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Transforming a Coastline
Published in 2002

An eminent biologist and the author of more than 150 scientific publications, Gordon Sato has dedicated much of the past ten years – and US$400,000 of his own money – to establish a multi-faceted agricultural programme in Eritrea, with the cultivation of mangroves as the main activity.

For his determined efforts to help Eritreans make positive use of their challenging environment, Sato, an energetic and imaginative 74-year-old, has been selected as a Rolex Laureate.

The reasons for Sato’s commitment to Eritrea date back to the 1980s and even further. During the Second World War, the United States government held Sato, a teenager at the time, and his Japanese-American family in Manzanar, an internment camp in the Californian desert. Four decades later, during the last few years of Eritrea’s 30-year struggle for independence, Sato recognised parallels between the way Ethiopia was dealing with its Eritrean minority and the treatment meted out to his own family during the war.

Eager to help the Eritreans, and prompted by news reports of a famine affecting them, Sato went to Eritrea and set up a small, fish farming operation in the north of the country, near the Eritrean navy’s headquarters. This scheme, which Sato named Manzanar in memory of his family’s war-time experience, provided wounded troops with a much needed source of protein.

When he first arrived in Eritrea in 1985, Sato’s initial reaction was "outrage at the injustice of the situation. The Eritreans were being starved and massacred. Upon meeting the Eritrean leadership for the first time, I was impressed by their intelligence and highly principled commitment to freedom for Eritreans."

Forging a bond with one of the world’s poorest countries

From then on, Sato returned frequently to Eritrea. On retiring in 1992, he chose to spend six to eight months of every year there. Since then the Manzanar project has become an impressive, non-profit initiative that could soon be providing fodder to raise animals to feed up to 2,000 people.

Eritreans are proud people, highly selective in the development projects they allow into their country. Sato admits spending almost as much time cultivating the Eritrean authorities as he does his mangrove plantations. The Eritrean Ministry of Fisheries initially allowed him to use small plots of land for mangroves. Now, thanks to Sato’s diplomacy and his commitment to the country, he has at his disposal expanses of barren intertidal land on the Red Sea coast for the cultivation of mangroves and grasses.

Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993, is one of the world’s poorest countries, with an annual per-capita income of US$200. The areas adjacent to its 1,000km coastline are particularly poor. The harbour town of Massawa, where Sato runs the Manzanar project, is one of the driest places on earth, receiving annual rainfall of less than two centimetres.

Low-tech farming

Mangroves, which tolerate salt water, grow along 15 per cent of Eritrea’s coastline, forming a narrow fringe, normally no more than 100m wide. They grow particularly well in mersas, places along this arid coastline where seasonal rains collect for just a few days of the year and flow into the sea, carrying large amounts of sediment.

While studying these areas, Sato and his co-workers – a team of young Eritrean biologists and agriculture graduates – made an interesting discovery that determined the direction of the Manzanar project. They realised that rainwater and the sediment it carries contain the elements nitrogen, phosphorus and iron, all of which are necessary for the growth of plants. These elements are also present in seawater, but in insufficient concentration.

After much experimentation, they devised a low-tech method of slowly releasing these elements directly into seawater – by burying small, plastic bags of fertiliser below the surface of the sand, next to young trees in tidal areas. This fertiliser contains two of the "missing" elements – nitrogen and phosphorus. The powder escapes very gradually through small holes pierced in one side of the bag. Iron, the third vital element, is provided by wire netting and pieces of metal, generally taken from the abandoned tanks, lorries and other military ephemera littering the coast around Massawa. This combination of elements enables mangroves to grow in otherwise barren intertidal areas.

A tree with a variety of uses

The Manzanar project uses the native mangrove species Avicennia marina, which provides excellent fodder for livestock.

The project team is also growing a second native mangrove species, Rhizophora mucronata, which was previously almost extinct in the region because of its popularity as construction lumber. This species is also used for firewood – very important in a country where 75 per cent of domestic energy requirements are met by burning wood.

After determining that the successful growth of mangroves depends on proximity to a source of fertiliser, Sato and his team set about fertilising and cultivating areas above the maximum tidal level. They are now planting mangroves where they have never before grown, irrigating them with seawater pumped inland along a network of pipes.

And while Sato and his co-workers have conducted experiments that prove goats can survive on a diet comprising solely of Avicennia marina leaves, a varied diet is better for the health of most animals. To address this, they have planted the grasses Distichlis spicata and Spartina – both can be irrigated with seawater and make excellent cattle fodder. They also plan to cultivate the desert saltbush Atriplex that is high in protein and can be used as fodder.

The mangrove takes root in Eritrea

Robert Twilley, a professor of biology at the University of Louisiana, agrees that mangrove leaves provide a good food source for livestock in a desert environment. He maintains that mangroves can be cultivated in Eritrea, "as long as Sato can keep the saltwater input constant and allow large amounts of evaporation to overcome the salt balance".

Sato is "absolutely confident" that this can be done. "Most of the planting is in the intertidal zone, which is awash with seawater," he explains. In addition, in the areas of cultivation further inland, the project’s seawater irrigation system is working well, he adds.

In 2001, the Manzanar project grew about 60,000 mangrove seedlings at various nurseries near Massawa, later successfully re-planting them near the coast. Since then, Sato has shown that mangrove seeds can be sown directly into the sand at coastal plantations.

In the ten months to October 2002, Sato and the Eritreans he works with planted about 200,000 mangroves, most of them at the village of Hargigo, ten kilometres south of Massawa. Sato and the Eritrean biologists provided technical advice and training. The workers, most of them women, were paid for their labour during this time.

Local involvement: the key for the future

The same workers will become farmers, continuing to grow mangroves and harvesting them to feed livestock. Without a firm commitment by local people, the scheme will fail; hence they are being fully integrated into the whole agricultural cycle.

The Rolex Award will help take Sato closer to his long-term goal of relieving the Eritrean government of its financial support of the Manzanar project, which currently stands at between US$20,000 and US$50,000 a year. In addition, it will give a positive image of Eritrea.

Sato is confident that local people will willingly participate, once they understand the technology behind the Manzanar project and its potential impact. "They are fishermen and shepherds," he says, "and know the value of trees." He is planning to set up a feeding centre for animals on a five-hectare mangrove plantation near Massawa, so people can see the simple effectiveness of this technology for themselves.

The residents of Hargigo are already reacting favourably to the project. Concerned at first that villagers would not like the mangrove forests being fenced off, Sato admits to being pleasantly surprised at their reaction. "They love it," he explains, "because periodically Rashaida nomads come through with huge herds of camels, goats and sheep that eat everything in their path." The fences now protect the mangroves from such risks.

A model based on overcoming adversity

Sato maintains that the Manzanar project has had a profound effect on the thinking of his young Eritrean colleagues who, he says, show great promise of becoming future leaders of their country. "The simple methods they have developed," he says, "can be applied to desert areas worldwide – so countries such as Somalia need never suffer famine again."

He points out that Manzanar serves two major purposes," contributing to economic development and to environmental enhancement".

The originality of the Manzanar project stems from Gordon Sato’s simple, but effective scientific methods, themselves borne out of a lifetime of confronting – and systematically overcoming – all manner of difficulties. "I just keep going," he says, "I am unusually persistent."

In addition to constantly refining his ideas, Sato’s creativity has proved to be "an extremely valuable quality when working in a poor country", says distinguished biochemist Bruce Ames, from the University of California, Berkeley. Ames has known Sato since they were both graduate students at the California Institute of Technology, and has visited him in Eritrea.

Jesse Roth, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, points out that seawater, at first an obstacle, became the solution for the Manzanar project. Such ingenuity, he adds," is typical of Sato’s thinking."