Mangroves--the uniquely salt-adapted trees and shrubs that line our tropical and subtropical coasts, the critical membrane between land and sea--are disappearing at faster rates than virtually any other ecosystem on Earth.
Mangroves are some of the most productive, complex, and beneficial natural wonders of our planet. They act as filters for our water supply, reduce erosion, serve as nurseries for commercial fisheries, provide opportunities for recreation, nurture vital marine biodiversity, and can act as "carbon sinks," which reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The destruction and degradation of these natural systems--because of factors such as climate change, development, tourism, wood extraction, and non-sustainable farming--bring about tremendous ecological, social, and economic losses, the extent of which we are only now just realizing.
But there is hope for mangroves. The world is starting to notice just how important they are and is beginning to take steps to prevent further loss.
Information Inspires Action
Recycling our bottles and cans, water conservation, our carbon footprint--most of us are familiar with how these parts fit into the puzzle that is climate change. Yet our planet's mangroves are just as important to the whole picture, and fortunately, more and more is now known about them and how they can be conserved.
The Marine Ecosystems Services (MARES) program of Forest Trends, a D.C.-based international non-profit, has been working with the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to gather information on the status of mangroves. With this data, these groups can make concrete recommendations on preventing further damage.
The central message of these findings is clear: Mangroves are critical to supporting human well-being. Under threat from over-exploitation, they are also heavily influenced by land use and watershed management practices, yet immediate steps can be taken to reverse degradation and actually improve the capacity of the ecosystem services that mangroves provide.
Mangroves and the biodiversity they nurture help with climate regulation, food security, and poverty reduction. More than 100 million people live within ten kilometers of large mangrove forests. These people benefit from a variety of goods and services provided by mangroves, including fisheries and forest products, clean water, and protection against erosion and extreme weather events. These ecosystem services are worth an estimated $33,000 to $57,000 per hectare per year to the national economies of developing countries with mangroves.
Mangroves are exceptionally good at storing greenhouse gas emissions. When mangroves are degraded or destroyed, these carbon stocks are released to the great detriment of our atmosphere. Emissions resulting from mangrove losses make up nearly one fifth of global emissions from deforestation, causing economic damages estimated in the billions annually.
Mangroves can provide natural defenses against extreme weather events and disasters, helping to reduce the loss of property and the vulnerability of local communities. In combination with other risk-reduction measures, such as sea walls and early-warning systems, mangroves are often cheaper than conventional solutions to such risks, such as jetties or constructed breakwaters. These structures must be maintained and rebuilt over time. Mangroves can adapt to sea-level rises and land subsidence in ways that engineered defenses cannot.
Mangroves are consistently undervalued. They are often not a factor in decision-making about coastal development. Therefore mangroves continue to be destroyed at a rate that is three to five times greater than global deforestation rates.
Actions for Change
There are many management and protection measures and tools available for use at national, regional, and global scales to help ensure a sustainable future for mangroves. Such actions range from establishing a commission to ensure that mangrove conservation is on the international development agenda, to creating a Global Mangrove Fund, to the development of international protocols that promote the protection and sustainable use of mangroves.
Financial mechanisms and incentives could stimulate mangrove conservation, such as carbon offset markets and corporate and private-sector investments. Economic incentives for mangrove protection, sustainable use, and restoration activities could be provided as a source of steady income to local inhabitants of these areas.
There is also tremendous potential to improve public outreach and education to raise awareness of the economic and social importance of mangroves and the consequences of their loss.
A new report entitled "The Importance of Mangroves to People: A Call to Action," released by UNEP with major contributions from Forest Trends' MARES program, details these findings and provides a solid foundation from which to move forward with actions to save mangroves and stop the alarming rate at which they are disappearing. Most of these necessary actions are easily achievable in short time frames.
Individual Responsibility, Mangroves, and the Future of Our Planet
At the rate at which mangrove loss is occurring now, there will be significant consequences for economies and societies through impoverished livelihoods, lower economic growth, declining human security, and a poorer quality of life for coastal populations. While the benefits derived from healthy mangroves are mostly experienced by local communities, the loss of mangroves puts coastal populations, national economies, and the world as a whole at risk. Mangrove ecosystem health and productivity must therefore be part of global efforts to eradicate poverty, strengthen food security, and reduce vulnerability to climate change.
For individuals, the connection between mangroves and personal responsibility in the face of climate change may not seem as clear as it might be when we recycle paper or choose to go to the farmer's market versus the mega-supermarket. Yet, as with those actions, there are things we can do to support these endangered ecosystems, and becoming educated about this vital resource is an excellent start. Mangroves are part of the natural capital that supports life on Earth and require not only our appreciation for all they do, but also our robust and informed attention and support.