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But Ong notes that the financial incentives have to be great enough to make forest preservation economically viable. "Take Indonesia, which has the largest total area of mangroves of any country in the world. It can't afford to save them for nothing," he says. "But if the Indonesians could trade the carbon-storage potential of their mangroves as a commodity, that would create a great incentive to stop bulldozing them for shrimp ponds or chipping them for the production of rayon."

Countries that have squandered their mangroves could also replant them, gaining both a tradable asset and coastline protection. At Ong's research site small boys stuff their pockets with cigarillo-shaped mangrove seeds, or propagules. The boys will sell them for a few cents. Ong says that throughout Asia there's a run on propagules, as countries replant their mangrove defenses in the wake of the 2004 tsunami.

On the east coast of Africa, a very different kind of mangrove experimentation is going on. In Hirgigo, Eritrea, a few miles down the coast from the port of Massawa, two men sit on planks on the hot desert sand. With a knife for a chisel and a rock for a hammer, they knock the bottoms out of empty tomato sauce cans—discards from the Eritrean Navy. Nearby, on the shores of the Red Sea, a group of women push the hollow cans into the soft sediment, forming long alleys on the mudflats. Into each can, the women press mangrove propagules.

This is the planting of the Red Sea, the brainchild of cell biologist, cancer-drug pioneer, and humanitarian Gordon Sato. In the early 1980s, Sato's laboratory at the University of California at San Diego developed Erbitux, a breakthrough drug for colorectal cancer. These days 79-year-old Sato works to cure a different disease—poverty—attacking the problem not by culturing cells but by cultivating mangroves.

Eritrea was reeling from war and famine when Sato first traveled there in the mid-1980s. Since water is such a scarce resource in this arid country, Sato wondered if he could develop some form of salt water-based agriculture on Eritrea's long coastline, to help provide food for the hungry. Mangroves seemed a logical, if unconventional, choice. They occurred naturally, though patchily, along the Red Sea shore, they flourished in salt water, and camels were known to eat the leaves. If camels ate them, why not feed the foliage to sheep and goats? Grow enough mangroves, Sato reasoned, and you could provide food security for thousands.

So, like a maritime Johnny Appleseed, he began planting—and failed. All the saplings died. Undaunted, Sato looked closely at places on the Eritrean coast where mangroves were growing naturally, and he noticed they occurred only where fresh water was channeled during the brief rains that fall on this desert coast. Sato reasoned it was not fresh water the trees needed but minerals the water was bringing from inland—specifically nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron, elements in which seawater is deficient.

By conducting a few simple trials, Sato and a small team of helpers from the Eritrean Ministry of Fisheries assessed how much of the three elements mangrove seedlings needed and devised a low-tech method of supplying them. When the propagules are planted, a small piece of iron is buried alongside. So, too, is a small plastic bag with holes punched in it containing a fertilizer rich in nitrogen and phosphorus.

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