Advocacy, Restoration, sustainability

Treading Lightly : Recognizing The Importance of Our Mangroves Before Its Too Late

Written By : Damario Patterson / Content Writer

“Mangroves are magical forests where we discover nature’s secrets. They straddle the connection between land and sea and nature and humans”. This how Anne Birch, Marine Conservation Manager at The Nature Conservancy in Florida describes mangroves and their importance to the survival of animals – both aquatic and terrestrial – and even human beings. Currently, there exist a plethora of species of mangroves. A specific number is not readily attained because of varying scientific opinions surrounding the features required to be considered a mangrove. There are 73 species of “true” mangroves, all inhabiting 123 countries (tropical and sub-tropical). However, there are four types to be found in Jamaica, namely red, black, white, and button mangroves.

Why are they important?

The contribution which mangroves make to the survival and thriving of ecosystems across the world is extensive and invaluable.  The estimated economic benefit of an extensive network of mangroves is between US $2,000 and US $9,000 per hectare annually. This is attributable to a wide array of functions, including its effectiveness in preventing damage in natural disasters such as flooding as well as hurricanes. An article published by the World Bank estimates that the loss of the current Jamaican mangroves would result in an increase in annual flooding of about 10% and damage caused to residential and industrial infrastructure in Jamaica because of flooding would increase by approximately 24%, the equivalent of US $32.6 million every year.

Their great ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, Conservation International also asserts that mangroves can be up to ten times more efficient at absorbing carbon than terrestrial ecosystems. This makes them very important to the fight against global warming and climate change.

Furthermore, the mangrove root systems filter pollutants such as nitrates and phosphates from the water, resulting in the better water quality in the rivers and streams where they grow and, eventually, the seas and oceans into which these bodies of water flow. Very important, too, is their ability to strengthen the soil through their dense roots. This reduces the chances of soil and coastal erosion. The advantages of mangroves include the provision of habitat for a wide range of organisms, both fauna, and flora, as well as a recreational opportunities for people to enjoy nature.

The imploding crisis that they face

Despite all of this, the reality is mangroves are being destroyed daily due to anthropogenic activity and its effects on the environment. An article from the United Nations Environment Programme cites various studies carried out in recent years on various human activities and how negatively they affect the survival of mangrove forests. These include how the pollution of mangroves and bodies of water in which these mangroves are located can result in the death of organisms living within these mangroves and resultantly, suppressing the habitat. The pollution can also result in an increase in salinity levels which further stresses the habitat, causing them to die over time. A report called ‘Forces of Nature’ examines the crisis in Jamaica facing the mangroves. It reported that over 770 hectares of mangroves. This is particularly concerning given the geography of the island and how prone to flooding and other natural disasters the island is. 

Red mangrove forest and shallow waters in a Tropical island. / Getty Images

The biggest issue in Jamaica seems to be the very common “power struggle” between infrastructural development and environmental preservation, i.e. which of the two should be given more importance. This has always been an area of contention in the governance of the country. What seems to be the default response to this question is that infrastructural development should be prioritized, even at the expense of the environment.

The fact that mangroves must be cleared to make room for the erection of the building is enough to make it a threat to the environment.  Moreover, the use of fertilizers and other chemicals also harms those mangrove trees left. Additionally, recurring issues of pollution (land, water, noise, etc.) take a toll on the mangroves and the organisms living within them. Mangrove wood is also a very good source of building material and fuel, and therefore, is sacrificed to increase infrastructural development. 

It is worthwhile to note that the development of tourist attractions seems to be one of the primary reasons for the depletion of mangroves in Jamaica. The irony is to be found in the fact that environmental amenities are among the features of the island which attract tourists, and its degradation is likely to result in a sharp decrease in tourists coming to the island. Therefore, the most sustainable course of action is one that considers the environmental implications. Ecotourism – environmentally friendly tourism – is one option that has proven very lucrative and would be appropriate for Jamaica given our geography. 

Efforts in restoration

The crisis gives rise to a need, now more than ever, to safeguard the mangrove forests still standing as well as restore those that can be. The Forces of Nature report noted that more than 70% of the mangroves lost in Jamaica can be restored. The need for restoration has been recognized both internationally and locally, giving rise to international investments in mangrove restoration in Jamaica.

Restoration is ideal given that efforts to replant mangroves have been greatly unsuccessful because of shifts in the sediments of the roots. Therefore, the revitalization of mangroves is more effective. This is not to say, however, that efforts at restoration have all been great. 

In a publication from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development called the Mangrove Restoration Guide it highlights the Community-based Ecological Mangrove Restoration (CBEMR) as the most optimal of the other methods used.

A red mangrove nursery soaking up the Caribbean at the Alligator Head Foundation in Portland. (Photo: Our.Today)

This method is based upon the fact that forests can self-repair. Therefore, instead of trying to actively regenerate the mangroves, the focus is on re-establishing the hydrology which will facilitate this natural regeneration process. Additionally, it is important to ensure that the mangroves have access to sufficient sediment.

The amount of sediment present is determined by a myriad of situations to include coastal and inland engineering works. Intensive agricultural practices and upstream logging may result in excess sedimentation may thwart restoration efforts. In contrast, insufficient sediment may deprive mangroves the necessary material to build the soils and grow. Possible solutions include designing structures to not impair sediment supply or add excessively to its production. 

Therefore, it is of utmost important that we pay attention to the issues that we are currently experiencing as well as the importance of Mangroves and the purposes that they serve. We must begin to tread lightly and recognize their importance before it is too late.

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