Mangroves are tropical marine forests with great potential. They protect coasts from erosion and storm surges; and provide food and shelter for a variety of wildlife, as well as rearing habitats for commercially important fish and shellfish.
They’re also fighting climate change: The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that global mangrove forests store up to 22.8 million tons of carbon in their roots, trunks and soil each year.
While providing valuable services to people and the planet, mangroves are in trouble. Along with the effects of climate change on rising sea levels and temperatures, mangrove forests are being depleted because their wood is valuable and is valued by coastal communities as a major source of lumber, fuel and even medicine. Rampant coastal urbanization and unsustainable agricultural and aquaculture practices complete the long list of challenges.
The UN and Kenya join forces
But all hope is not lost! Sometimes innovative partnerships can lead to sustainable solutions. Over the past three years, UN agencies, the Kenyan government and other key partners have joined forces to launch sustainable, community-based conservation projects. They aim to help alleviate poverty and provide climate, biodiversity and local scale benefits to communities on the Kenyan coast.
Together with UNEP, the Kenya Forest Service, the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute and partners recently inaugurated the Vanga Blue Forests Project in Vanga Bay on the coast of Kwale County (south of Mombasa), a pioneering carbon trading initiative from the conservation and restoration of mangroves.
Launched two years earlier, Vanga Blue’s sister project is located in nearby Gazi Bay. This unique initiative, known as Mikoko Pamoja (‘Mangroves Together’), raises money by selling carbon credits to individuals and organizations striving to reduce their carbon footprint through Scottish charity ACES. This project supports the planting and conservation of mangrove trees. Mangrove Carbon payments benefit the local community.
Mwanarusi Mwafrika, the coordinator of Vanga Blue Forests, told UN News that some animal species such as dugongs (marine mammals that are cousins of the similarly threatened manatee) had started to disappear. Now they come back. Fishermen also report larger catches. This is because of the conservation efforts we have made with the local people.”
Blue forests, green growth
The Vanga Blue Forests project focuses on preserving the trees as the locals have already planted the seedlings. The project will benefit around 9,000 residents of the villages of Vanga, Jimbo and Kiwegu. The villages form “VAJIKI”, a community association that manages 460 hectares of forest land. Jimbo Village has established a nursery with 30,000 viable mangrove seedlings.
Harith Mohamed is the secretary of the community association and he believes that conservation is the way to go.
“If you upset the balance [between] Mangroves and terrestrial forests, then there will be consequences,” he told UN News, explaining, “The terrestrial forests are uphill and the mangroves are along the water. So it’s important to conserve these forests to avoid flooding because if the sea level rises, the farms cannot be cultivated.”
The Vanga Blue Forests project supports sustainable development processes in communities that address educational, health, and water and sanitation needs. Five hectares of mangroves have been restored in the short time since launch and this trajectory is expected to continue.
In addition, Vanga Blue has initiated important projects that can improve the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people in local fishing communities. For example, a kindergarten was renovated and a hospital equipped with new equipment. Local sanitation projects are now underway.
UN News/ Thelma Mwadzaya
Connecting cities, people and the sea
Like the ocean, mangroves are massive carbon sinks. Compared to other terrestrial trees and forests, any mangrove forest has a tenfold ability to soak up carbon emissions. Protecting and enhancing these forests will remove and retain carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
They also promote resilience to climate change, according to Florian Lux of the Go Blue Project, a third blue growth initiative along Kenya’s southern coast implemented by UNEP and UN-HABITAT and funded by the European Union.
“I am delighted that the Go Blue project has a mangrove restoration component. [Protection and sustainable use of mangroves provides] many ways to protect the environment and benefit the villagers. Carbon sequestration creates resilience in communities along the oceans,” he told UN News.
The Go Blue Project, a joint initiative to promote a sustainable blue economy across all six districts of Kenya’s coastal region, focuses on helping cities and communities cope with the vagaries of climate change. One of the aims of the program is to use important coastal and marine resources to create jobs for over 3,000 young people and women.
Goodluck Mbaga, an environmentalist and conservationist in Kilifi County on the Kenyan coast, reiterated the importance of taking care of ocean health.
“There is a need to advance the protection of the marine environment in particular. The ocean offers great potential as an alternative food source. There is more to harvest from the ocean than the terrestrial activities in life,” he told UN News, stressing that we must not deplete or pollute these resources but find ways to use and protect them.