Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

On the Beach

In the coastal village of Moawo, 5-year old Jefrin (right) and his 10-year old brother Fajrin plant mangrove seedlings, part of a project on the Indonesian island of Nias to improve habitat for sea life and provide some protection from future tsunamis. The project is sponsored by CD Bethesda/YAKKUM Emergency Unit (YEU) and Action by Churches Together (ACT). . (Paul Jeffrey)

Sometimes when I look at an image that I captured years ago, I get a feeling that is totally unrelated to whatever you may see when you look at the image. Take this photo from the remote Indonesian island of Nias. I had gone there a while after the big tsunami to document how islanders were recovering from the devastating waves and an earthquake that followed a few weeks after. My hosts took me to the village of Moawo, and we started walking. The temperature must have been about 160 degrees, with the humidity not far behind. I hadn’t realized it was going to be a long walk, so I hadn’t tucked much water into my kit when we left the car. So we walk. And we walk. And then we walk through wet sand on the beach which sucks down on my boots. OK, I’ll spare you more whining; you can see where this is going. I walked a long ways, sweating profusely, until we got to where a father and his two sons were planting mangroves. I have to tell stories like this every once in a while lest my bosses want to cut my salary because they think I have way too much fun. But, and now I will finally get to the point, when I look at this picture today, I start sweating.

All suffering aside, it was an important series of images. Five-year old Jefrin (right) and his 10-year old brother Fajrin are planting mangrove seedlings, part of a project on the island of Nias to improve habitat for sea life and provide some protection from future tsunamis. Had Moawa had better mangroves, it would have fared better in the tsunami. So folks decided afterward that it was a good time to start planting mangrove seedlings on their beaches. This kind of mitigation work is an important part of how good emergency agencies work with affected communities to lower their risk in the face of future disasters. To many it doesn’t seem as sexy as flying in food to starving people, but in terms of getting a return on investment, it pays off handsomely as it helps communities reduce their vulnerability–meaning next time they perhaps won’t need external assistance when they confront a natural hazard like a tsunami.

While we’re at it, a word about global mangrove forests, which are being lost up to four times faster than land forests, according to a recent study by the United Nations Environment Program. That study showed that one-fifth of global mangroves have vanished since 1980. That’s an even more startling data point if you know how tough mangroves can be. One of the best places to see this is the Playa los Colorados in Cuba, the place where in 1956 Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and some 80 other revolutionaries tried to land the Granma, this old yacht they’d bought in Mexico. It was to be the glorious start of their revolution, but they weren’t very good sailors and ended up having to disembark only to have to climb through deadly thick mangroves to reach the land. Today there’s an elevated boardwalk over the mangroves that runs for 2.5 kilometers from the beach to the site where they disembarked from the Granma. Not surprisingly, less than one-quarter of the revolutionaries survived to take on the army of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Bautista. That anyone survived that trek through the mangroves at all is a testament to their courage and commitment. I survived the walk to the end of the boardwalk and back, but most of what I remember about it was that I sweated a lot.

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