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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."

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.

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"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."

The first step was to establish a center in Foundiougne. By the late 1990s, Diame had secured enough funding from Western organizations to begin work on a small complex outside town. He also began working with the Mangrove Action Project (MAP), a US-based nongovernmental organization with offices around the globe. Today, Diame acts as an advisor for MAP and a coordinator for the Western African Mangrove Network, which has staff in Nigeria and Ivory Coast.

But Diame is most devoted to the Sine Saloum Delta, an area where most of his family still lives. His office, which started as a single concrete building, is now a full research facility – with conference rooms, a dining hall, and thatched bungalows for visitors. Diame keeps many local residents on retainer to help with everything from fieldwork to cooking.

"One of the really important things is getting local people involved in the process of restoration," says Alfredo Quarto, the executive director and cofounder of MAP. "They have to own it."

Mangrove preservation efforts became something of a cause célèbre in the years following the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake. The temblor triggered a deadly tsunami in Southeast Asia, and many groups began focusing on the plant's effectiveness in limiting floodwater damage. Former President Bill Clinton, for instance, has become involved with an initiative called Mangroves for the Future, and every year a host of NGOs pour money into restoration efforts.

"Mangroves have so many functions: They filter out impurities; help prevent hurricane damage; they can sequester enormous amounts of carbon in their roots," says Mr. Quarto. "It's obvious that we need to save them. But the efforts have largely been a failure."

One reason, says Roy R. Lewis III, a scientific advisor to MAP, is that many groups simply dump money into affected areas, without monitoring how it's being spent. "It's a waste," says Mr. Lewis. "We're not dealing with applied management. The funding agencies are not facilitating local education. They're not even following up."

• • •

On a warm, cloudy summer morning, Diame drives through the center of Foundiougne, stopping his jeep near the town's dock. Dozens of children dart around his legs; he jokes with them in a mixture of French and Wolof, the local tribal dialect. He chats with a store owner. When the crowd dissipates, Diame walks to the edge of the dock and points to a small grove of mangroves on the shore. A few signposts poke out of the water, each marked with a large red X.

"This is an education project," he says. "It is different from actual reforestation – these were planted to sensitize people to the mangroves. We tell them, 'You can't use these for firewood anymore. You can't trample them, or play in them. You have to take care of them.' "

This is Diame's big gambit: If he can teach people to respect the plants, he will have taught them how to save their villages. So with the help of a handful of villagers, he compliments reforestation efforts with the creation of small displays around the delta. He brings residents of Fayako to tour the replanting sites. He teaches them to find alternate sources of wood.

So far, he's been moderately successful. The destruction along the delta, he says, has leveled off, and some of the reforestation efforts have taken root. But more important, Diame has succeeded in creating a practical approach to conservation. He has raised a general awareness of the plight of the Sine Saloum Delta – an awareness that originates in the local community.

"It's a start," says Diame. "For the people here, it's a good start."

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