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What if, instead of a nasty oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. public was now confronted with a natural catastrophe in the Grand Canyon or in California Redwood forests? Within the popular imagination, certain types of ecosystems elicit more sympathy than others, and very low on the totem pole are mangrove forests. Located in the tropics, mangroves are a mess of thick, tangled salt-tolerant trees and shrubs which thrive in brackish tidal waters. When I paddled through the Florida Everglades in a canoe some fifteen years ago, I found mangroves bizarre looking: trees have long roots which stick out above the water level.
Perhaps because they are swampy and inhospitable, mangroves have failed to capture the public's attention. Yet, they fulfill a vital environmental purpose as they are home to a wide diversity of plant and animal life. What's more, their myriad exposed roots provide a nursery for many commercial and recreational fish species, including shrimp and spiny lobster. Above water, they serve as a nesting and foraging area for wading and fish-eating birds.
While whales and dolphins are adored by the public and receive attention from environmentalists, few are aware of other aquatic mammals such as manatees and dugongs which rely on mangrove habitat.
What will it take for the public to become more aware of these vital swampy ecosystems? Tragically, some may only learn of their existence as a result of the ecological crisis afflicting the Gulf of Mexico. There, the BP spill poses a direct threat to 800 square miles of U.S. mangrove habitat located in Louisiana, Texas and the southern tip of Florida. Since 1980, upstream development and damming have felled 30% of Gulf Coast mangroves, and the oil disaster could well finish the job.
Antecedents in Venezuela
It's not the first time oil has posed a threat to mangrove ecosystems. I first became aware of this insidious connection while carrying out research on my dissertation which dealt with the environmental history of oil in Venezuela. In the early twentieth century, subsidiaries of Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell moved into the Lake Maracaibo area, located in the westernmost section of the country, with dire consequences for the environment.
Prior to the oil boom in the 1920s, wildlife on the east bank of Lake Maracaibo thrived within jungle and marshes. On the coastline grew mangroves which supported distinct microhabitats of birds, mammals, reptiles, gastropods, crustaceans, insects and fish. One naturalist reported that jaguars prowled local mangroves and "in some of the mangrove swamps near Maracaibo their trails are frequently found." Manatees, sawfish and caymans meanwhile plied the lake's mangrove waters.
Though mangrove contamination must have surely occurred, it's difficult to calculate the exact damage as we don't know the precise location of all these ecosystems during the first years of the oil boom. The death of local mangroves could have led to the destruction of habitat for many other organisms such as oysters and crabs, which typically live on and among aerial roots or in sediments. These would have been killed directly by smothering and/or toxic effects.
In general, oil enters mangrove forests at high tide and is deposited on aerial roots and sediment surface when the tide goes down. Mangroves can be killed by heavy or viscous oil which covers breathing pores on aerial roots, thus depriving the subsurface roots of oxygen. Mangroves can also be killed if oil penetrates sediments, through toxic effects of oil on subsurface roots. Root cell membranes are damaged, which impairs their normal salt exclusion function. The resulting influx of salt is a source of stress to the plants.
Some local mangroves were located right in the crosshairs of local oil development. Take, for example, the great swamp of Lagunillas which occupied 10 square miles and was covered in mangroves and other aquatic vegetation. One ornithologist remarked that "on the large cienaga at Lagunillas there were thousands of tree ducks...While not allowing a close approach when resting on the water, these ducks when flying seemed to have little fear of a boat." Unfortunately, oil fouled local waters and in 1928 petroleum actually ignited on the lake itself, leading to a large conflagration.
From the Gulf War to the Gulf of Mexico
Having trammeled the environment in Venezuela, the oil industry moved on to the Middle East where it encountered more mangroves and an aquatic mammal called the sea cow or dugong, cousin of the Lake Maracaibo manatee. Off the coast of Bahrain, large seagrass pastures supported 2,000-3,500 dugongs, creatures which inspired mariners of old to envision mermaids.
Carrying out oil exploration in such close proximity to mangroves in the Persian Gulf was bad enough, but in 1991 the situation became even worse with the onset of war between Iraq and the U.S. At one point, the Persian Gulf became the site of massive oil spills, some of them the result of bombing and artillery barrages which targeted storage tanks and refineries.
Yet Iraq, which intentionally dumped oil from several tankers into the Persian Gulf in an effort to ward off a potential landing of U.S. marines, may have been the greatest environmental culprit. During the Gulf War, no fewer than 1 million barrels of oil contaminated local waters, with some estimates ranging up to a whopping 6 million barrels. Major mangrove forests were seriously damaged, hundreds of dolphins and porpoises died, and, catastrophically, between 20-30,000 seabirds perished including flamingoes, herons and cormorants.
Environmentalists grew particularly concerned with the fate of Bahrain's Tubli Bay, a complex system of flats and mangroves. Home to dugongs, sea turtles and shrimp, Tubli lay in the path of one damaging spill which had spread all the way from Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. As the spill hit, it killed off plankton and algae which fed local fish.
A Collective Moral Failure
While oil spills are devastating for the environment in general, they are particularly damaging for mangroves. That's because oil persists far longer within such ecosystems. One mangrove expert has remarked, "Never, ever let oil get into a mangrove coast. You'll never get it out. It's like a sponge you rub on a greasy bacon pan. You need very hot water and a lot of soap, and you still might just give up and throw away the sponge."
Once contamination takes place, the possibility of recovering the environment may be limited: if mangrove prop roots become oiled the entire mangrove tree may die. What's more, because mangrove trees grow so slowly, replacing them can take decades. In the Gulf of Mexico, forests are tightly bunched and as a result people won't be able to get into swamps to wipe them down. In addition, there are literally hundreds of millions of trees.
Perhaps the only way to save some forests may be to laboriously scrape away a thin surface layer of soil to allow plants to grow. Scientists stress, however, that it's important not to push petroleum under the surface or remove rootstalks lying just beneath the surface. In addition, if there's a lot of oil this will complicate any rescue effort as rising and falling tides will simply add new coatings of crude.
While all logistical and technological means should be deployed to save Gulf mangroves, realistically we could be looking at significant damage all across the region. At this point, our best hope may be to minimize the environmental loss that's already occurred and hopefully head off a full scale disaster in the Florida Everglades.
Sadly, it may take a further tragedy for people to wake up to what we have lost. Experts agree that one of the most vital services performed by mangroves is to protect human settlements from storm surges and wind storms. It's a particularly crucial asset to consider in the hurricane-battered Gulf region. If Gulf mangroves are destroyed, a vital buffer will be eliminated. Additionally, the current BP oil spill could give rise to a vast surplus of potentially lethal hardwood.
Why has it been so difficult to acknowledge the important environmental services provided by mangroves? Harsh and forbidding, these habitats don't capture the popular imagination to the same degree as other national treasures. Slow moving manatees and sea cows aren't nearly as well known as dolphins. If this disaster reveals anything, however, it is the fundamental fallacy of this mindset and the need to preserve all ecosystems and creatures equally.
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Recently, I got an invitation to attend an interesting panel dealing with indigenous issues on Earth Day. The talk, held at the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan, would host a number of Native Americans but also James Cameron, creator of the blockbuster movie Avatar as well as other hits such as Terminator and Titantic. What, you might ask, was a Hollywood director doing at such an event?
If you've seen Cameron's movie you know that it deals with a fictional tribe of humanoid creatures called the Na'vi who inhabit the rainforest world of Pandora. In the film, the Na'vi must fight to preserve the forest from a mineral corporation backed up by the U.S. military. Avatar, a true technological feat, brought the Pandora rainforest to movie-going audiences in 3-D. Though Avatar doesn't attempt to teach anything to the audience per se, it does convey a sense of moral outrage.
To his credit, Cameron has sought to address not only fictional struggles in the virtual world but also the real life plight of indigenous peoples fighting to preserve their ancestral lands from hydropower development. Recently, the Hollywood director toured the Brazilian rainforest in association with Amazon Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO which is performing valuable environmental work in South America.
After meeting with the Kayapo Indians, "real life Na'vi," as Cameron put it, the director got inspired and has been campaigning for indigenous peoples. Cameron says the Belo Monte boondoggle dam planned for the Amazon is a "quintessential example of the type of thing we are showing in Avatar — the collision of a technological civilization's vision for progress at the expense of the natural world and the cultures of the indigenous people that live there."
On a tear in New York, he spoke before a United Nations committee on aboriginal rights and even launched an environmental scholarship at Brooklyn Tech High School. Not content to stop there, he updated the Avatar website to keep fans informed about environmental issues and sponsored the planting of a million trees around the world as part of Earth Day.
Cameron's Cinematic Plans
As a writer and author of the recently released No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010), I was eager to ask Cameron a number of questions. I wanted to know for example how he saw his political role moving forward, and what he might do to stop hydropower for example. I was also interested in addressing Cameron's future film projects.
Reportedly, the Hollywood director based Avatar on the Brazilian rainforest and the struggle of indigenous peoples inhabiting the jungle. However, up until his recent trip he had never stepped foot in the Amazon. Amidst conflicting news about Cameron's future cinematic projects, with some reports even suggesting he might shoot part of a future picture in the Amazon itself, the director recently remarked that Avatar was produced through skillful use of computer graphics out of fear that filming within the rainforest would harm the environment.
Cameron adds that any future film wouldn't be shot in the Amazon, either. Indeed, he has declared that a large part of his next movie will take place in the teeming oceans of Pandora. "Part of my focus in the second film is in creating a different environment — a different setting within Pandora," Cameron said. "And I'm going to be focusing on the ocean on Pandora, which will be equally rich and diverse and crazy and imaginative, but it just won't be a rainforest. I'm not saying we won't see what we've already seen; we'll see more of that as well," he added.
Whatever the case, I wouldn't be surprised if Cameron inserts an environmental message concerning the rainforest in his future films. What kind of movie are we likely to see in future from the blockbuster director? Reportedly he wants to shoot an Avatar sequel and not some kind of environmental documentary. While that's not entirely what idealistic folk such as myself might have hoped for [click here to see my earlier piece describing the history of earlier films dealing with the rainforest], the reality is that Cameron has done more than many other Hollywood directors to bring environmentalism into the mainstream.
For the left, Avatar is not suitably politically correct as the leading protagonist Jake Sully is a white man taking up the burden of Na'vi savages. But reading the left blogosphere sometimes, I wonder what planet people are on: Mars...or Pandora perhaps? At the risk of stating the obvious, in Hollywood you can't produce pictures without financial backing. In order to achieve said backing one must frequently rehash familiar themes.
Avatar is a rather skillful composite of earlier movies like Alien, Dances with Wolves and Platoon. But even after he adopted familiar formulas Cameron found it difficult to get Hollywood on board. Indeed, the industry proved resistant to any environmental content. "It's not like the studio said, 'Jim we want you to make a movie about the environment,'" Cameron has declared. "No... They said, 'We really like the big epic science fiction story, but is there any way we can get this tree-hugging crap out of it?' "
Hollywood Director's Future Role
Having prevailed over the conventional logic and directed a mega hit with an environmental message, the real question now is how Cameron sees his role moving forward. When he made Avatar, Cameron didn't imagine that people would interpret the movie as a call to action. In fact, he remarked, "I figured I'd be on vacation right now. I figured I'd make my big statement with the movie and let everyone else sort out what to do. Turns out there aren't that many people figuring out what to do....I think we're facing [an environmental] crisis and I'm not going to stand around and leave it to someone else to deal with it."
Those are energetic words, but when I saw Cameron speak in New York I got the impression that the director was a little overwhelmed by his new role. When one man stood up and asked Cameron if the director would help to save tribes from going culturally extinct in Colombia, the director frankly admitted he was suffering from "cause fatigue." Later, when Quichua indigenous women got up and offered Cameron a ceremonial scarf, the director looked slightly taken aback.
Cameron's political role could prove particularly thorny in Brazil. There, the director not only met with native peoples but also participated in an indigenous rally in the capitol of Brasilia and urged top political leadership to halt hydropower development. Determined to halt Belo Monte in its tracks, Cameron believes the project "is a very, very important, pivotal battleground" as it will set the stage for the development of 60 additional dams.
The director has gone straight to the top, writing personally to President Lula in an effort to persuade the government to reject any policy which harms forests. In a letter, Cameron requested a meeting with Lula and declared, "This is an opportunity for you to be a hero, a visionary leader of the 21st century, and modify Brazil's path in such a way that you have sustainable economic growth instead of economic growth that has serious consequences for certain sectors of the population."
In an effort to plunder the Amazon, Brazil's governing elite likes to fan hyper nationalist hysteria by claiming that foreigners are trying to get their hands on the rainforest. It's a bogus argument, but international campaigners must nevertheless tread lightly lest they fall into a political booby trap. Judging from his letter to Lula, Cameron is certainly aware of this pitfall.
"I suspect you will consider me a meddling outsider who does not understand the political realities of your country," Cameron wrote. "But I care deeply about the future for all of us, and feel compelled to speak, nevertheless."
If Cameron was hoping that Lula would come to his senses, the president seems to have dashed any such hopes. Lula, an ostensible leftist from the Workers' Party who supports Belo Monte, recently declared that Brazil did not need advice from foreigners. "No one is more worried about protecting Amazônia and the Indians than we are," he said.
Talking the Amazon with Cameron
I hoped to bring up some of these touchy issues with Cameron at the Paley Center, but unfortunately other journalists like Geraldo Rivera monopolized the director's time. At long last, however, I was able to share a car ride with the director as he made his way to a midtown screening of Avatar. Cameron knew of my work and we had a brief conversation about Brazilian politics [needless to say, if he had contemplated the notion of casting me as Indiana Jones in Avatar 2 he made no mention].
Cameron expressed some frustration that Lula had not seen fit to answer his letter. I then joked that the director might offer his support to Marina Silva in Brazil's upcoming presidential election in order to advance a more environmentally-friendly agenda. Silva, whose story I recount in my current book, is an extraordinary woman who worked as a rubber tapper and later served as Lula's Minister of the Environment. Currently, she is running as Brazil's Green Party candidate.
As we made our way through traffic, Cameron expressed great admiration for Silva. But thinking about it, I wondered whether a well known foreigner endorsing a particular candidate would be a wise political move. When I said as much in the car, Cameron chuckled and seemed to register my point. Indeed, the director must surely be aware by now that he's treading on eggshells.
Amazon Watch, which helped to coordinate Cameron's trip, is surely aware of the dynamics too. According to Christian Poirier, who works as the group's Brazil Program Coordinator, Cameron's presence in Brazil proved controversial amongst certain political sectors. In an e-mail, he told me there had been a "predictable backlash" against the trip. Some of the Brazilian media, he said, had characterized the director's trip as so-called "naive meddling." Many editorials, Poirier added, were harshly critical of Cameron and some even labeled the director an ignorant outsider intent on "saving" the Amazon.
On the other hand, Cameron has some momentum on his side. Avatar did quite well at the box office in Brazil, which could complicate elite attempts to demonize the director amongst the public. What's more, Poirier says some media outlets recognized that Cameron had indeed done his homework about Belo Monte and as a result tended to treat him fairly. Some news coverage, he adds, even cast Cameron "as a concerned world citizen rather than another misguided Amazon crusader."
Volatile Situation Calls for Humility
What will Cameron do if all his efforts come to nothing? That's no longer an abstract question since a Brazilian court recently gave the green light to proceed with construction at Belo Monte. Indigenous peoples, who say Belo Monte will devastate wildlife and their livelihoods, have alarmingly warned of bloodshed. With the situation headed towards confrontation, hopefully cooler heads will prevail.
Within this volatile mix, Cameron should take a backseat to the indigenous struggle and make sure that he does not eclipse the Indians with his high public profile. I am sure that environmentalists in the U.S. are aware of this pitfall and, in light of what I saw at the Paley Center, the director himself is willing to take a step back. Indeed, time and again during Cameron's panel discussion at the Paley Center the director deferred to other Indians on the panel hailing from the Onondaga, Chipeywan, Mikisew Cree and Wayuu Nations.
In the car later, I was impressed at one point when Cameron said he was touched by the Quichua Indians who had presented him with a ceremonial scarf. For a man who has racked up the highest movie sales in Hollywood history, this director struck me as remarkably un-puffed up with himself. Judging from what I saw in New York, indigenous peoples may have a good champion in James Cameron.