More on history and mangroves…

The historical perspective on mangroves is becoming extremely important for understanding the so-called “natural history” of coastal ecosystems. The Martunnizi et al (2008) paper I discussed in the previous entry in this blog (click here to read about it) is an example of such a perspective.  Dahdouh-Guebas and Koedam (2008) published an interesting article on the need for a “transdisciplinary” approach to understand the natural and anthropogenic dynamics of mangroves.  Social and economic histories shape the contours and size of mangrove forests throughout the world (and all ecosystems, I might add), and following that line of thought, the authors make a strong case for the incorporation of a multi-tiered and transversal study of mangroves. That is, a research agenda that incorporates a number of fields in the human and life sciences that traverses boundaries among disciplines and charts the trends (both physical and social) of mangroves throughout time.

Different disciplines offer a variety of opportunities to increase our knowledge of mangroves at different temporal scales: the present and the recent past (forestry, ecology, remote sensing, landscape photography, interviews with the local population), the past (archival information, historical sources, archaeology, paleoethnobiological data) and the distant past (lichenometry, paleontology),  as well as other techniques that provide information on a wide spectrum of temporalities (substrate cores, isotope analyses, genetics, etc.).  The authors argue that scientists should go beyond the interdisciplinary approach (pairing two or three research techniques to calibrate the information or to solve a problem), and rather use a transdisciplinary approach. Many readers will find those definitions troublesome, but the authors make a great case for the use and sharing of information from an array of disciplines, expertise and techniques to understand the mangrove ecosystem, taking into account human history.  Indeed, they go as far as to argue that the knowledge of the mangrove’s spiritual heritage is invaluable to the analysis.  In the Caribbean, the mangrove is a place of important cultural and spiritual meanings, as this ecosystem is associated with maroon societies, deities and religious practices of African descent and heritage.  The mangrove is also a living metaphor of freedom, culture and resistance in the post-colonial literature of the region.

Finally, Dahdouh-Guebas and Koedam (2008) also suggest that researchers should take a hard look at the archives. Once in those depositories, scientists must scrutinize old maps and drawings as well as the undecipherable explanations, legends and scribbles inscribed in the maps.  The authors go as far as to suggest that “despite the valuable information contained in such historic archives, there is no evidence of their utilisation to study any aspect of the essential tropical coastal ecosystems” (2008:84), at least for the colonial world dominated by the Dutch.  The status of the use of archival data may be different for the English and Spanish domains. However, their point is well taken and should be underscored – researchers must invest more time in the archives, or incorporate historians, anthropologists and archeologists into the  understanding of the mangrove ecosystem.  To this, I add in a true transdisciplinary way, that is, that each researcher efface the contours and boundaries of their own disciplines, while engaging in the gaze and even the epistemologies of other fields, as if they were in their own.

Dahdouh-Guebas and Koedam (2008) use the example of a map from a coastal island in Senegal drawn in 1816 by the British. The authors draw the attention to the comments written in the map with information on the distances, tides, winds and directions, which was the standard information provided in a text form in the British maps. This information was “relevant for biological interpretation on mangrove ecosystem dynamics” (2008:85).  There is a wealth of cartographic information for Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean that remains unexplored, in terms of the “transdisciplinary” opportunities it may contain.  A clear example is the amount of data provided by the map below of the mangroves in the Guayama-Salinas coast (south shore), drawn by the Spanish military in 1884, and is accompanied by a textual description of the areas (not provided here). Documents and history await.

Contributed by: M. Valdés-Pizzini

Reference: Dahdouh-Guebas, F. and Koedam, N. 2008. Long-term retrospection on mangrove development using transdisciplinary approaches: A review. Aquatic Botany, 89, 80-92. (Click here for full text of this article in our database.)

Video: Mangroves commonly found in Puerto Rico (Spanish)

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  1. Ernesto Otero July 7, 2011

    The knowledge is part of our cultural heritage, some of us do not want to evaluate histories of diverse origins. There are obvious difficulties in doing so; the fast pace imposed on us by present day “realities” is in part responsible for the lack of transdisciplinary interactions. This is evidenced in the faces of people when these topics are discussed. Sigue ahí.