“Alright guys, if you look out the windows to the right, you will see enormous, multi-acre shrimp ponds that were all once mangrove forest.” Thus I begin a talk on the importance of this ecosystem to a group of 24 United States college students, most of whom are studying environmental science or related fields. They have travelled to Ecuador for a semester abroad, and have already seen the Amazon jungle and the cloud forests of the Andes Mountains. A trip to the Galapagos Islands is planned for later in the semester. Today, we are riding a bus towards Isla Corazón (Heart Island), a wildlife refuge located on the Ecuadorian coast.
The estimated coverage of Ecuador’s mangrove forests in 1980 was 203,000 hectares; by 2000, that area had been reduced to approximately 150,200, a loss of 26%, mostly from conversion to aquaculture shrimp ponds (FAO 2007). Massive areas of forest were bulldozed, filled in and squared off in the process. Shrimp farming was a lucrative business in Ecuador until a disease called la mancha blanca (white spot) and foreign competition crashed the industry in the late 1990s. However, the business remains a major Ecuadorian export and domestic source of income. The students are exposed to this information and more through lectures and this field trip.
After passing more long stretches of ponds, we finally arrive at Isla Corazón, which is really a series of mangrove islands within a protected stretch of the Chone River. Historical, aerial photographs show that the main island was once heart-shaped, but it outgrew that form following natural and human-directed reforestation. In fact, mangrove coverage in Ecuador stabilized and increased slightly to about 150,500 hectares between the years 2000 and 2005 (FAO 2007). Whadda ya know? Conservation efforts work.
These particular mangrove islands are a nesting refuge for thousands of birds across dozens of species, including cormorants, pelicans and magnificent frigates, the star attraction best known for the male’s large, bright-red, inflatable throat pouch. The reserve is also a popular tourist site, managed jointly by the Ministry of the Environment and the local fisherman, who have been living in and defending this mangrove system for decades, long before the government gave it protected status. These guys can describe how to lure crabs out of their deep, muddy burrows with nothing more than a stick, and how mangrove wood was once used to make nails for shoes. They know the environment best and will be our guides, teaching us even more mangrove ecology and, if we are lucky, entertaining us with tales of the duende (elf) that lives among the trees.
But before we load into the boats for an up-close tour of the islands, the reserve staff needs to know what types of lunches to prepare so that the food is ready upon our return. I quickly survey the group. What is the overwhelming request among the environmental students?
Sounds like the punch line to a bad joke, right? Well, the only laughs I heard were the nervous, muffled ones coming from the students after I asked where my fellow vegetarians were hiding. A few herbivores were tucked away in the group, silent and humble among the pack. I pursued the topic no further, hoping that the irony of their order and my tongue-in-cheek inquiry sent an appropriate message, strong in its simplicity yet polite enough to continue enjoying the field trip. And yes, I must say that a good time was had by all at Isla Corazón. However, any lesson potentially gleaned from that initial, awkward moment was eradicated hours later when, upon returning to our lodging at a forest reserve, the group dashed directly to a road-side stand to buy their favorite snack:
Indeed, the students were well aware of South America’s widespread deforestation for cattle operations. Not only had they attended lectures but their forest accommodations are surrounded by clear-cut pasture hills, with cows trampling the dusty soil to a hardened, compact landscape that will not recover to nearly anything resembling a tropical forest in our lifetime. To watch the gallons of empty yogurt bottles pile up at the recycle bins is mind-boggling. But drink up everyone. Tomorrow we will further discuss how they continue ruining their tropical habitats, or maybe we will phrase everything in the passive voice: “the tropical habitats are being destroyed”. Whatever it takes to avoid an upset stomach…
There is a massive disconnect here.
Although most students crossing hemispheres of the planet to take classes will likely listen to the lectures, study their notes and answer test questions, the lack of action beyond academia concerns me. If visiting a mangrove refuge surrounded by shrimp ponds, and staying at a forest reserve bordered by cattle farms can’t curb their carnivorous appetite for an afternoon, then what will inspire action? What will wake the sleeping, environmental giants in such a group to perhaps change their behaviors, or at least open a dialog? I’ll tell you what: an Ecuadorian opening a bus window and throwing out a piece of garbage, like a candy wrapper. Voices are always raised and an animated discussion always ensues. Someone may even gather the nerve to confront the litter bug, and everyone will agree on the irrational, disgusting nature of it all.
Moaning and groaning over a carelessly tossed lollipop stick is safe turf. There is a unanimous consensus – at least among the foreigners down here – that we can condemn small-scale littering, even bitch out loud about it, without hurting each other’s feelings. Well I say we make the situation a little uncomfortable for a moment by overlooking the easy target and focusing on our diets.
In 2010 the United Nations Environmental Program, or UNEP, reported that agriculture and food consumption were among the most important inducers of habitat alteration, climate change, fish depletion, water use and toxic emissions (UNEP 2010). The report noted the high land use, and consumption of a large portion of the world’s crops, by “animal products”. In an online article for The Guardian, Carus (2010) quotes the UNEP report’s lead author Professor Edgar Hertwich: “Animal products cause more damage than [producing] construction minerals such as sand or cement, plastics or metals. Biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels.”
Most environmentalists, and many readers and contributors to this site, probably do not need the occasional United Nations reminder that the growing global gusto for meat and dairy is unsustainable. Preaching to the choir, you might say. But how many of you, my fellow Counterpunch conservationists, are vegetarians or vegans? Are we active with our knowledge? Do the members of this choir even sing, or like the students are the pipes clogged up with dead fish, birds, and mammals? Pardon me, “animal products”.
Although the empirical data help make a strong case for dietary shifts, I emphasize this topic more so because the power to change is easily within our reach. We do not need to write to our representatives in Washington D.C., stage a protest, or gather thousands of petition signatures. Just step away from the hot dog.
The problem is the massive disconnect mentioned earlier, even among those of us who study conservation and the environment. We investigate, sometimes travelling the world to do so, and then report our findings with a love for the passive voice and a clever knack for avoiding personal pronouns. Or when pronouns are employed, they often refer to an elusive, nebulous villain. Do you see them out there? Look at the way they are tearing apart the environment. Maybe there are legions of elves, not just one in the mangroves but hordes all over the planet, wreaking havoc and… Nah, guess what? It’s us!
Therefore, if you had to choose where to direct you anger, ease up on the candy wrapper for a moment! Let us pick our battles not to maintain comfort levels, but where our forces are most needed. Take a look at your plate and the plates of nearly everybody around you. Focus on that for a while. We gasp, roll our eyes, or shout when someone tosses garbage out a moving bus. But when was the last time you reacted like that to a cup of milk, or a bowl of shrimp? We cannot completely ignore the plastic tatters tumbling down the street, possibly making their way towards that giant, plastic gyre party out in the Pacific Ocean. However, save some energy to create awkward, tense, and informative moments about our appetites.
Lastly, if you are not at least a vegetarian, then join up! We may not be the most militant or outspoken group, but we always welcome new members. To all my fellow vegetarians and vegans, I say we become more aggressive and intensify our recruiting efforts. The lines at the fast food troughs of that demented-looking clown and that smiley-faced plantation colonel are winding out the door here in Ecuador. I am sure the situation is far worse in the United States of Jabba the Hut, to borrow a phrase from the great Joe Bageant. We are considerably outnumbered; it’s time to stop hiding.
James Madden has written two articles for Counterpunch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Carus, F. 2010. UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet. The Guardian. Online.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2007. The world’s mangroves 1980 – 2005. FAO Forestry Paper 153. Rome. 75 p.
United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). 2010. Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials.