Mangroves have been one of the poor relations of the world of plant conservation – at least until recently. The bushy trees that fringe the muddy estuaries of the tropics have been taken for granted and never considered as glamorous as orchids or rainforests.
As a result, large areas of mangroves have been cleared without much public protest, until the losses mounted up astonishingly. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the UN stock take of the health of the planet, revealed when it was published in 2005 that 35 per cent of the world's mangroves had been lost in the two decades between 1980 and 2000 – and that was just in countries where adequate data was available.
In reality mangroves are the equivalent of rainforests on the coast, a complex ecosystem which not only acts as a nursery breeding area for young fish and crustaceans but can also provide flood defence against tidal storm surges. A good example of this is the Sundarbans, the world's largest coastal mangrove forest stretching across India and Bangladesh – it is a natural barrier against tsunamis and cyclones.
Large-scale farming of shrimps and tiger prawns is behind the destruction of many mangrove areas, the UN says. Grassroots efforts to save mangroves from development are becoming more popular as the benefits of mangroves are becoming more widely known. In the Bahamas, for example, active efforts to save mangroves are occurring on the islands of Bimini and Great Guana Cay. In Trinidad and Tobago as well, efforts are underway to protect a mangrove threatened by the construction of a steel mill and a port.
The mood about mangroves is changing and the Virgin Islands campaign may well succeed.