A man in a catamaran near one of the mangrove swamps in Sri Lanka. Photo by: shankar s. / CC BY

Last week, the Global Resilience Partnership announced the winners of its Water Window Challenge, in which 12 projects will share $10 million to tackle flooding in vulnerable areas. One of those organizations was Seacology, a nonprofit environmental conservation organization dedicated to preserving the habitats and cultures of islands, which will use the nearly $1 million grant to expand its work to conserve mangroves in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. A partnership between Seacology, the Sri Lankan NGO Sudeesa, and the Sri Lankan government led this island nation to became the first country in the world to comprehensively protect all of its mangrove forests.

“Mangroves are really the unsung heroes of conservation,” Duane Silverstein, the executive director of Seacology, told Devex from his office in Berkeley, California. He said that Sri Lanka could serve as a model for other countries, at a moment when scientific consensus is building about the importance of mangroves — and the international community is acting on that information.

The International Day of Forests is intended to raise awareness of all types of forests, including mangrove forests, which store more carbon per hectare than any other form of forested areas on the planet. They also protect coastal communities and preserve marine ecosystems.

The donor community is putting money behind mangroves, focusing on restoration efforts. And groups are coming together to share best practices, avoid duplication of efforts, and attempt to grow the global area of mangrove habitat. Because the protection of mangroves will accelerate that path toward achieving both the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement, Devex used this international day of recognition as a chance to check in on the efforts to preserve these coastal ecosystems.

Cendi Manik, a village of 6,200 people, is one of 35 villages across Indonesia where the U.S.-based NGO World Neighbors is working with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Working with World Neighbors and local community groups, villagers have planted 11,000 mangrove trees to protect against the impact of climate change and provide a shield against tidal flooding. Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries took notice, selecting Cendi Manik for its “One Million Mangrove” program, and funding the community to plant 120,000 mangrove seedlings later this month.

While donors have funded a number of mangrove projects since the devastating tsunamis that hit Indonesia in 2004, the benefits of mangroves extend far beyond providing a tidal defense mechanism, said Edd Wright, regional director for Southeast Asia at World Neighbors. “In the area where World Neighbors works, the community has started a small eco-tourism venture, and there is an increased population of clams, crabs, shrimp, fish around the mangroves, all of which will become new sources of livelihoods for the community,” he explained. Mangroves can break waves, reduce erosion, generate fish, and store carbon, and the need remains huge in Indonesia, a country with more than 17,500 islands and more than 50,000 miles of coastline, he said.

Like many organizations that rely on funding from USAID, World Neighbors has to justify its work in an “America first” administration, pointing to the importance of stability in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

“Again and again I find myself using mangroves as THE poster child for describing the importance of ecosystems for people,” Mark Spalding, senior marine scientist for the global ocean team at the Nature Conservancy, told Devex via email. “Quite often mangroves will be valued for just one element, such as fishing. If awareness can be raised of other values it may help to secure their long term future.”

He mentioned the Atlas of Ocean Wealth, an effort to quantify the value of marine resources, as one example of the way data is demonstrating the return on investment in mangroves. But despite the benefits of mangroves, as much as 50 percent of these forests have been lost in the past half century, according to the Global Mangrove Alliance, formed by the Nature Conservancy, The World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International. The reasons for this deforestation include conversion for aquaculture, clearing for agricultural production, or development for coastal infrastructure, from marinas to roads to hotels.

“Once humans are able (and we’re close) to properly evaluate the value of nature we will also look at mangroves and realise how insane we have been to cut them down. Pretty much anywhere,” Spalding said.

He mentioned individual efforts to conserve mangroves, such as the work of Blue Ventures in Madagascar, as well as coalitions of actors, such as Mangroves for the Future and the Mangrove Action Project. These groups are learning how to build on what is working, including community engagement, and what is not working, such as restoration efforts that fail to sort out land tenure. But while the need for mangroves to secure coastline and sequester carbon only grows over time, mangroves will not work everywhere, should only be planted where they will thrive naturally, and will continue to face threats such as sea level rise, he said.

“It is easy to destruct mangroves, but will take more than 30 years to restore mangrove ecosystems, and still they will never be the same as before,” said Mami Kainuma, senior researcher at the International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems in Okinawa, Japan. ISME membership includes 40 institutes and 1,150 individuals from 93 countries, and the group works to add to the scientific consensus of the contributions of mangroves, through reports and international conventions, including the International Conference on Sustainable Mangrove Ecosystems in Bali, Indonesia, later this month. While the NGO is convinced of the connection between the conservation of mangroves and global health, it has a hard time identifying funding sources to support this work, Kainuma said.

Later this month, Devex will visit Sri Lanka to get a closer look at the work of Seacology, Sudeesa and the Sri Lankan government to protect the mangrove forests.

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About the author

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    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.