Lessons on conservation from 'the land of eternal mangroves'

Women water seedlings at a mangrove nursery in Sri Lanka. Photo by: Catherine Cheney

People are still missing in Sri Lanka after devastating floods and landslides last month killed hundreds and displaced thousands on the island nation. But in communities all along the coastline of this island nation in the Indian Ocean, there are efforts to protect ecosystems that could in turn protect the country from rains and storms capable of wiping away entire towns.

Sri Lanka is working on mangrove forest protection measures that have been praised as the first of their kind in the world. And while recent heavy rains may have destroyed seedlings, they have only strengthened the determination of the government and its partners to continue their work on mangrove conservation and restoration.

“Weather events in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere on the planet, have become more and more extreme and unpredictable. Again and again, communities with intact mangrove forests fare better during and in the aftermath of these events than those where mangroves have been destroyed,” said Karen Peterson, who manages the Sri Lanka mangrove conservation project for Seacology, a California-based conservation organization that works with island communities.

“As coastal communities involved in the project become more and more involved in the conservation of their own local forests, their understanding of the protective role of mangroves increases,” she said.

Devex has previously reported on the momentum for protecting mangroves which, in addition to defending coastal communities, can preserve marine biodiversity; support livelihoods for the more than 100 million people who live within 10 kilometers of mangrove forests; and store more carbon per hectare than any other forests on the planet.

However, they are threatened by destruction in extreme weather events, clearance for coastal development such as resorts, or conversion to aquaculture, which is the fastest growing food production system.

Earlier this month, mangroves were on the agenda at The Ocean Conference, held at the United Nations in New York City, where conversations included how mangroves can help coastal communities weather the impacts of climate change.

Commitments to support the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 — conservation of the ocean and marine resources for sustainable development — included national projects such as a mangrove restoration program in Grenada, as well as ambitious international partnerships like the Global Mangrove Alliance, which aims to increase the global area of mangrove habitat by 20 percent by 2030.

Karen Peterson of Seacology discusses the organization’s mangrove conservation project in Sri Lanka.

A global goal or a global plan?

World Neighbors, a United States-based NGO, is working on a mangrove conservation project in Indonesia funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. After a demonstration project in the village of Cendi Manik, in which community groups planted 11,000 mangroves, Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries dramatically expanded the program, providing funding to plant 120,000 mangrove seedlings. Now, World Neighbors is working with communities in disaster-prone villages in the east of the country, planting mangrove trees in order to counter the effects of climate change, increase fish catches and incomes, and help develop an ecotourism sector.

“Despite many well-intentioned projects, there is no plan that works at global scale for coral reefs, mangroves, rocky shore, seagrass or other habitats threatened by climate change,” explained Dr. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Australia, in a recent report. “That needs to change.”

But mangrove experts who spoke to Devex distinguished the need for a global goal from the need for a global plan. There are both opportunities and limits when it comes to replicating or scaling local best practices for coastal management — whether globally or even regionally, such as in Asia, where annual loss rates for mangroves are nearly double the global average. But by developing a shared goal of mangrove conservation and restoration, partners can pursue different paths to success, depending on the country where they are working.

“The diversity of approaches, projects and initiatives could turn out to be a strength if communication and coordination between actors would work better,” said Uwe Johannsen, who works on marine conservation and development at World Wildlife Fund, which co-hosted an event at the Ocean Conference on ways to scale-up mangrove initiatives.

A global goal on mangrove conservation and restoration is urgently needed, Johannsen told Devex, because the loss of mangroves is continuing at an alarming rate, despite a host of initiatives and projects.

The German government, which co-hosted the event with WWF, already supports 40 mangrove projects in more than 15 countries. Its new initiative — “Save Our Mangroves Now” — aims to connect the dots between the protection and restoration measures that seem to be working. The initiative plans to raise awareness at the political level, to provide an open platform for support and exchange of knowledge, and to provide capacity building in one pilot region in the Western Indian Ocean.

Girls perform before an audience of women shaded beneath a tent at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new job training and mangrove conservation center in Mannar District, Sri Lanka. Photo by: Catherine Cheney

Working at the grassroots level

A marching band in maroon and gold uniforms pounded their drums, banged their cymbals and blew into melodicas, welcoming Peterson of Seacology to their village. Young girls wore brightly colored fabrics and bells on their ankles to perform traditional dances. Peterson was asked to address the group of women crowded beneath a plastic tent to shelter from the sun.

“Remember, there are people halfway across the world that care very much about you,” she told the group in English, before her words were translated to Sinhala and Tamil, the two other languages widely spoken in Sri Lanka.

Devex attended the groundbreaking ceremony for a new job training and mangrove conservation center in Mannar District in the north of the country, where missing limbs and bullet holes serve as reminders of the three-decade war that ended only eight years ago.

Seacology’s Chair of Board of Directors Paul Cox reflected on the growth of the organization over the past 25 years in the organization’s 2016 annual report, recalling the leap of faith the organization made when it launched its first nationwide effort in Sri Lanka. Earlier this year, Seacology won nearly $1 million from the Water Window Challenge, organized by the Global Resilience Partnership, to scale its work in Sri Lanka through its local partner, Sudeesa. The government is currently demarcating the island’s mangroves for the first time, and learning that the forest areas are far more expansive than originally thought, with a government campaign this year labelling Sri Lanka “The Land of Eternal Mangroves.”

For the women whose businesses rely on healthy mangrove ecosystems — such as Kalu Devage Fernando, who started a dried fish business — it makes sense that they only get support from Sudeesa once they agree to protect the mangroves. But even for women whose businesses have nothing to do with mangrove forests — such as Jeevanthi Dilrukshi, a dressmaker — they see the benefit for others in the community who rely on the fish. Sometimes, conservation involves tradeoffs. Communities may need to find other sources of firewood rather than cutting down a nearby tree from the mangrove forest, for example, which is why Sudeesa has to offer real incentives, providing training and loans to women who are too poor to get credit from banks in exchange for their service as “guardians of the mangroves,” as Peterson puts it.

Sharing lessons

As the Sri Lankan mangrove conservation project enters its third year, Seacology has learned a few key lessons it can share with other projects, said executive director Duane Silverstein.

“Mangrove preservation will not work without the active support and participation of the local community,” he said. “One way to get such support is by offering [them] an incentive for their participation.”

In Sri Lanka, that incentive is usually microloans and job training, but different incentives would work in different places, he said.

Another transferrable lesson is that the planting of mangroves works best with input from both the local community and the scientific community. Seacology works closely with local partners including Anuradha Wickramasinghe, chairman of Sudeesa, who travels all over the country day after day to talk with communities about the importance of mangrove conservation; Leela Padmini Batuwitage, a field representative for Seacology, whose job in the ministry of environment makes her well-positioned to work with government; and Douglas Thisera, director of conservation for Seacology, who works as an intermediary between the women who watch out for threats to the mangroves and the officials who can stop them.

Additionally, said Silverstein, an educational component about the importance of mangroves is key to success. In Sri Lanka, that includes the mangrove museum, which has become a popular destination for schoolchildren and is part of a broader effort to make sure the next generation knows the value of these coastal forests.

Key questions for any mangrove project include how to monitor conservation, a challenge that organizations are starting to take on with the use of data and images from drones and satellites; how to ensure that restoration projects work — they often fail because of a disregard for hydrological practices; and how to work in partnership with governments which ultimately have control over zoning for conservation or production.

Anuradha Wickramasingh rides a boat past mangroves near Sri Lanka’s mangrove museum. Photo by: Catherine Cheney

Money for mangroves

Take a boat ride through a mangrove forest — such as the Muthurajawela Marsh, not too far from the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo — and you see all kinds of life, from birds to baby crocodiles to butterflies. There are more than 80 species of mangrove, but most of them share the characteristic roots that appear like stilts beneath the trees. What you cannot see is that the mangroves are capturing and holding carbon, taking these greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, and storing it in the coastal soil.

“Blue carbon” is the term for the carbon that is captured by ocean and coastal ecosystems, including sea grasses, salt marshes and mangroves. When these areas are destroyed, that carbon is emitted back into the atmosphere. Recently, blue carbon has been incorporated into the carbon market in the buying and selling of carbon offsets, creating a financial incentive for restoration and conservation projects.

Mangroves store up to five times more carbon than other tropical forests, meaning these trees could provide great value on the voluntary carbon market, where businesses, governments, nonprofit organizations and individuals can buy emission reduction credits to offset their carbon emissions and reduce the environmental footprint.

“The theory goes that if this value can be realised and transferred to the people whose livelihoods depend on the exploitation of mangroves, it could incentivise and finance mangrove management, and help safeguard the marine ecosystems that mangroves support,” said Steve Rocliffe, research and learning manager at Blue Ventures, an organization that rebuilds tropical fisheries with coastal communities.

But he drew a comparison between mangrove conservation efforts and marine protected areas, both of which are difficult to sell to communities, as they tend to be highly reliant on the resources to provide food and income.

“If blue carbon [finance] is to be taken to scale, it should ideally be paired with quicker returning initiatives to ensure sustained buy-in from the community,” he said.

Many blue carbon projects are at an early stage, with standards still in their infancy. And the market has been slow and volatile, which reduces the likelihood that initiatives will have a net positive impact on coastal communities, Rocliffe said.  

Nonetheless, a rapidly growing number of initiatives are taking on the mangrove challenge, as the forests gain increasing attention at conferences and among NGOs. Groups such as the Mangrove Action Project — an international network of 450 NGOs, 300 scientists and academics, and 60 nations — are elevating mangroves on the environmental conservation agenda. Last July 26 marked the first International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem, organized by UNESCO, and the opening of the mangrove museum in Sri Lanka. The second international day, next month, will present another opportunity for new initiatives to raise awareness of the value of these ecosystems.

Funding mechanisms are emerging that might finance mangrove conservation and restoration — such as the Landscape Finance Lab, which the WWF is piloting and will launch this year as a new way to develop and finance sustainable landscapes.

"Mangroves are the glue between land and sea,” said Paul Chatterton, founder of the Landscape Finance Lab. “New opportunities with carbon and sustainability financing allow us to take mangrove protection to another scale. We can now protect very large areas of forest and use this financing to transform fishing practices and coastal management.”

Coastal landscapes and seascapes, including mangroves, must be part of the solution for healthier oceans and coasts, he said, including protecting coastal communities from some of the impacts of climate change.

Editor’s Note: The reporter traveled to Sri Lanka with the support of Seacology. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.