Realizing the importance of mangroves, coastal communities are putting them back

21 March 2021

Community members plant an open area in a coastal wetland, Cayo Quemado, Izabal, Guatemala. Photo: © Angela López

21 March 2021, International Day of Forests: Mangroves are breeding grounds for aquatic species, barriers to oceanic surges, and protectors against erosion; they are essential for enabling communities to adapt to climate change and rising seas. ITTO projects in locations as far apart as Cameroon, Fiji and Guatemala are working with communities to restore their precious mangrove resources.

Coastal communities well know the importance of mangroves, and the ITTO projects have provided them with resources to begin the restoration process.

“The ITTO project has brought about positive changes in our mangrove ecosystem, inspiring the community to ban villagers and contractors from cutting mangroves, resulting in the return and replenishment of marine species, which have been declining in our marine ecosystem,” says Tagilala Vereti, a local women’s group leader in the Fijian village of Nasilai.

The aim of this ITTO project, in Fiji’s Rewa Delta, which has been under implementation by Fiji’s Ministry of Forestry since October 2015, is to help reverse the degradation of mangrove resources by establishing sites to demonstrate the rehabilitation and sustainable management of coastal and mangrove wetlands. It is one of 16 projects implemented as part of the ITTO/Convention on Biological Diversity Collaborative Initiative for Tropical Forest Biodiversity.

Families in the six villages involved in the project have few livelihood options, with limited available land for subsistence farming, and they are heavily dependent on mangroves. The project conducted community training and awareness-raising in the villages on the rehabilitation of degraded areas, mangrove and wetland restoration, seed collection and seedling planting, and the ecological valuation of mangroves and wetlands. The project has also helped the communities build capacity in the development of alternative livelihoods; they are now empowered to undertake sustainable management while also deploying their own traditional knowledge and skills.

Most women in the Rewa Delta rely on mangroves as a source of income and for food for their families—they fish, catch crabs and collect shellfish in the mangroves. In response to the degradation of mangrove habitats and the consequent negative impacts on livelihoods, the women resolved to collectively plant mangroves along the foreshores of their villages. The ITTO project has facilitated the inclusion of women in community decision-making processes, enabling them to lead and advocate on environmental issues that affect their lives. The women’s group in Nasilai planted 5000 mangrove seedlings along the foreshore as part of their mangrove restoration and rehabilitation work; they also planted native coastal trees in areas behind the mangrove forest to further prevent coastal erosion and provide a future resource.

In Guatemala, the National Forest Institute, with assistance from an ITTO project, is promoting the establishment of local governance platforms, known as local mangrove committees (mesas locales de mangle—MLMs), in coastal communities. The main objective of MLMs is to promote and carry out actions for the sustainable management of mangrove forests. Given the diversity of stakeholders and situations, the MLMs also encourage the conservation of other ecosystems, such as riparian forests, gallery forests, dry forests and tropical rainforests. Nine MLMs were established under the project—eight on the Pacific coast and one on the Atlantic coast.

In addition to the establishment of the MLMs, the project developed four community forest management plans, which together encompass more than 500 hectares of mangrove forests. Project actions also included:

·      training and awareness-raising for more than 1000 people on mangrove management, conservation and restoration;

·      the development of an institutional strategy for the conservation and management of mangrove ecosystems; and

·      formulation of the Regulations for the Sustainable Management of Mangrove Ecosystem Resources, and follow-up to ensure their approval (the government ultimately issued the regulations in January 2019).

Combined, these actions constitute a major step forward—socially, technically and legally—in promoting the sustainable management of mangrove forests in Guatemala.

“The restoration of mangrove forests is important because it is a source of livelihood for the community, offers protection against rising tides and hurricane winds, and serves as a breeding ground for fish, birds and iguanas,” says Gustavo Cetino, a member of the MLM in the Guatemalan municipality of Itzapa.

In Cameroon, mangroves play a vital role for local communities and especially for rural women. Women suffer more from mangrove degradation than other groups because mangroves are their sources of food, income and medicines. Mangroves are spaces for women’s agriculture and fishing; women also collect mangrove wood for energy and housing and non-timber forest products for sale in markets and household consumption.

In the communities of Londji in Rio Ntem and Manoka and Ndokohi in the Cameroon estuary, women are in increasingly difficult situations because of mangrove decline. Water-borne diseases have increased among children and the elderly, mainly because of high water salinity. Floods have become more frequent, longer and higher and rainfall heavier; together with sea-level rise, women fear a tsunami in coming years if strong action is not taken. Fish production has decreased drastically, and high-value fish such as grand capitaine, bar, bossu, rasoir and dorade grise are disappearing.

To safeguard their lives and families, and to protect the environment, women in the three communities have decided to become directly and strongly involved in mangrove restoration and rehabilitation. More than 25 women’s groups and associations are now engaged in mangrove restoration activities in the Cameroon estuary and Rio Ntem, with support from an ITTO project and others. They have established community nurseries, planted thousands of mangrove seedlings, and restored more than 400 hectares of degraded mangrove forest. To reduce pressure on mangroves, the women have also developed alternative income-generating activities, such as vegetable production and beekeeping; encouraged improved cookstoves to reduce the use of mangrove wood; and mainstreamed agroforestry practices into food cultivation.

ITTO has a long history of involvement in mangrove conservation and sustainable use. As part of its efforts to increase awareness of these vital ecosystems, it co-convened an international conference on mangroves in 2017 and published a comprehensive World Mangrove Atlas detailing the extent of global mangrove resources. ITTO continues to support communities throughout the tropics in their efforts to restore and protect their coastal ecosystems.

As part of its policy work, ITTO—in collaboration with the member organizations of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests as well as the Asian Forest Cooperation Organization and other partners working in tropical forest landscapes—published Guidelines for Forest Landscape Restoration in the Tropics in October 2020. The aim of the guidelines is to help policymakers, foresters, farmers and others in their efforts to restore degraded landscapes, thereby producing vital goods and ecosystem services and creating sustainable rural livelihoods and employment. The guidelines provide a framework for ITTO’s restoration work in tropical forests, including mangroves.

On the 2021 International Day of Forests and as we enter the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, we have an opportunity to scale up efforts to restore the planet. In ITTO’s experience, engaging and empowering communities to sustainably use mangroves and other tropical forests is a key step towards positive change.

The stories and text in this article are drawn from two forthcoming articles in the Tropical Forest Update, “Restoring the Riwa Delta” by Aporosa Ramulo, Sanjana Lal and Hwan-Ok Ma, and “Guatemala’s new approach to coastal restoration” by Silvia Anaité López-Alquijay and César Joaquín Zacarías-Coxic, as well as from “Cameroon’s mangrove women” by Cécile Ndjebet published in Tropical Forest Update 26/3.