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Mangrove project creates fish, fire and hope in Eritrean desert

by Staff Writers
Hirgigo, Eritrea (AFP) April 14, 2008
Kneeling by the sparkling waters of the Red Sea, Ahmed Shengabay presses sand carefully over a mangrove seed. "When this grows, it will provide protection for fish and food for my goats," Ahmed said smiling, waving at a long and thick line of tall trees already reaching high into the sky.

"We've planted all this already," the fisherman cum farmer added proudly, the mangroves lining the shore beside his small desert village of Hirgigo.

"The little fish like the mangroves, the big fish like the little fish -- and we like the big fish."

The seed-planting is part of a remarkable yet low-tech pilot project, designed as a model to improve the lives of desert coastal communities by using the salt-water trees to increase fish numbers, provide feed to raise livestock - and combat desertification.

Like many of the small villages scattered along Eritrea's Red Sea coast, Hirgigo is a harsh place to live.

The region is reputedly one of the hottest inhabited places on earth, with temperatures soaring well above 40 C (104 F) for much of the year, combined with an average annual rainfall of less than two centimetres (an inch).

The sun beats down hard on a dusty plain dotted with palm trees, squeezed between barren mountains and the sea.

"It's a tough land," said Simon Tecleab, a marine scientist who has been working on the project for the past ten years.

"Before, after the rains stopped, the villagers would have to go far to find food for their animals or they would just starve," he added.

Much of the original mangrove forest was destroyed by overgrazing by camels or cutting for firewood or the building of homes and boats.

But today, along the shore, mangrove trees stretch in a tall green band along some seven kilometres (four miles) of coast and over 100 metres (330 feet) thick, a budding ecosystem acting as nursery grounds for fish, crabs and oysters.

The mangroves -- now protected by fences from hungry livestock -- have therefore become crucial to the villagers.

"Mangrove leaves and excess seeds are carefully gathered so as not to damage the plants, then used as fodder for sheep and goats," Simon added, who teaches at Eritrea's College of Marine Sciences and Technologies in the port of Massawa, ten kilometres (six miles) to the north.

-- Somalia, Djibouti, Mexico and Peru could be next --

At Hirgigo, research into planting mangroves began a decade ago, challenging conventional wisdom that the saltwater plants also needed fresh water to grow -- a major limitation in the arid regions where the trees are needed most.

Mangroves grow along some 15 per cent of Eritrea's 1,350 kilometre (837 mile) long coastline, mainly in areas where seasonal freshwater streams run into the sea.

But Dr Gordon Sato -- a respected American bio-chemist and member of the US National Academy of Sciences -- reasoned that the trees needed not the freshwater but the minerals the streams brought from inland.

Planting low-cost slow-release fertilizer packs of nitrogen, phosphorous and iron alongside each seed, Sato and his team from the Eritrean Ministry of Fisheries found they were able to plant mangroves in areas even previously uninhabited by the trees.

"It opens up seemingly unproductive land to produce food, alleviate hunger and create wealth," Sato said, who named the scheme the Manzanar Project, after the US internment camp in the Californian desert where, as a Japanese-American citizen, he spent the Second World War.

Sato, who saw there how plants could be grown even in the harshest of conditions, believes that the simple technology of the project can be applied elsewhere in the world to counteract the global impact of deforestation, tackle poverty and bring desert areas into agricultural production.

"Countries such as Somalia, Djibouti, Mexico, and Peru immediately come to mind," the 80-year old scientist told AFP.

Residents say the project has had a massive impact on the community of about 3,000 people.

"There are already lots more fish to catch than before, and some day it will be full of big shrimps," Ahmed said, crouching to place a protective rusty tin can over the seed.

Nothing from the mangroves is wasted.

"We burn the dry branches remaining for cooking, which is a great help," said an elderly women, heaving a large bundle of sticks onto her back.

In the village, bare-foot children kick a half-deflated football between two huts, patched with ragged cloth reinforced with scraps of tin cans hammered flat.

The dust swirls as Halima Shifa Idriss, one of several women in the village who work planting the tree seeds, feeds her plump sheep with mangrove clippings.

"There were four sheep, now I have eight," Halima said, laughing as the animals reach up greedily to snatch another mangrove branch.

"That has made a big difference for my family."

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