Ahlam Bolooki struggles to come to terms with the images the recent wildfires in the Amazon rainforest have seared into her mind. She could try forgetting them, but she doesn’t want to. In fact the young Emirati, a passionate campaigner for the protection of the environment, wants to keep reminding people about the shocking images that appeared in the media when fires raged through the Amazon rainforest late last year.
“Can you believe it?” stresses the soft-spoken Ahlam, the sense of pain and anguish over the loss of earth’s natural forest cover evident in her voice. “Forests the size of three football fields were being consumed by fires every minute. We had to do something. Anything. We had to take action to protect our precious nature or we would lose our Earth forever.”
Ahlam, who is also director of the award-winning Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, was not alone in thinking so.
Entrepreneur, philanthropist, author and eco-lover Shaikha Shamma Bint Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan has always maintained environment high on her agenda and had been closely monitoring the wildfires that were devastating rainforests. The CEO of Alliances for Global Sustainability, an organisation that provides advisory services for sustainable ventures, Shaikha Shamma is passionate about the environment holding it close to her heart. But then that’s no surprise; she is the great granddaughter of Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE and a ruler known for, apart from his visionary policies and projects, his love for nature.
Shaikha Shamma and Ahlam got talking about the Amazon wildfires and the irreversible damage happening to ecosystems across the world.
“Protecting the environment has always been on our minds but the Amazon wildfires were the tipping point, so to speak,” says Ahlam. “That spurred us on, triggering an urgency in us to do something about the need to conserve the ecology and the environment.”
They found that plenty of organisations had begun raising funds for tackling the wildfires. “We decided we need to address an eco issue that is literally and metaphorically close to us – protecting the precious mangroves,” says Ahlam.
“Given that the UAE has such great diplomatic ties all over the world, we felt we are in a unique position here. We have the right partners and contacts with people who have the right resources to build something really strong and reliable… an entity that can make a difference.”
The result is Mangroves 4 Mankind (M4M).
A licensed social enterprise, M4M, founded by Shaikha Shamma and Ahlam, came into being in January this year and is dedicated to combat climate change by conserving and restoring mangrove ecosystems in not just the UAE but every coastal city of the world.
Why mangroves? I ask Ahlam.
“Apart from the fact that it’s right here, we also felt that if our focus is on something that’s not available in our home country, we’d constantly have to fly out – increasing our carbon footprint – or depend on other people’s expertise on how to do it best,” she says, warming up to the subject of climate change and mangrove protection.
“But since it’s mangroves, and the UAE is well known for protecting the mangrove ecosystem and the fact that we have several areas across the UAE where mangroves are being preserved, thanks to the expertise we have right here, we felt we are uniquely placed to make a positive impact through our initiative.”
Said to be the only evergreen forest in the Gulf, mangroves are not exclusive to this region and its protection is crucial to reducing the impact of climate change. Also known as Guardians of the Coast, they are a unique ecosystem that occur in some of the most inhospitable conditions – in waterlogged, highly saline soil and brackish water. Among their eco-protective qualities is the fact that they can absorb six times more carbon in their soil than any terrestrial tree! According to experts, a hectare of mangrove forest can store some 3,700 tonnes of carbon; akin to keeping more than 2,600 cars off the road for a year. On the flip side, eliminating mangroves can put all this carbon back into the atmosphere.
According to World Wildlife Fund estimates, unbridled coastal development has already cleared a third of earth’s mangroves. Replanting is not easy and if they are lost, it is difficult for the trees to regrow in their former habitats. Since loss of mangroves can hasten land erosion and accelerate the effects of climate change, “preservation and protection of mangroves are surely more important than planting them anew,” says Ahlam.
Mangroves have always been a natural part of the ecosystem and the natural growth of UAE’s environment, she says. “As people become increasingly aware of the environmental crises around the world, more and more people are actually opening their eyes to ‘OK what is the natural habitat in my country and how I can try to protect it’.”
She admits she is not an environmental scientist “but we’re now in a place where we don’t have the luxury to just leave it to environmental scientists to fix this problem. Each one of us has to do our part, whether it’s practicing recycling in our homes, consuming only what’s necessary, watching our eating habits, driving less and using public transport, or switching to hybrid/electric cars… We all need to do our bit to keep the planet in a better condition than what we inherited.”
M4M hopes to speak to the individual, disseminating scientific facts, and throwing light on global projects that support rural communities, which depend on the health of the mangrove forests for their livelihood.
The non-profit also works with the Ministry of Climate Change, Emirates Nature World Wildlife Fund, Mohammad Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Emirates Environmental Agency and Dubai Carbon, among others. “All of these incredible entities are in it for the right reasons and supporting each other so strongly,” says Ahlam.
Despite an increasing amount of evidence of the ill effects of unbridled consumerism washing up on the shores of our conscience, why do we continue to ignore the red flags of climate change?
Ahlam blames it on human nature: “Unless something affects you personally, you are unlikely to take any action. People are just so busy in their lives these days that they don’t spare a thought for the planet they are living on.”
She believes the pandemic has, in many ways, “brought us back to our senses. It has really taught us to slow down, to revisit our lifestyles… it was a real eye-opener in terms of what we consume, how we live and look at what really matters,” says the book lover, who enjoys reading as much as she does writing.
“Clearly, more needs to be done for our environment simply because this is the only world we have,” says Ahlam. “Get this: 97 per cent of all donations that happen around the world goes towards humanitarian causes. Only 3 per cent goes towards environmental causes. We need to understand that the two are not separate; they are interconnected.”
To better connect with people, M4M recently partnered with Bloomingdales Department Stores to sell a carefully curated selection of artworks. “We chose six locally based artists – five Emirati and one resident – to create artworks that are inspired by the mangroves and the beautiful biodiversity in the region. Eight artworks will be sold through Bloomingdale’s online stores.”
While part of the proceeds will go to the artists, a majority will go to fund M4M’s first mangrove planting project that is on the anvil.
“It’s time to make a new beginning. As we are preparing to return to ‘normal’, let’s make responsible choices as consumers. And let’s start now,” she says.