So much has gone into the ‘human resources’ side of conservation world-wide that it is disappointing we are not all celebrating more community-based natural resource management successes. My personal years of investment can be measured in quantities of coffee and copies dispensed, often in pre-dawn hours, in the interests of coastal marine management in Florida. This conundrum, the apparent failure of conservation to even hold the line on biodiversity maintenance, despite all the legal, financial and manpower investments in the Everglades and Florida Keys, led me to the intersection of the Geography Department and the ABS program at Texas A&M. Here I was sure that even if I were not to find immediate answers, at least I could find the breadth and depth in the associated faculty to guide me towards some degree of resolution.
My general interest is mangroves, inter-tidal pantropical floristic communities that have disappeared from their natural ranges by almost 50% in the past half century due to the usual anthropogenic suspects:
- physical replacement by supposedly more lucrative economic ventures than natural habitat and ecosystem service provision (shrimp aquaculture, tourism and recreation infrastructure, oil extraction, industrial charcoal, rayon manufacture),
- hydrological alteration,
- climate change.
(Some loss is due to subsistence use, the so-called “death by a thousand cuts”.) My particular interest is in the political ecological processes involved in mangrove restoration. Capitalism is fickle, and land-use change is a constant under this system. As ventures become less profitable, and capital moves on from areas of degraded mangroves to pastures new, the opportunity to restore them presents itself as a cost-effective option.
My research has taken me to an area of Central America, a biosphere reserve in El Salvador called Xirihualtique-Jiquilisco, where the boom-and-bust cycles of cotton, sugar, cattle, salt and shrimp have taken their toll on the largest remnant stand of mangroves in the eastern Pacific. These mangroves also happen to be the main nesting, nursery and feeding grounds of the critically endangered turtle species, the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill, Eretmochelys imbricata (Tortuga Carey), the life study of another A&M student, Mike Liles of Fish & Wildlife, and a population of Whistling Ducks, Dendrocygna autumnalis (Pichiches) a bird that is practically extinct in its Caribbean range.
When I first visited a 40 ha site of degraded mangroves drowning in stagnant brackish water called El Llorón in July 2011, the stench was overwhelming, matched only by the mosquitoes and the sight of scuzz-covered water full of belly-up fish. The flooding was caused by slight uplifting due to an earthquake in 2001, exacerbated by a decade of agricultural run-off and creation of causeways to allow cattle to move on dry ground at high tide through the mangroves. After two months of heroic labor restoring hydrologic flow by hand-cutting, digging and hauling debris, the local Environment Ministry resource guards showed me what the community had achieved. With the support of the Fund for the Initiative of the Americas and three NGOs, over two hundred Great White Egrets, Ardea alba (Cigueñas), two pairs of Roseate Spoonbills, Platalea ajaja (Espátulas rosadas) and a pair of Woodstorks, Mycteria Americana, not previously noted in the Jiquilisco area were roosting in El Llorón, where the sound of mosquitoes had been replaced by the sound of shrimp popping out of the water. There’s restoration! The political ecological processes through which this transformation took place are fascinating, and there is even a move afoot to re-name the site El Allegrón (Daisy Herrera, pers. comm.). Even in the course of a degree-cycle, there are pleasant surprises in the world of ecological restoration, of which Texas A&M is a national center (see particularly ESSM, the local chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), and David Toledo’s piece for more).
Despite a (well-deserved) reputation for being a football college, the sixth-largest campus in the US is home to such a diversity of programs and opportunities at the graduate level that it would be hard not to find a home here. Much as we have come to love Texas, the number of national and international students here reflects that diversity. At ABS we come from everywhere, and we go everywhere.