The mangrove man
Abdoulaye Diame is on a crusade in his native Senegal to save a plant crucial to curbing floods, filtering seawater, and regulating tides.
First the old man traces a slow, sprawling circle in the sand. Then gingerly, like a master painter, he fills out his portrait: a dozen triangles for waves, a smattering of rectangles for buildings, and a jagged line for the shore. "A few years ago," he says, "the water was down there."Skip to next paragraph
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For emphasis, he turns in his chair, and points at the beach. It is an unusually hot day, and half of the 50-odd residents of this small island are huddled under a small grove of palms at the center of the island. "We lived in those buildings for a while," he says. "The tide came up, so we pulled back to here." He marks the middle of a circle.
"The mangroves were a barrier against the water," explains Abdoulaye Diame, peering down at the old man's illustration. "When the mangroves started dying, the water started rising."
Mr. Diame, a Senegalese scientist, is a liaison between Fayako and the mainland. But in this part of Senegal, he is known mostly as a tireless advocate for the mangrove tree – one of the earth's vital and unheralded natural resources. With their thick copses and interconnected roots, mangroves are essential for purifying sea water, regulating the tides, balancing underwater ecosystems, and mitigating the effects of floodwater damage. For many West Africans, they are also a source of fuel and a support to marine life.
They are regarded locally with almost spiritual reverence.
But they're disappearing rapidly. By most estimates, more than half the world's mangroves have already been destroyed. The remaining plants, which grow in tropical and subtropical zones from India to Southeast Asia, die at a rate of 1 to 2 percent a year – largely because of pollution and the increasing salinity of some coastal waters.
In Fayako, a town located deep in Senegal's verdant Sine Saloum Delta, the effects are clearly visible. As the mangroves have vanished, locals are finding fewer fish to eat and no firewood to burn. More ominously, the tide rises a bit higher each year.
So Diame is trying to halt the destruction through a combination of reforestation and grass-roots activism. Each week, he pilots a boat around the serpentine tributaries of the delta, stopping at small towns to inspect progress on planting sites and help residents manage the remaining mangroves. He harangues village elders about proper tending. He works to introduce new agricultural techniques.
If he turns out to be successful, his program could become a model for other mangrove conservation efforts around the globe.
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Diame is a tall man with broad shoulders and a steely stare that reflects the deeply personal nature of his work. He maintains roots in the region, where he was born and where he graduated from high school. In 1993, he traveled to Russia to attend Moscow State University, earning degrees in physical oceanography and geography. When he returned to Senegal, he set about using his new skills to help solve some of the delta's most pressing ecological problems. Chief among them: the precipitous drop in the mangrove population, caused in part by the polluting runoff from luxury resorts in the area.
"We tried to approach it in two different ways," Diame says. "We wanted to begin replanting the mangroves, but we also wanted to teach people here about how they could help."