Rooting mangrove conservation in community forestry

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Paving the way for peace and democracy

Three quarters of the world’s people who live along coasts are in Asia. They and all other life forms that depend on coastal ecosystems are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Mangrove forests are a coastal ecosystem. They straddle the nutrient-rich zone between marine and freshwater. These forests are nurseries for fish, aquatic birds and mammals. These forests grow in the salty, wet and muddy soils of the Earth’s tropical and subtropical coastlines. Mangroves protect coastlines from erosion and storm damage; store carbon; and provide habitat for important marine species. When seen from the eyes of the communities living around them, however, mangroves have a deeper significance: they are a source of livelihoods, dwelling places and anchors for well-being and security.

Indeed, mangroves are crucial to the safety and security not only of coastal dwellers, but to all of humanity and the planet. That’s because mangroves are carbon sinks, mitigating climate change. They protect coastlines from extreme storms and tidal waves. And they are essential to our food security. 

Unfortunately, mangroves have been threatened by deforestation for decades. Through agriculture and aquaculture, urban development, and other reasons for harvesting (including charcoal production), we have lost more than a quarter of global mangrove forests in the past 50 years. Forests in Southeast Asia have been especially hard-hit, as countries clear mangroves to make room for aquaculture. In a recent news report, NASA mapped global mangrove loss at 300,000 hectares. This report is supported by a scientific study conducted in 2000 to 2016, which found that in Asia alone, we lost about 250,000 hectares of mangroves since 2000 due to shrimp farming, rice cultivation, charcoal production and overharvesting of trees for fuelwood.

But this trend can and must be reversed.

Fortunately, we are taking action at all levels. At RECOFTC, we have strong and able partners to do so—local communities.

Through over 30 years of experience, we have learned how essential it is to engage local communities in all aspects of planning and implementing mangrove management. They are the gatekeepers to mangroves. And they are our most powerful and well placed agents on the ground for adapting national policy to local contexts through local laws, customs and enforcement (read more here). Evidence shows that trained local communities in partnership with NGOs can effectively manage and conserve mangroves—and improve their well-being at the same time.

RECOFTC has been using community forestry as an entry point to provide sustainable solutions for achieving thriving communities and thriving landscapes, including mangroves. We take an integrated approach to coastal resource management, partnering with local communities and organizations across the Asia Pacific region.

Through our work we have learned much about what motivates communities to conserve mangroves. We found that communities have a strong sense of ownership for the mangrove forests they depend on. That’s why initiatives that ensure that they have clear and secure land tenure and use rights are more successful in conserving mangroves than those that do not. Communities are also motivated by sustainable livelihood opportunities to improve their lives and to freely practice their cultures.

Research on mangrove rehabilitation shows us that governments need to be involved in mangrove conservation because mangroves are often located in government-owned or controlled areas. NGO involvement is also important because they can provide expertise and support. Researchers are key as well because they provide robust evidence and monitoring to enable good decision-making.

Private sector also has a role to play. RECOFTC promotes private-sector solutions that recognize community land and use rights, and deliver benefits for communities. They are built on a shared understanding among communities, local governments and the private sector. As we develop these partnerships, we ensure that each community has the capacity to make implementable decisions that reflect their own aspirations and that they have the capacity and opportunity to participate fully in making decisions about how coastal resources are managed. With these conditions in place, communities are prepared to begin developing sustainable enterprises on their own or with private sector partners. When outside investors are involved, RECOFTC ensures that they are dedicated to community empowerment and meaningful engagement, including fair sharing of benefits and the participation of women, ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups.

Let us share an example of where and when all this comes together.

In Myanmar, conservation initiatives have grappled with a lack of funding since the Rohingya crisis began five years ago. Despite efforts to preserve mangroves, losses of mangroves far exceed gains. The mangrove-rich Irrawaddy Delta in southern Myanmar is at particular risk. Most local communities in the region are poor and depend on mangroves for their livelihoods. Without an alternative income, the remaining mangroves in the delta could be lost to exploitation, especially for charcoal production. The communities of Long Kyo, Gwa Township, in the Rakhine State, are in a most precarious situation. Road building and encroachment threaten the coastlines that are home to a rare form of mangrove that resembles bonsai trees.

Here, with the support of RECOFTC, the government has recognized community land tenure by giving local communities community-forestry certificates. With this essential foundation in place, they are protecting and conserving the mangrove ecosystem. They have developed a 30-year forest management plan for their mangrove forests. With tenure and management plans in place, they are now prepared to negotiate with companies and investors who want to help them develop sustainable small-scale enterprises.

In this scenario, the stage is set for effective long-term collaboration in mangrove restoration and conservation—and improved well-being for some of the world’s poorest communities. And, because the underlying process of community forestry fosters inclusion and participation, the stage is also set for transforming conflict into collaboration, and for peace and democracy.

Today, we know what to do. What we need now is action. RECOFTC joins its partners UNESCO and FAO in celebration of World Mangroves Day 2020, which is marked by the 3rd Mekong Mangrove Forum. Learn more about RECOFTC and its work at www.recoftc.org, and follow its updates on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

David J. Ganz

Executive Director, RECOFTC

David is Executive Director of RECOFTC. He believes that securing the land and resource rights of forest communities lays the essential foundation for peace, economic development and climate change mitigation and adaptation. David is a strong advocate for community forestry as an entry point for achieving the SDGs and for path-breaking private sector models that respect local rights and deliver lasting and tangible benefits for people and forests in the Asia Pacific region. David has a Ph.D. in environmental science, policy and management from the University of California at Berkeley.

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