because you need large areas and, if you think about the opportunity cost of these areas, they could possibly be put to much better use. Very intensive cultivation has often resulted in catastrophic consequences both in terms of what it does to the land and in terms of financial losses. It brings in a lot of chemicals, a lot of hormones, a lot of fertilizers. It pumps all of this into the ecosystem, then the contaminated water has to be discharged somewhere.

I have seen abandoned very intensive shrimp ponds in Pakistan, here in Thailand, in the Philippines, almost everywhere. The pioneers in this field were the Taiwanese and they have had serious trouble also. Semi-intensive cultivation appears more cost-effective but that doesn't help much. The process of environmental damage is the same. The only difference is in the scale of inputs. From my experience, it takes between two and five years for the original return to reach a point where it's no longer productive in an intensive system. Earning large sums of money through shrimp cultivation is a great temptation. The experience in most countries, though, has been that intensive shrimp farming initially produces a very high level of production and then it gradually goes down. It soon reaches a stage which is beyond the break-even point. Everyone thinks about the high export value of this commodity and government policies tend to be very favourable to intensive shrimp cultivation. But, if the situation is reviewed properly, I don't think the governments would have the same thinking about it.

And what about the second category, the freshwater wetlands?

For freshwater wetlands, population pressure is one of the problems. What is happening in many of the countries here is that population has almost doubled in the past 20 to 30 years or so and extra land had to come from somewhere. In many cases, that land has not been available so freshwater wetlands have been reclaimed, not understanding what implication this has and what adverse impact it will have on their environment and on their lives. Wetlands are water reservoirs which traditionally get filled every year. You remove them and that water has to go somewhere else into someone's house, onto agricultural land. The storage capability is lost. Wildlife habitats are destroyed. Away from the coast, fish from freshwater lakes is one of the most important sources of animal protein in this region. And a lot of freshwater plants are used for fodder and fuel.

There are usually two problems that have to be dealt with if progress is to be made in protecting these areas. First, there is often no clear policy or administrative responsibility over wetlands. Wetlands are often taken for granted. It's like all other natural resources that you don't take seriously until a stage has been reached which is so critical that there's not much left you can do. It may shock you that Canada is the only country in the world with a national wetlands policy. Uganda might soon be the second. Second, awareness has to be created amongst people. Not only among people who are dependent on wetlands but also among people whose activities adversely affect wetlands in one way or the other they should be encouraged and helped to take up other income-generating activities. It's not very difficult to do. In many cases, they are capable of producing other commodities. The problem is that wetlands are normally in remote areas so marketing is often a limiting factor, though this too can be overcome.

Having said that, most of the pressure to destroy the wetlands is not brewed locally, it comes from outside. For example, someone sitting in a city like Dhaka or in Bangkok thinks that part of the country needs a flood protection plan. They go in and put in all those dykes and so on and, in the process, divert the water and deprive some wetlands of their annual recharge. These are major factors. To think about it, even though there has been a tremendous increase in population, these local people have co-existed for generations with their wetland resources. They should know how to manage them on a sustainable basis. So I would say that, in most cases, it is external factors that are responsible for wetland destruction and these are what have to be countered.

Further information

Zakir Hussain, IUCN Southeast Asia, 302 Outreach Building, Asian Institute of Technology, GPO Box 2754, Bangkok 10501, Thailand.

Published Issue 8, April 1993