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2002 Rolex Award for Enterprise





" article claiming that a scientist was destroying coral reefs and degrading the environment would make a story that would pique the interest of your subscribers. This is reminiscent of the tabloid press which manufactures sensational stories without any basis in fact, but which titillate the ignorant."---Sato


Mangrove plantations pose threat to coral reefs

New Scientist vol. 178 issue 2393 - 03 May 2003, page 11

AN AUDACIOUS scheme to plant the world's desert coastlines with mangrove trees is being condemned by marine biologists as a potential disaster for coral reefs.

The scheme is the brainchild of a retired American cell biologist, Gordon Sato. He wants to plant mangroves along hundreds of kilometres of coastline in Mexico, Arabia and elsewhere. His first quarter million trees are already growing close to coral reefs on the shores of the Red Sea in Eritrea.

"The object is to create whole new forests of mangrove trees in vast areas of the world," says Sato. He believes that mangroves will fight poverty by providing fodder for goats, and help combat global warming by absorbing carbon from the air.

Sato estimates he could plant 50 million trees round the Red Sea alone, and 200 million on the shores of the Gulf of California in Mexico. If canals were used to take seawater inland, much of the Sahara, the Arabian Peninsula and the Atacama Desert of Chile could be planted, too. "Such forests would banish the problem of global warming," he says.

The mangroves will be planted on beaches between the high and low water mark. To help them grow, Sato is adding up to a tonne of fertiliser per hectare of beach, placed in the sand in small bags that slowly release the nutrients.

Reef scientists say this flush of nutrients into the sea could harm nearby reefs and destroy the fisheries on which coastal communities now depend. "Coral reefs are extremely sensitive to nutrient pollution," says Mark Spalding, co-author of the UN-backed World Atlas of Coral Reefs. Sato "is working without external scientific advice and with no environmental impact assessment", he claims. But Sato insists that, according to his own measurements, nitrogen and phosphorus levels round the mangroves are indistinguishable from those in the open sea.

The scheme has sparked off a passionate debate. Some other marine ecologists contacted by New Scientist were vehemently opposed to the project, though they were not prepared to be quoted.

Sato, who retired as a cell biologist 11 years ago, has so far largely funded the project himself. Last autumn his work in Eritrea earned him the prestigious Rolex award for enterprise, worth $100,000. He now hopes corporate sponsors will come in, to allow the programme to expand rapidly.

Mangroves along tropical shores nurture fisheries and help protect coasts from storms, and environmentalists are keen to conserve existing mangrove swamps. But, says Spalding, "in general, the success stories have been in areas where mangroves had previously flourished". Planting mangroves close to reefs could damage them, and "may threaten rather than support coastal livelihoods".

Fred Pearce

Dear Sir, 

I read with great concern Fred Pearce’s “Mangrove plantations pose threat to coral reefs” (New Scientist, vol 178, issue 2393, page 11).

As mentioned in this article, I am a retired cell biologist. My career as a researcher and teacher included collaborative work with a number of biotechnology firms, and a directorship at the W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center. I have over 200 scientific publications to my name, and my work has earned me a number of awards, including election to the US National Academy of Sciences.

 My principal objection to the above-mentioned article is its speculative nature and lack of supporting scientific fact or attribution. Furthermore, the article is unbalanced.  As far as I know, there is no scientific research that supports the claim that mangrove plantations negatively impact coral reefs. There is, in fact, little experience world-wide with planting mangroves where they have not grown before. In this pilot project, I have gone to great pains to ensure that the nutrients delivered to the mangroves are done so with a methodology – a brand new methodology – that ensures that there is no excess run-off that causes environmental damage. Seawater samples from taken near the Manzanar project analysed by the Eritrean Ministry of Fisheries show that there is no sign of pollution by an excess of nutrients.

 As a responsible scientist with 50 years experience, I am of course eager not to damage the environment. At the same time, the Manzanar project is designed to help people on the brink of starvation to develop an agricultural economy that they desperately need in order to survive.

 I understand that there is an important argument that needs to be addressed about the introduction of mangrove trees in this region. I would, therefore, welcome a visit by any reputable scientist to the project to evaluate the situation.

 I would also be happy to answer at greater length the criticisms leveled against the project if you can provide space in your publication.

 I divide my time between Eritrea and the United States. For the time being I can be reached by telephone on +1 978 468 6005, by fax on +1 978 468 0541, by email at, or via traditional mail services, 27 Cedar Street, Wenham, MA, 01984.

 I look forward to hearing from you.

 Sincerely, Gordon Sato

From: pearcefred
To: "gordon sato (1)" <>, "gordon sato (2)">
CC: "matt walker (1)" <> 

Subject: fred pearce
Date: Sat, 6 Sep 2003 04:17:33 -0400

Dear Dr Sato,

In response to your two messages:

1.  I do not have an absolute duty to confirm the accuracy of any charges made by an anonymous source.  News reporting of contentious issues would grind to a halt under such circumstances, to the detriment of all.  I have a duty to present such charges accurately and in a context that is fair to those whom they attack.  I believe I did that.  If you look, you will see the majority of the article is explaining your plans, and that the criticisms -- some sourced and some not -- are subsidiary to that.  Readers can make what they will of the reluctance of some critics to go on the record. 

2.  It is clear to me that the scheme is controversial on a number of grounds and some space should be devoted to the criticisms in any balanced coverage.  I did that.   I am not taking sides.   You may feel that your work is being unfairly attacked.  I am simply reporting that fact that it is being attacked and summarising very briefly the arguments on both sides.  Lack of space dictates that this will be incomplete, but I believe it was fair.  Our letters page are one place where you can respond.

3.  I will not be drawn into a name-game about sources.  I cannot avoid you drawing your own conclusions on that, but again I would warn you against making possibly libelous allegations against individuals.  Remember, honestly held opinions may still be libelous.  I do not accuse you of lying.

4.  I would love to come to Eritrea to see for myself and write at greater length.  At that point, I might be prepared to form my own views, rather than reporting those of others.  I can think of several good "stories" in Eritrea.  Finding time and an editor willing to pay the fare is another matter, but I will certainly put it to New Scientists's editors.

Sincerely,  Fred Pearce 

 Dear Dr. Pearce,

 I have refined my critique of your article. This is the final version.  As I explained previous versions were draft versions which you should expunge from your records.… First of all the article should have been entitled “Mangrove Plantations do NOT Pose a Threat to Coral Reefs”.  As I explained to you, the novel methods we have developed to provide fertilizer, provides fertilizer at precisely the rate that trees need to take up to grow and produce their product.  As a result, there is no fertilizer runoff to pollute the sea and damage coral reefs. In addition we have measured the fertilizer in the water off shore from our plantings and found none.  I challenge any of your so called experts to explain how mangrove plantations could pose a threat to coral reefs if there is no runoff.  Your anonymous source in Eritrea lacks the intellectual acuity to comprehend the rationale of our method, and lacks the wit to notice its importance to the arguments raised. I deplore his lack of the courage of his convictions.

 I believe the reason you wrote an article, “Mangrove Plantations Pose a Threat to Coral Reefs” is that you were following your journalistic instincts, and thought an article claiming that a scientist was destroying coral reefs and degrading the environment would make a story that would pique the interest of your subscribers. This is reminiscent of the tabloid press which manufactures sensational stories without any basis in fact, but which titillate the ignorant.

 Matt Walker, your colleague at New Scientist, claims the thrust of the story was justified because experts were consulted.  I submit to you that I and my staff in Eritrea are by far the world’s leading experts on planting mangroves in the plant- free inter tidal areas of desert countries.  We have found that mangroves naturally grow in areas of Eritrea where the seasonal rains are channeled to enter the sea bringing nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron, ( elements deficient in sea water).  We found we could successfully grow trees in areas without trees ( over 85% of the inter tidal areas ) by providing these elements.  We invented a method which delivers at a steady rate the amount of fertilizer needed and used by the trees which eliminates the danger of runoff. We have successfully established about 600,000 trees in seven separate areas where no plants at all were growing.  We have shown that a diet of exclusively mangrove fodder sprinkled with urea is adequate to keep animals alive for many months although the growth is suboptimal.  We are developing a grain like product---sun dried mangrove seeds—which can be stored at ambient temperatures for many months and can be used to feed animals during the dry season when pasture is not available and many animals die of starvation.  Preliminary tests indicate we can anticipate a harvest of 4 tons dry weight per hectare per year. We also expect the seeds to be highly nutritious because animals prefer them to other offered food such as grass and the thorn bush acacia. We will carry out a study this winter with the University of Asmara to evaluate the nutritional value of mangrove seeds and fodder.  The mangrove project will almost certainly go a long way to relieving chronic hunger, poverty, and to removing the specter of famine.   We are the first to make these advances.  This has never been done before.  This should certainly establish our unique expertise in the area, yet we were not consulted on the assertions made in the article.  To my mind this is poor journalism, and substandard scientific inquiry.

 It seems that the main criticisms come from an anonymous critic in Eritrea.  He says that our plantings could damage coral reefs because they put excessive fertilizer in the offshore area of our plantings.  He also says our plantings are particularly dangerous because they are in the near vicinity of coral reefs.  Both statements are false. It is curious that he has never gone to the site to see if fertilizer is polluting the sea nor has he gone to see if coral reefs are in the are in the area ( they are not), and if they are damaged.  I submit this calls into questions his motives, which I believe are not selfless.  Because he rarely leaves his air conditioned office to go observe the coastal environment, I would characterize him as an arm chair field biologist.  In the future, I suggest you solicit the opinions of people with hands-on experience.  I have personally planted hundreds of trees, transported tons of debris from the trash littered coast, and have been the overall supervisor of the planting of 600,000 trees.  Your anonymous source has never done any of these things.

 It has been my observation over the years that when developed countries send bureaucratic, scientific experts to poor countries they often send their least talented people.

In their home countries they would never become lead scientists in industry or professors at leading universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Sydney or Adelaide.  In poor countries they command an authority and influence far beyond their meager talents.  In addition they manage to get tax free salaries that far exceed the cost of living in poor countries.  Consequently they can bank over 90% of their salary, and after ten years can have the equivalent of a million dollars in the bank.  This often produces a conflict of interests that is bad for development programs.

 I have a good reputation as a scientist as evidenced by the fact that my students include the chairman of cell biology at Hadassah medical school, the former chairman of cell biology at Harvard medical school, the director of the Banting and Best Institute in Toronto, The founder of the UN vaccine institute of Asia, the co inventor of the polymerase chain reaction,  the founder and CEO of  Raven Biotechnology,  the founders of A and G  Pharmaceutical,  the vice president of Kanazawa University,  the former head of Stem cell research at the American Type Culture  collection, the founder of Celera corp. which sequenced the human genome,  and many professors and chairmen all over the world. If I include the students I taught at special summer courses at Cold Spring Harbor, this number would be swelled by 200 eminent scientists, a Nobel Prize Winner, and the President of the National Academy of Sciences.   This hard earned  reputation was damaged by the false charge that I am a threat to coral reefs and the marine environment.

 Your second consultant states that I do not have external advisors.  After a fifty year career in science I have an extensive network of friends who are eminent scientists.  I talk often to the co- discoverer of the first step in photosynthesis.  He has a keen interest in mangroves.  I brought Howard Teas, who for fifty years has been pre-eminent in mangrove research, to Eritrea for advice.  His comments on our work is added.  I am in constant contact with Robert Riley who devised an encasement device to protect seedlings from wave action and encircling wrasses.  We utilize a modification of his device to greatly increase our efficiency of planting. Finally, Eritrea is on the verge of famine due to the recent drought.  Some people will die of starvation, and many more will die of diseases aggravated by chronic malnutrition.  Our efforts with mangrove trees is directed at removing this scourge. No mention was made of this in your article, and your anonymous source is apparently unconcerned about the impending human calamity.

 Sincerely, Gordon Sato

 PS.  There are two errors in the article.  We put 3 tons of fertilizer per hectare—not one ton.  I never proposed digging channels to bring sea water inland. 

 Dear Gordon, 

Thank you for the Manzanar report and Rolex Award announcement that you recently sent me. The award for "Enterprise" reads like it was designed for you!

 You provided excellent photo illustrations and write-up. I heartedly wish that I might have been able to work with you. The photographs showing thousands of mangrove plants in nurseries extending to the horizon are fantastic.

 I regard your project as the most important work that has been carried out on mangroves since the initial studies that demonstrated the role of mangrove litter in the estuarine environment.

 Best Regards, Howard  (Teas) 

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