The UN has declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity. Sadly, many of the ecosystems that harbor such biodiversity, like mangroves, are quickly disappearing due to the effects of human activities.
Mangroves are trees and plants that grow in swampy areas of saline water in tropical or subtropical climes, including the coastline of West Africa. They are invaluable for the habitats, protection and resources they provide in addition to their formidable carbon sequestering capacity.
“Many types of fish make use of mangrove roots as a place for breeding,” Emma Greatrix, Programme Coordinator of Wetlands International Africa told MediaGlobal.
“These fish are an essential livelihood for the people of West Africa – in Senegal alone around 600,000 people depend on fisheries for their livelihoods. As well as fish, shellfish such as oysters grow along the mangrove stands, and this ecosystem is also an essential stopping over point for millions of birds passing through West Africa during the European winter months.” Many people living near the mangroves also make their livings by extracting salt from these forests to sell on the market.
Mangroves provide protection for coastal communities as well. They provide a natural barrier against the erosion of coastlines and against storm damage. According to Jonathan Cook, senior program officer, Climate Change Adaptation for World Wildlife Fund-US, the areas of coastline in Southeast Asia that had healthy and full mangroves experienced much less damage during the disastrous 2004 tsunami than areas where mangroves had been degraded and cleared.
There are about 60 species of trees found in mangrove forests worldwide, with valuable carbon sequestering capacities. “One recent study (Chmura et al, 2003) estimates that they sequester about 38 Tg [teragrams] of carbon per year globally [1 Tg is equivalent to one million metric tons], which may be a faster rate of sequestration than tropical forests,” Cook told MediaGlobal in an e-mail. “So when mangroves are cut down, this adds to the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – making the problem worse, and also missing an opportunity to address the problem!”
Human populations destroy mangroves for various reasons. Unsustainable fishing practices have depleted aquatic life in the mangrove ecosystems. Humans cut down mangrove trees for building materials and firewood for fuel and industry, and in order to clear land for development. Along the West African coastline, salt-making is the second largest industry after fishing, according to Greatrix, but it often spurs the destruction of trees because wood is used build fires that boil saline water to obtain the salt for sale.
Wetlands International and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with the support of the WAMA Foundation have created the West African Mangrove Initiative (WAMI) to protect mangroves in West Africa and empower the surrounding populations to do the same.
WAMI works in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Mauritania teaching agencies and individuals how to restore destroyed mangroves and find new industries that have a lower impact on the mangrove forests. WAMI has introduced fuel-efficient stoves to these communities, so that less mangrove wood is used. They have also introduced a simple method of making salt using no wood, and only heat from the sun to evaporate the salt. Communities in The Gambia are even learning beekeeping as an alternative industry to salt making, under the auspices of WAMI.
“All of these activities are designed to be self-sustaining, so that communities will carry on even when WAMI has finished,” Greatrix said. “To set this into policy, WAMI is supported all six governments to agree on a Regional Mangrove Charter that will commit them to better mangrove management – it is hoped that this will be ratified during 2010.”