Saudi women fight to save mangrove forests

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Local communities have jumped into action to protect the environment in Saudi Arabia's al-Qatif governorate.

Hardly a month goes by without Najwa Mohammed Bukhari participating in the campaign to "save the mangroves" on the coast of al-Qatif governorate. She did not participate in the latest monthly campaign only because she was not in Saudi Arabia at the time. However, Bukhari’s friends headed to the coast of Saihat City a few weeks ago to save the remains of these trees, which decades ago made up the coastal forest that surrounded the shores of eastern Saudi Arabia. Yet, according to even the most optimistic estimates and official statistics, only 10% of the forest remains; the rest has been destroyed by the ongoing bulldozing and landfill operations which have been taking place over almost four decades to accelerate the growth of urbanization. Saudi Aramco has announced a plan to plant 1.2 million mangrove trees on the coast of the kingdom in four years.

Bukhari and her female friends, who are members of the Supporters of the Environment and Volunteers Association, consider the protection of the mangroves a key mission. Their ambitions converge with the aspirations of their counterparts in al-Ataa Charity Association for Women in the al-Qatif governorate: to protect these marine trees and prevent those remaining from being removed. Women in both associations work long hours and with unrivaled enthusiasm to try and achieve their goals.

Mangroves, which are also called shura, qurm and Ibn Sina — alluding to the Arab world where the benefits of this tree were discovered — are considered a natural habitat for marine species. It is an evergreen tree that grows in tidal areas on the coast, ranging from one to five meters in height. It provides a welcome environment, allowing many marine organisms to reproduce, particularly the Caridea. These species represent an important part of the coastal ecosystem, supplying varied foodstuff for birds and fishes and thus establishing a nature reserve of paramount importance.

Mangrove trees have other benefits: They increase levels of oxygen and reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thereby helping to reduce global warming.

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These trees have the ability to absorb some of the chemical contaminants in their environment, including oil pollution. Further, they increase green spaces, especially in the desert regions, and have the ability to absorb high energy wave action.

Dalal al-Awami, head of al-Ataa's health and environment team, told Al-Hayat: “We are making strenuous efforts to protect the environment through our communication with supporters. We got in touch with the Saif Association at Saudi Aramco and they agreed to cooperate. We also participated in protecting the remaining mangrove forests.”

Barely five women took part in the first campaign, but Awami stressed that “there has been an unexpected change” in the second and third campaigns. In fact, the level of female participation has increased exponentially and there are now over a hundred female volunteers representing a variety of ages and backgrounds.

“Women who participated in the campaigns were not looked down upon or underappreciated. Everyone was working toward the same goal. Even some parents encouraged their sons and daughters to join in this voluntary work with the aim of instilling in them the the importance of volunteering, a concept generally absent from society, particularly in the fields of agriculture and environment,” Awami added.

As for their role as a team, she said: “Our main focus is health and environment, and our work is not merely confined to campaigns. By raising awareness we elevate the level of culture among people of the region. This might be done by organizing lectures, distributing leaflets and through social networking sites. This is how we manage to attract hundreds of volunteers and receive positive feedback from people. We also get suggestions from volunteers, which we follow up on all the time, whenever we feel they could lead to the protection and conservation of these forests.”

Although it has been only two years since the launch of the campaign to save the mangrove forests, the strenuous efforts of female volunteers — which Awami described as “modest” — have made an enormous impact. Volunteers have made their voices heard by politicians, and this has led to a reduction in practices harmful to this valuable resource.

Jaafar al-Safwani, deputy chairman of the Hunters’ Association in the eastern province and a member of the Saudi Organic Farming Association, said: “Efforts have been made to eliminate much of the plastic waste that is harmful to wildlife and causes the death of dozens of birds, fish and other animals when they swallow it.” He also stressed the importance of the mangrove forests, “as they are seen as an essential resource of fish and shrimp in the eastern Saudi Coast of the Arabian Gulf. This has been turned partially into a landfill, as many fail to see the great importance of these trees.”

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Found in: saudi arabia, qatif, oil, environment
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