How does ancient knowledge and local livelihoods act as drivers for mangrove conservation across the tropics? Five journalists develop a cross-border research project — Mangroots — which aims to explain how bottom-up community and nature-based practices can build coastal resilience in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Asia: Healthy mangroves build a resilient community in the Philippines’ Palawan
In the Philippines, aquaculture development, pollution, and climate change are threatening the country’s mangrove forest, which decreased from 500,000ha in 1918 to 303,000ha in 2015. This article examines problems in Malampaya Sound, a protected area dubbed the country’s fishbowl. In 2021, a roadmap was created to increase the country’s mangrove cover by at least 20 percent in 2030. Keith Anthony Fabro traveled to Palawan just before the rainy season to get a glimpse of the situation in Malampaya.
Locals give the impression that Malampaya Sound is a place where mangroves and coastal communities coexist harmoniously. But getting there was a long, tough journey. For decades, people showed little regard for this rich ecosystem, until the damage was clear — catches and mangroves were declining. Only in the last 10 years has a broad shift in attitudes taken place. Now local communities and environmental authorities work together to save this so-called blue forest.
One key finding of the research was that some locals believe the enormous mangroves are hosting evil spirits. Out of fear, the Tagbanua people don’t linger in the mangrove forest — they stay just long enough to gather food and spare this ecosystem from destruction and unsustainable resource extraction. Eric Zerrudo, Director of the Center for Conservation of Cultural Property and Environment in the Tropics at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, says this belief exemplifies Indigenous people’s deep spiritual relationship with their natural environment. It gives them their “own set of protection and management with regards to their landscape.”
“Because our mangroves are thriving, even if our community was hit by a typhoon, we still have a source of livelihood,” Josephine Dela Cruz, president of the Malampaya Multipurpose Cooperative, says. “As our mangroves are resilient, we as a community are also resilient.”
Read the full story from Keith Anthony Fabro in the Philippines on our website.
Africa: Kenya and Ghana struggle with mangrove wood trafficking
In Kenya, rising demand for wood products, real estate and clearing for salt extraction caused the loss of roughly 20% of the country's mangrove cover between 1985 and 2009. And 2/9 species in the country are disappearing. In an effort to reverse this, the government enforced a logging moratorium on all forests in 2018. Caroline Chebet looked into the efforts in place along the coastline to highlight the adoption of the National Mangrove Management Plan by the Lamu, Mombasa and Kilifi Counties.
In this region, locals are restoring degraded areas and working with government agencies such as the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) to stop illegally felling mangroves for poles and firewood. “Kipini was beautiful. It still is. However, the shoreline has been eroding quickly and washing away huge chunks of land. This is not good. We must act now,” said Riziki Bwanake, a member of the Kipini Community Forest Association.
It is expected that a large acreage of mangrove forest along the Indian Ocean might be cleared to pave the way for ports. And there are incidences of private salt farms releasing toxic waste — mostly highly concentrated salty water — back into the sea, killing fish and mangroves along the way.
Luckily, initiatives like the one led by Mida Creek Conservation and Fishing Awareness Group, with close to 90 members, are restoring degraded areas and engaging in clean-up activities. The members practice beekeeping to increase surveillance within the forests and use the money paid by those visiting the creek, as well as their tour guide and beekeeping earnings, to run their activities.
Conservation activities include The Restoration Initiative (TRI) funded by Global Environment Facility through UNEP. TRI’s project in the Tana Delta is a five-year project being implemented by Nature Kenya and covers the Tana River and parts of Lamu County. It integrates natural resource management and restoration of degraded landscapes within the country’s largest delta.
Other community-led activities are the carbon offset projects in Gazi and Makongeni villages on the South Coast. These projects started in 2013 and are now being replicated on other shorelines in Vanga and Kwale. As part of the projects, communities plant mangrove forests and sell carbon credits to international emitters of carbon dioxide to offset the huge amount of carbon they release into the atmosphere.
“Participatory forest management plans that will guide the conservation, as well as benefit sharing strategies between the communities and the Kenya Forest Service, have already been drafted,” says George Odera, Tana Delta Restoration Initiative project manager.
According to Odera, with communities being aware of the changing ecosystems, their involvement in building coastal resilience is critical, as well as their ability to bounce back and work towards reversing the negative impacts brought about by the changing ecosystems: “Coastal communities have witnessed these changes and what matters is that they are part of a journey of building resilience and sustainably doing so,” said Odera.
In Ghana, major Ramsar sites including Keta Lagoon, Songhor, Sakumono, Densu-Delta and Muni-Pomadze have been facing rapid deterioration and there are fears that in the next decade, Ghana will lose its wetlands entirely to aggressive real-estate developments. Jonas Nyabor examined why different programs by governments and NGOs to restore mangroves have yielded very few results and tried to find what could be the missing piece in ensuring actual change on the ground by local communities.
Communities cut down mangroves to use as fuel, but there is little regulation of this activity. For example, there are no regulations requiring individuals to acquire a license before removing the mangroves.
“Mangroves are most preferred because when you produce charcoal from them it comes out better and my customers who smoke fish say using mangroves preserve their fishes better. It is cheaper than using a gas stove,” a local wood trader said.
The effects of unsustainable mangrove harvesting aren’t lost on community folks, especially artisanal fishers within the Keta Ramsar enclave and the Amanzule Ramsar enclave who have witnessed a decline in their catch. The same is happening for crab, shellfish and shrimp catching.
At Fiahor, on one of its project sites within the Keta Ramsar enclave, the organization Sea Water Solutions has planted over 100,000 mangroves and has a 200,000 capacity nursery planned which they hope will revolutionize the way mangroves are managed in the country due to their significance to the environment.
“You are likely to fail if you don’t get them [community] involved. No man will stay and see himself go hungry when they can cut mangroves and get satisfied. You can’t say you are ignoring their needs in terms of benefiting from mangroves then succeed in growing mangroves. You need a balance. That is why you need to educate them and also get initiatives that provide them an alternative source of livelihood such as tilapia farming,” said Raphael Ahiakpe, the Ghana country director for Sea Water Solutions at Attorkor in the Volta Region.
The organization have created mangrove nurseries, looked after by locals at a fee of $5, which will later be planted in the areas where mangroves have been indiscriminately harvested. By the end of 2022, the organization was hoping to plant 200,000 mangrove seedlings covering 50 hectares of degraded mangrove forests within the Greater Amanzule Wetlands. The expected carbon capture of the project is 1.8 million megagrams in the long-term and will be paid by corporate polluters to cultivate mangrove forests.
Latin America: Hurricanes in Colombia and El Salvador highlight mangrove conservation
In 2020, Colombia suffered the passing of Hurricane Iota through the island of San Andrés, leaving mass destruction to people's homes. Collateral damage suffered by the coral reef and mangrove barrier received less media coverage but was key to the damage — the first and second line of protection between the sea and coastal communities was destroyed.
María Claudia Dávila traveled to the only insular department of Colombia, where there are projects focused on restoring several affected mangrove areas. These aim to make a difference, despite the slow recovery of the ecosystem.
On November 16, 2020, Hurricane Iota would pass through the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina. The Category 5 hurricane was devastating, not only to the island's infrastructure but also to the mangroves — an ecosystem that acts as a barrier against extreme weather events in an area located within the Caribbean hurricane belt. Its location makes it vulnerable to the impact of extreme hydrometeorological events, such as the one that shortly followed on October 8, 2022 — Hurricane Julia — which passed through the island from Central America and was classified as category 1.
Degraded mangroves leave people and associated ecosystems defenseless as they protect coastal communities from storms and hurricanes while maintaining an ecological balance in the area where they grow. Fortunately, two projects arose following the events which focus on restoring various areas of red mangroves affected by Hurricane Iota.
One initiative took place at the Luis Amigo school and was financed independently by the two people who proposed it: Jacobo Howard and Giuseppe Barraza, both 16 years old. With an approximate budget of €20, they built a nursery with brackish water in Jacobo's house south of San Andrés. They planted 298 propagules and plan to plant more next year, in an area of 10 square meters.
Another initiative operated regionally: Nonprofit organization Más Bosques organized the transport of around 7,000 propagules of mangroves from the Old Point Park in San Andrés to Providencia to be planted with the help of various residents.
Climate inequality is a reality in Colombia. And those in poverty are the ones who suffer the most. After Hurricane Julia passed through the archipelago, many questions were raised about the future of mangroves and what measures will be taken to mitigate not only the impact of hurricanes but also the garbage and logging that affects the mangroves in the area — especially during the management of a government that promises reform in environmental policy.
In El Salvador, coastal erosion, sea level rise and biodiversity loss severely affect the communities of the western side of the country. IUCN is carrying out a lighthouse regional coastal biodiversity project for the management of marine-coastal ecosystems in Central America. Julián Reingold visited the lower basin of the Río Paz mangrove forest estuary, which needs restoration to increase eco-services such as beekeeping and other livelihoods that are supporting communities in Barra de Santiago.
Despite the damage caused by Hurricane Julia in 2022, severe rain around the Barra de Santiago mangrove caused limited floods. But, in the past 30 years, unrestricted urbanization, cattle grazing, the sugarcane industry’s expansion and the increasing demand for wood have caused deforestation and alterations in the hydrology of the area, as well as pollution. This mangrove, although designated as a Ramsar site, was reduced by 50%, impacting surrounding communities.
In an attempt to save this protected area, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is carrying out the Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project in a part of the country that is also recovering from the 12-year Salvadoran civil war (1980-1992) — which turned it into one of the less developed countries in the North Triangle of Central America.
"Coastal resilience consists of adapting to changes and raising awareness about the importance of this ecosystem,'' says Luis Quintanilla, a technical officer from AMBAS, an NGO that is leading a collective effort to restore mangroves. So far, with the support of IUCN, AMBAS have restored nine out of 42 hectares of mangroves which are expected to be under better management when the project finishes in 2024.
Salvadorans comprise the second-largest migration flow from Central to North America, mostly due to a lack of job opportunities and gang violence. The outcome of ambitious projects such as this could provide nature-based solutions for vulnerable communities to stay in their territories rather than flee their country.
The Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project is planned from 2017 to 2024 and implemented in other coastal sites of Guatemala and Honduras. According to IUCN, in four years, the project has managed to reduce the pressure on marine-coastal resources in this region. However, there is still a lot of work to do and communities need to count on local and national government support once the project concludes.
The biologist and regional coordinator of the Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project, Zulma de Mendoza, says that this project "articulates the link of greater conservation and management of resources by guaranteeing sustainability, reducing threats to biodiversity and making communities and ecosystems more resilient. Resilience is like walking on the mud and roots of the mangrove swamp: You can either slide, sink or learn to walk".
Read the full story from María Claudia Dávila in Latin America on our website.
Rooted in the sea: project conclusions
Although reporting took place on three different continents, there were common challenges, goals and discoveries.
Common challenges included unpredictable weather and finding sources — many of the local residents involved in cutting mangroves for fuel wood were aware of their importance to the environment and were therefore not willing to speak about their activities.
A shared goal of the project was bringing environmental journalism to broad and young audiences in all three regions.
And our main discovery was that scientific knowledge is something that can be learned and economic resources do not have to be an obstacle to achieving big things. We hope that this cross-border mangrove research experience could inspire other journalists to report on other vital under-reported aspects of coastal resilience, such as food security, disaster-readiness strategies and seagrass vulnerability to climate change.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in One Earth on February 9, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Fishers in a boat in the Malampaya Sound mangroves / Credit: Rex Remo for Mongabay.