The Tree of Life: Photographer Elisabetta Zavoli is Speaking Up for Mangroves

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Mangroves harbour secrets which need to be told. Despite their ability to store five times more carbon than tropical forests, they’re being destroyed faster than any other forest in the world. Italian photojournalist Elisabetta Zavoli wants to break the furtive silence threatening this blue carbon ecosystem. Because, in 50 years, they might not exist at all.

Words by Megan Brownrigg

Photography by Elisabetta Zavoli

“I was just in the right place, I didn’t know about this.”

Elisabetta first stumbled upon mangrove forests in The Jakarta Post, after moving to Indonesia in 2012. She hadn’t come for them, she just happened to be hunting for a story. An article on blue carbon ecosystems caught her eye, which attested to a massacre of mangroves. Forests which were capable of absorbing 20 billion tonnes of carbon globally were being cleared to make room for shrimp farms and other more profitable endeavors. As mangroves continue to be cut down today, the carbon they store and sequester is being spat back into our atmosphere. According to a report published in Nature Climate Change, these emissions are now annually equivalent to that of Myanmar. Not to mention that for every mangrove forest that’s cleared, we’re losing the offset capacity of five rainforests of the same size.

As it grows, a mangrove tree takes on more than life, it has an entire personality. Its roots tangle like unruly limbs, drawing wiry shapes resembling bodies, even faces. It’s no surprise Elisabetta named her visual study of their destruction, The Tree of Life. Mangrove networks create tunnels, shadows and ponds in what would otherwise be open ocean. But it’s their science, not their stage presence, which makes them vital. They thrive in water whose salt would kill other plants. Their roots get drunk on floods. They build land in the face of erosion. And they are buying our climate time.

On a local level, mangroves are also a lifeblood for communities. “Everyone is working” is how Elisabetta describes a community living amongst a healthy mangrove forest. “The men are fishing and the women are working in rice fields”. She documented the lives of fishing villages in Java for 4 years, often sleeping at the homes of local families to join the night catch. It’s how she was able to get shots like the one below, of fellow fishermen sharing a cigarette in the dark. Sparking up under a full moon, they’re guarding their fishing ponds against thieves. Healthy harvests aren’t taken for granted around here.

“When it’s green and alive, the forest becomes part of the community”, Elisabetta explains. In daylight she’d watch mangrove bushes sprout into coastal villages as casually as pedestrians. But the trees are no tourists, they labour hard, too. Their roots trap sediment and their bodies offer a natural barrier to the sea. They protect communities from floods, hurricanes, erosion and even small tsunamis. Mangroves are a mesh between sea and land, which we can’t do without.

“When it comes to climate change, mangroves are the aces we should be clutching to keep.”

“If you take the mangroves away the coast is nude. The people face a desert” Elisabetta’s image of flat land without forest is stark. Locals living in these places, unprotected from sea or sun, have often had their mangroves removed to make room for commercial fish farms. Whilst shrimps thrive in mangroves’ brackish water, the trees take up space which slows their mass production. With the ‘blue revolution’ expecting the global demand for shrimps to triple, traditional farming can’t keep up.

Instead, fishermen are resorting to concrete ponds and chemicals to churn out sufficient stocks. This means cutting down the mangroves. Whilst artificial methods initially improve fish harvests up to 100 fold, over time they starve waters of their oxygen and pH balance. And while a traditional mangrove pond can sustain a fisherman for a century, the commercial ponds become barren after about 5 years. So now, instead of being gilt in green, coastlines are scarred by forgotten shrimp farms. The resulting scenes aren’t pretty.

Where the mangroves once were, entire villages are sinking into sea currents. Populations are losing their roof and wage. And then there’s the carbon. Indonesia alone produces 190 million tonnes a year, which would be almost cut in half if mangroves were spared. Worldwide, the forests are being cleared along any coast they crop. In Myanmar, it’s to make room for rice, in Latin America, it’s for palm oil. Tropical deforestation makes up 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions a year. When it comes to climate change, mangroves are the aces we should be clutching to keep. But in a game of commercialism, we’ve cast them as the lowest card.

In the Indonesian villages, Elisabetta worked to capture how man and ecosystem bleed and beat together. One night, sticking a layer of red gelatine to her torch, she ventured to the beach of Sawah Luhur village on West Java Island. Photographing the space where mangroves once grew, she had only sand as her subject. She shone her torch. “It threw red stripes of light, like the blood of mangroves leaking into the sea”. The image is arresting. There’s nothing like shades of violence to capture something which is no longer there.

Elisabetta stresses that the onus of mangrove devastation shouldn’t be on local people. “People just trust what the government tells them to do. Some don’t understand what’s happening until the sea currents swipe away their land”. Earlier this year, the Indonesian government submitted a bill petitioning for the deregulation of protected mangrove forests – so more could be cleared for commercial use.

On the flip side, local village elders are often mangroves’ greatest protectors. Indonesian culture champions senior wisdom, so that when heads of communities speak up in favour of the forests, the trees are saved. Elisabetta argues young working people are seeing the value in mangroves, too. “Local people are finding the solutions. No ponds means no more livelihoods, so people are working to protect the kind that can last”. It’s mass production and government intervention, that blindsides these efforts.

“There is a healthy compromise where the forest serves the people and the people serve the forest.”

What there is little understanding about on a local level, is the chemicals which come with large-scale farming. When asking one fisherman if he was worried about his fish consuming chemicals, he told Elisabetta, “I eat the fish, not the chemicals”. Many fishermen deliberately use an excess of chemicals to kill their fish and make harvests easier. “Dead fish don’t struggle in nets, they rise to the surface”, Elisabetta states. “A 7-hour chore becomes a 60-minute job”. Farmers are playing a constant game of catch up with commercial demand. In one photo in the series capturing this fisherman spreading his chemicals, shown below, Elisabetta characteristically doesn’t zoom her lens. Instead she moves her body to frame a shot, always grabbing the bigger picture. Here that wider image is of the man’s pallid reflection in the murk, as he pours more chemicals into his own waters.

The disconnect pushing mangroves to extinction happens thousands of miles away from these fishing ponds. It happens in nice little restaurants where we glance at menus, and order the shrimp cocktail because “look Sue, it’s not too pricey”. Our 7pm dinner reservations are where the elusive mangrove’s story needs airing. Exotic and faraway, these forests feel invisible here. But the cheap shrimp we buy on our European holidays, for example, will almost never have been sourced within EU borders. And whilst it may have been checked for safety, it currently isn’t screened for sustainability. Which means it likely comes from a shrimp farm with a shelf life, in the grave of a mangrove forest.

“Mangroves might not serve fast farming, but they are at the heart of sustainable production.”

For every 100 grams of shrimp we eat like this, we’re throwing 1000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. That’s before transportation or packaging. This is just one of the revelations Principal Scientist for International Forestry Research, Daniel Murdiyarso, shares in Elisabetta’s webdoc ‘A Fistful of Shrimps’. “We need to start paying attention, and demand that there are sustainability checks”, says Elisabetta. “Otherwise we’re buying into an economy of exploitation”. I ask how else we can manage our consumer habits, whilst we campaign for policies to change. Elisabetta replies simply: “We have a choice, to eat the shrimp cocktail or not”.

It’s when external pressures, like consumer demand, are minimised that mangroves thrive in Indonesia. Mangroves might not serve fast farming, but they are at the heart of sustainable production. Consumers just need to change their habits and pay their premiums. Shrimp can still be farmed, fishermen can still work, mangroves can still grow.  “There is a healthy compromise where the forest serves the people and the people serve the forest”, Elisabetta states simply. Her sentiment is echoed vividly in the first image of her project.

Taken in the early hours of the morning, the photo shows a throwing net tied to a mangrove tree. It hangs like a veil. “It encapsulates everything”, Elisabetta smiles. “The marriage between mangrove and fisherman can be a good marriage if done sustainably” She pauses, drinking in the stories she’s been working to share. “Or it can be a disruptive marriage”. Here, in the innocence of dawn, Elisabetta has captured the wedding. The image is virginal, vulnerable and awaiting an outsider’s vows. Vows to protect these mangroves rather than pull them down, and share their blue carbon secrets rather than shed their blood. Here, in this moment, the mangrove is an equal partner to humankind, not a casualty of our choices.

Before we part, I ask Elisabetta what she hopes people take from The Tree of Life series. “Exactly that”, she says. “Life. I want life to be taken from it. All life depends on trees. This is a universal truth”.

Did you know Urth plants 5 trees for every product sold? Many of our tree planting projects focus on planting mangrove forests, one of the best tree varieties for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Read more about our reforestation projects and browse the products that support them. 

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Elisabetta Zavoli

2020-07-24T04:26:44+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: , , |