In New Film, a Snapshot of a Changing Climate, the Backdrop is the Star

by Lee Pace, Actor & Activist, and Executive Producer, “Dulce”

“If you hold onto me, you won’t learn to swim.”

In the opening scene of “Dulce,” a short documentary film screening this week at the Sundance Film Festival, a mother pleads with her young daughter during a swimming lesson. It is a scene that any parent can relate to.

But for Dulce’s mother, the swimming lessons have taken on a sense of urgency. In their hometown of La Ensenada, Colombia, swimming is not solely for recreation. Here, it is for survival.

The people of this coastal community, nestled at the mouth of one of a bundle of adjacent rivers that snake out into the Pacific Ocean, depend directly on nature’s bounty for their livelihoods. And for many of the women of this town, that means clams — small, black pianguas that thrive in the region’s thick, brackish coastal mudflats. At low tide, mothers and daughters venture downstream, trudging through the mud to harvest the little shellfish — most of which are bound for export to nearby Ecuador, where they’re considered a delicacy.

A trip for clam harvesting means a ride in a boat. To ride in the boat, one must be able to swim.

“If you don’t learn to swim, you can’t go shell harvesting,” Dulce’s mother tells her.

The gorgeously shot film eschews interviews and even exposition, allowing the story to unfold through vignettes of daily life.

But the film’s silent, unsung star might be the trees that form the backdrop of nearly every scene.

In this part of Colombia, the ocean meets the coast in an ecstasy of mangrove trees. These dense coastal forests, which cling to coastlines throughout the tropics, might be the most important ecosystems on planet Earth.

Mangroves thrive in brackish coastal waters; their hearty root systems form a barrier against erosion and storm surge and provide a nursery for a menagerie of sea life. The marine species born there — fish, crabs, coral, clams — are the foundation of food security and livelihoods for millions of people around the world.

But these trees’ greatest asset to humanity is in what lies beneath. Mangroves are uniquely capable of extracting carbon from the atmosphere, and in their deep and ancient soils, mangroves’ root systems sequester more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem — up to 10 times the amount of climate-warming carbon per hectare than terrestrial forests.

Mangroves are a natural ally in the fight to curb climate change. And we are doing them harm.

Half the world’s mangroves have been lost, most of them just in the past 50 years, vanishing in the name of fish farms or infrastructure development. The impact of their loss on the climate is staggering: The carbon footprint of a steak and shrimp dinner — were it to come from shrimp farms and pasture formerly occupied by mangroves — is the same as driving a small car across the continental United States, according to a recent study.

The backdrop of Dulce’s young life is at risk of collapse — and with it, a stable climate for all of us. This unstated and unequivocal reality permeates the film.

“The sea is getting angrier,” Dulce’s mother tells her at one point.

It’s not an exaggeration. Stronger tides fueled by warming waters have already exacted a toll on Dulce’s world. In recent years, stronger-than-normal storm surges have devastated several nearby villages, where residents now live in such fear of the tides that some have taken to sleeping in their boats.

It is a similar story around the globe, the effects of climate change playing out in miniature, death not by a cataclysm (yet) but by a thousand cuts.

But Dulce’s story is not over, nor her village’s, nor even the climate’s.

Perhaps for the first time ever, the world is paying attention to mangroves — and is racing to keep them intact. In Colombia, Conservation International is working with local communities like Dulce’s to broker “conservation agreements,” in which communities agree to protect forests in exchange for technical and financial assistance, putting them on a path to sustainable livelihoods.

We’re also making an even bigger play to keep mangroves standing.

With Conservation International’s help, tech giant Apple has invested in a conservation project in Cispata, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, to purchase carbon offsets — the first such offsets issued under the new Wetland Conservation methodology used by the Verified Carbon Standard. What this means, simply put, is that commitments made to keep the country’s mangrove forests intact can be purchased and traded on the global market to compensate for carbon emissions made elsewhere in the world.

In its first two years, the project is expected to reduce carbon emissions around 45,000 metric tons while providing a model for other similar initiatives around the world. It is a small step, but a crucial one, not just for its own sake but for the opportunity of repeating it elsewhere.

In some way, we are all Dulce, having to learn and adapt — belatedly — to changes already upon us. And as in Dulce’s corner of the world, we will thrive only if nature thrives.