Alfredo Quarto, head of Mangrove Action Project, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I am executive director and cofounder of the Mangrove Action Project.
What does your organization do?
MAP is dedicated to reversing the degradation of mangrove-forest ecosystems worldwide. We promote the rights of local coastal peoples, including fishers and farmers, and encourage community-based, sustainable management of coastal resources. We are based in the U.S., with regional offices in Thailand and Indonesia, and another office opening soon in Brazil.
Mangrove forests are vital for healthy coastal ecosystems — their salt-tolerant trees and other plant species provide nutrients for the marine environment and support immense varieties of sea life in intricate food webs. Yet for too long, these vital wetlands have been undervalued, called mosquito-infested, muddy swamps, worthless and remote. They’re being lost to the charcoal and timber industries, shrimp farms, tourism, golf courses, and ill-planned urban expansion.
The loss of these wetlands has made coastal regions vulnerable to tsunami waves and hurricane winds, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in property, as tragically evidenced in the tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, in which more than 250,000 people were killed. Most recently, it is believed that loss of coastal wetlands along the Mississippi Delta contributed to the immense devastation from Hurricane Katrina. If mangrove forests and related coastal wetlands are kept in a healthy state, they can offer a protective greenbelt to buffer against such otherwise devastating tsunamis or storm surges.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
In the very distant past, I was an aeronautical and astronautical engineer who quit Boeing to work for $7 a day for Greenpeace in Japan.
I first stumbled upon the mangrove forests, and the shrimp aquaculture industry that threatens them, back in 1992. I was traveling in southern Thailand, visiting several fishing communities, where fisherfolk, both men and women, told me their stories.
One brave, young leader spoke quite openly about the shrimp farms that threatened the very lives and livelihoods of the fishing communities. He simply and poetically stated, “If there are no mangrove forests, then the sea will have no meaning. It is like having a tree with no roots, for the mangroves are the roots of the sea.” This statement inspired the formation of Mangrove Action Project, and set me on a new course from which I seriously doubt I will ever recover!
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in Long Island, N.Y., I now live in Port Angeles, Wash.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
I would say dealing with the industrial shrimp-aquaculture proponents and their supporting financial and intergovernmental institutes such as the World Bank or the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. has been a pain, as has dealing with those big-name NGOs that are willing to compromise (sometimes sell out) for the sake of finding a quick and easy solution, when too often there just isn’t one.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Witnessing the destruction of vital and healthy mangrove forests that have been cleared to make shrimp ponds in Brazil, Thailand, or India, or tourist resorts and golf courses in the Bahamas or Mexico. The loss of these mangroves destroys the lives and livelihoods of countless coastal communities, placing them in peril from tsunamis and hurricanes, just so we here in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Europe can eat cheap, farm-raised shrimp, or sunbathe or play golf on a denuded tropical beach.
Who is your environmental hero?
John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mahatma Gandhi, Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, David Brower, and Masanobu Fukuoka, who all inspired my environmental mind-set.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
The Republican Party — a fiesta of lies, environmental pillage, and war!
What’s your environmental vice?
Driving a conventional car and eating store-bought bananas, but not necessarily at the same time.
What are you reading these days?
Trying to get through The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas, which looks pretty good by its cover.
What’s your favorite meal?
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Dedicated to a cause greater than the sum of its support.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The temperate forest of the Pacific Northwest, along the winding banks of the Hoh or Elwha rivers on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
The larger environmental organizations — the Big Three or Five — are becoming organizationally moribund and bureaucratic, unable to take a bottom-up approach to the issues. Losing contact with the grassroots makes for a shaky environmental stance. A tall tree without roots will not stand!
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
The Byrds. U2.
What’s your favorite movie?
The Lord of the Rings.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Each person should choose at least one environmental or social-justice cause and work on it with a passion and determination to correct the problem, while supporting the Mangrove Action Project with a donation. We need your support!