During a recent Friday afternoon, I met with the local tribal chiefs and community members in Adiake, a breezy fishing village on the banks of the Gulf of Guinea in eastern Ivory Coast.
Sitting on firm wooden chairs by the coastline and looking onwards to the calm sea, we discussed my plans to plant 160,000 mangroves in a deforested area not far from where we were sitting. While the community members seemed receptive to the idea, it was clear that they were not entirely convinced.
“What happens after the seedlings are planted?” said one of the tribal heads with a stern voice. “Who will care for them for 10 years to make sure they grow to become healthy mature trees?”
This is a valid point. Most tree-planting projects look to cover only the cost of the planting and maybe a few years of monitoring.
“What happens if we help you plant them and in five years a public official decides to parcel off the area and sell it to developers?” pronounced another weary tribal official.
It’s a phenomenon that is not uncommon. The coastlines where mangroves grow are usually coveted by developers for real estate projects and aquaculture investment, typically crab or shrimp farms. I have seen this happen time and time again. There is very little that the local community can do other than to stand by and watch as their mangroves get hacked away.
This is especially painful for fishing communities as those mangrove forests represent vital nesting grounds for a wide variety of fishes that they depend on for their livelihood. Once the mangroves disappear so too does their source of income.
And it’s not only developers or cunning officials that are slashing away at mangrove forests for personal gains.
As populations increase around the globe, there are more mouths to feed and therefore more source of income required. Most mangrove forests are located in tropical and sub-tropical regions within countries that are in the developing stage, with many of their people living close to the poverty line. Many of those communities tend to live close to coastlines, and close to mangrove forests.
This makes for a lethal combination: a growing number of people, looking for sources of income, and an idle mangrove forest full of natural riches and no way of defending itself.
Mangrove trees are very dense and can burn for a long time. They are also averse to getting degraded due to exposure to salt. This makes them ideal for charcoal making and for construction equipment, namely wall frames for homes. As a result, they are commonly targeted by people looking to make some quick cash by cutting them and selling them to merchants for charcoal fabrication or construction material.
As populations grow, so does the pressure on our mangrove forests. Already, we have lost half of the planet’s mangrove forests. And each year we are losing 1 per cent of the world’s remaining mangroves. This suggests that in 50 years there will be no more mangroves.
Aside from being a vital nesting ground for fishing communities, these forests also shield coastlines from natural disasters such as tsunamis and cyclones. If you take away the mangroves, you take away their coastal defences as well, thus exposing already vulnerable communities to potentially lethal disaster.
Yet, despite the security and biodiversity benefits, mangroves remain under-appreciated. That’s because those benefits are not directly resulting in benefits that people can count and put in their pockets. On the other hand, converting the trees to charcoal results in direct and measurable returns. It’s a losing battle for our dear mangroves.
Luckily, the mangrove tree has a third superpower, one which could ultimately ensure its survival. Mangrove trees have the ability to sequester up to five times more carbon dioxide than terrestrial trees. And they can hold those harmful gases in their trunks and the soil surrounded their vast network of roots for a millennium. And therein lies the answer: carbon capture.
Today, there is a growing marketplace of corporates who are looking to offset the CO2 volumes, which they cannot eliminate, via nature-based solutions, notably long-term reforestation projects.
These mangrove reforestation projects not only help to restore forests for 20-30 years but also provide people from local communities with livelihood improvements and jobs.
In fact, mangrove reforestation projects today command a premium over conventional terrestrial projects because of the significant co-benefits that the mangroves offer, such as coastal protection, biodiversity improvement and climate adaptation.
As a result, there is a surge in demand for what is called “blue carbon”, carbon-offset projects based in wetland environments, such as mangrove projects. Suddenly, the mangrove trees are worth more in the ground than they would be as charcoal or wood beams for a new house. Suddenly the mangrove trees have value.
Granted there is some development work to be done before communities can structure mangrove restoration projects and start generating carbon credit revenues. But the mechanisms are now firmly in place. And while they are far from perfect, the gaps that need to be filled have already been identified.
They include the need to put in place long-term monitoring programmes to ensure that each tree can be tracked and measured to ensure the permanence of these schemes. Another issue has been the channelling of funds from the carbon project developers to the local communities that are effectively the ”parents” of the mangrove forests. Again, technology is enabling the tracing of the funds to show exactly where they end up and how they are used so that flow can be audited and optimised.
The carbon markets are providing our remaining mangrove forests with a voice. They are allowing the mangrove trees to defend themselves, to stand up for themselves.
Local communities such as the one in Adiake can now leverage the carbon markets to channel capital from the polluters to the protectors. This provides hope for our coastal mangrove forests and the diverse communities that live side by side these unique forests.
Vahid Fotuhi is founder and chief executive of Blue Forest, a global developer of mangrove conservation and reforestation projects