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SUVA, Fiji Islands (August 3, 2000 - Islands Business Magazine/PINA Nius Online)---Pacific Islanders can fight climate change and invasion by the sea effectively by ringing the coasts with forests of trees and mangroves, according to University of the South Pacific professor Dr. Randy Thaman. Coastal forestry offers one of the most "cost-effective and practical" means of attacking predicted disastrous climate change impacts, he says.

Scientists are warning islands countries that climate change threatens them with a package of worsening problems. These include worsening saltwater incursion, coastal erosion, worsening floods and soil erosion, the associated sedimentation of coral reefs, lagoons and river courses, increased bleaching and death of coral reefs, increasing damage to crops, inland vegetation and settlements by salt spray and sea water, and loss of river bank, estuary and marine wildlife habitats.

This damage could be "significantly reduced" with systematic coastal forestry projects to conserve and rehabilitate coastal stands of trees and mangrove forests, Thaman says, in a paper. It was delivered at a climate change conference held recently in the Cook Islands.

Thaman, who is professor of Pacific Islands Biogeography at the University of the South Pacific, says shade offered by coastal forests would also be protection from rising levels of ionizing ultra-violet radiation. This, if the Earth's ozone shield continued to break down, would have far worse long-term health consequences.

He's worked out a model coastal forestry plan adaptable to the particularly national and community needs of different islands countries. It comes with a checklist of important Pacific atoll trees and plants and a "10-commandant" code for protecting coastal forests. All this is derived from the findings of 30 years of study of the content of Pacific Islands coastal and mangrove forests in 20 of the region's countries."

The basic message is that coastal reforestation, mangrove planting and agro forestry are proven strategies, if done correctly. But the protection of coastal forests, mangroves and existing agro forestry systems and the promotion of sustainable use are far, far easier than having to recreate Mother Nature's and time-tested Pacific Islands designs for these "extremely complex and culturally valuable natural and cultural ecosystems."

Most islands in the region were once not too badly off for natural forestry coastal protection. The cutting down of inland forests and reclamation of coastal strand and mangrove forests for timber, commercial and subsistence agricultural expansion, beef and dairy cattle production, and for building, industrial, tourism, military and transport purposes have since caused bad coastal deforestation.

Just as important on small islands, Thaman says, is "agro deforestation. Trees that have, for generations, provided food, timber, firewood, medicines and served other important cultural and ecological functions, as integral components of polycultural agricultural systems, are increasingly not being replaced or protected by the present generation.

"Although some countries have increasingly effective systems of forestry reserves, conservation areas, or national parks, few, if any, have legislation or programs prohibiting the cutting, or promoting the replanting of important or endangered tree species as part of agricultural or other modern-sector development."

Thaman says there's nothing particularly new about his ideas since Pacific Islanders had used traditional forestry practices expertly for thousands of years. "The evolution of a diversity of highly sophisticated traditional Pacific Islands forestry and agro forestry systems and the development of a large body of traditional knowledge relating to these systems.

Body of knowledge: "They had grown and made selective use of trees and plant for construction, boat building, firewood, medicine and numerous other purposes. Future afforestation would have to be based mainly on local salt and wind-resistant trees and plants already present in afforestation areas or which could be reintroduced.

"This could be done while scientists and international scientific and political bodies continue research to better determine the long-term implications and solutions to this global crisis."

All of the 140 plants listed by him could be used now for national and village, or community-based, programs of ecological, economic, and cultural recovery and coastal reclamation to make "low-lying islands and coastal areas habitable in a post-global-warming island world."

All seemed to be able to cope with loose shifting sands, wave action, soil-less limestone and volcanic terraces and rock outcrops, high salinity, strong sunlight, strong winds and sea spray and drought. Some could survive periodic inundation and water logging, "all conditions which should be increasingly common with global warming."

The list includes 10 ferns, 17 herbs, 11 grasses or sedges, 14 vines or lianas, 26 shrubs and 62 trees. All are commonly found in various coastal localities. There were more than 80 trees or tree-like species able to survive in atoll conditions.

Mangrove forests have a particularly vital role to play in countering the impact of climate change, Thaman says. "Research in Fiji has shown that over 60 percent of commercially important (sea food) species are mangrove associated at some stage in their life cycle. More intensive research in eastern Australia and Florida produced figures of 67 percent and 80 percent."

The destruction of mangroves caused immense damage to fish stocks. Research in the Malaysian region showed that mangrove removal caused offshore fisheries' yield declines of 50 to 80 percent.

Areas inland from mangroves suffered far less from hurricane, storm surge and ocean salt spray damage. In Micronesia, where mangroves were completely removed by Japanese woodsmen, coast washed away rapidly and became lined with coconut trees in various stages of falling into the sea. Thaman says that coastal afforestation work should be complemented by a ban on the felling or killing of trees or other plants listed as being endangered, including species use for construction, boat building, woodcarving, firewood, medicine, garlands and animal feed until replacements were planted.

Despite their ecological importance mangroves were thoughtlessly destroyed, degraded and reclaimed in the name of "development" or as firewood and timber supplies. "The protection of mangroves and the replanting of mangroves is a priority and could be one of the most important initiatives for improving low-lying coastal environments and protecting coastal communities from tropical cyclones, tsunamis, storm surge, king tides and sea-level rise."

Mangroves have been successfully used for coastal reforestation in Malaysia, the Philippines and Bangladesh in Asia, and had been successfully introduced beyond their natural Pacific range into Tahiti and Hawai‘i. There is increasing interest in saving and restoring coastal forests promoting agro forestry as means of fending off the possible impacts of sea level rise and natural disasters and attaining sustainable development, Thaman says.

"Policy makers, city planners and administrators have shown increasing commitment to the protection of mangroves and coastal forests. There is some protective legislation and a number of excellent studies stressing the importance of coastal ecosystems and plant communities in national development. In Fiji, the establishment of a Mangrove Management Committee, a survey of mangrove resources, and a proposed mangrove management plan were positive actions."

The South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are promoting national environmental management plans. The promotion of forest protection and re-establishment is a key part of other efforts by such agencies as the South Pacific Action Committee for Human Ecology and Environment (SPACHEE).

The University of the South Pacific, as the region's largest tertiary educational and research organization, is putting more effort into the areas of coastal zone management, climate change and sea-level rise and community-based programs in coastal forest protection in the region.

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