Meet Your Neighbor: Toby Jacobs, Scientist, Who Plans To Make A Difference

By Carol McCracken

Toby Jacobs, 24, is getting all his ducks in a row for a project he intends to begin early next year – one that he hopes will have a lasting impact on the country of Hondorus. He and a partner will be trying to restore land decimated by a hurricane in 1998.

In 1998 Hurricane Mitch swept over the country and destroyed forests of mangrove trees located on an island off the coast of Hondorus – called Guanaja. Ninety-five percent of the mangroves were destroyed and not much has been done to replace these valuable trees with the other five percent still thriving there. The area “looks like Casco Cay at low-tide,” said Toby. “Empty and desolate.”

So Toby and Scott are leaving New Year’s Day for Guanaja to reforest the area with mangrove trees on Guanaja – one of three islands off the coast of Hondorus – called the Bay Islands. So far, they have procured a place in which to live, a boat in which to travel since there are no roads at all on the island and located is a small, no-nonsense store to meet their basic food needs while working on Guanaja next year.

Mangrove trees bear no fruit, but they are important from an ecological perspective which is what draws the two young men to the project. In a recent interview at the Hilltop Coffee Shop, the soft-spoken Toby said that the root system of the mangrove is unique because it grows up to 3 ft. above the ground.

This feature permits the roots to serve as a nursery for small fish in the area as well as young fish of the larger fish. In fact, there are a large number of species of birds, fish, crabs and insects that can’t survive without the mangroves. Secondly,  the root system (stilt roots) also serve as barriers against erosion in low-lying areas. And, thirdly, and very importantly, the roots prevent the coral reefs from becoming bleached out from the run-off. Toby graduated two years ago from James Madison University (Va.) with a degree in biology and tropical ecology.

One of the ducks not quite in place yet is a grant request in the amount of $12,000. from the Rufford Foundation in England. It’s a foundation focused on conservation for third world countries with an goal of fostering interest in conservation in these local communities. Still, if the Foundation’s money does not come through the two are committed to the work and will go ahead with it on a smaller financial budget. While they both plan to replace the destroyed mangroves with seeds from the remaining five % on the island, a major part of their mission is instructive. That is to teach the locals the process of reforesting for themselves so that it can be developed into jobs with a future for them.

Fortunately, Toby has the support of his family in his endeavor. His mother teachs high school French and Spanish north of Portland and his father is an emergency room doctor. His mother has lived overseas in connection with her language education. So, she particularly supports her son’s living overseas and experiencing other cultures first-hand. Eventually, the poised Toby hopes to attend graduate school in South America to earn a doctorate. He would hope to teach at a university which would support his interest in studying biology and tropical ecology in the field. Meanwhile, he can’t wait to spend the coldest Maine months of the year in a tropical climate – what could be better he asks?

Toby’s web page is: www.guanajamangroves.org