Mangrove forests are hugely valuable ecosystems with an image problem. These small trees and shrubs, which grow in the brackish and saline water along tropical and subtropical shorelines, make a critical contribution to climate regulation and can sequester up to four times more carbon than most other tropical forests. They also provide a sheltered habitat for juvenile fish and endangered wildlife.
Despite all this, mangrove forests everywhere are in decline. One of the reasons, says Grupo Jaragua, an environmental NGO based in the Dominican Republic, and Seacology, an island conservation organisation, is poor public perception. ‘Mangroves are usually seen as swampy, mosquito ridden areas,’ says Andrea Thomen, Grupo Jaragua projects manager.
On 26 July, for World Mangrove Day, in partnership with Seacology, Grupo Jaragua has launched a five-year nationwide mangrove conservation initiative focused on raising awareness of the importance of these ecosystems and promoting solutions for their sustainable future. ‘This is really about changing attitudes and allowing people to love mangroves and see them for the ecosystem services that they provide and for their biodiversity,’ says Thomen.
The Dominican Republic has lost more than a third of its mangroves over the last 50 years. It’s a critical issue on the island, where the forests act as a crucial barrier between hurricanes and rising sea levels, and the coastal communities that live alongside them. Research by the United Nations Development Programme indicates that 70 per cent of the population of the Dominican Republic is at risk from floods and storms. Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates it would cost about $10,000 to replace the benefits provided by each hectare of mangrove, including the funds needed to build new barriers to prevent coastal erosion.
Thomen says conservationists in the Dominican Republic have ‘actually seen a loss of shoreline, erosion and degradation of the coast in areas where mangroves have been removed, particularly in the province of Monte Cristi.’ Although most of the island’s mangroves are already legally protected, there is little enforcement against threats such as coastal development for tourism infrastructure, agriculture, over-extraction of wildlife such as fish, birds and crabs, and the impact of invasive species.
To date, most of the mangrove conservation efforts on the island are focused on individual areas or forests, and are usually fragmented and small-scale. ‘This is why we started to develop this national awareness initiative,’ says Thomen, ‘to integrate a lot of these small projects and to create national pride in our mangrove forests. So that whenever a site is endangered, the conservation community can unite and it will have the public support to do so.’
In addition to raising awareness among the general public, the initiative aims to work with schools and rural communities to promote environmental education and to have a long term impact on the teaching curriculum, while using sport as a way to engage the island’s youth in conservation. Its secondary aim is to increase and diversify incomes of island communities that are under economic pressure to exploit the natural resources of the mangrove forests by promoting local ecotourism and working with fishermen to develop sustainable harvesting practices.
‘Our final goal is to be able to say that, at a national level, we've increased the number of mangrove conservation projects, the number of actions implemented and of sites conserved because of advocacy efforts that were supported by an increase in awareness,’ says Thomen, who is optimistic about the impact the initiative will have on the future of mangrove conservation. ‘If you look at a mangrove forest, and you don't know how to appreciate it, you might just see a bunch of trees with muddy water underneath. But once you get to know this magical ecosystem, you can actually see its value.’