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Why Mangrove Deforestation is Happening & What's Being Done About it

By Benjamin Chadwick

What does the decimation of mangrove forests spell for our planet? Amid all the news of impending climate change, and the traditionally popular emphasis on terrestrial trees’ role in this fight, it’s important to remember that 83% of the global carbon cycle runs through oceans. Mangroves thrive in salty ocean water, unusual for such a woody plant. They are the keystone organism featured in coastal ecosystems around the world (within around 25° of the equator); such systems handle about half of the sequestration of ‘blue carbon,’ i.e. carbon captured by marine life (“The Blue Carbon Initiative”) (Valiela).

Some of the numerous other benefits they provide include sheltering all kinds of fish, crustaceans, and other organisms, protecting soil from erosion, and buffering storms and other natural disasters (Alongi). As many as 464 different species of reptiles, amphibians, and mammals have been shown, by recent research, to interact with mangrove forests: the effects of mangrove disappearance will be strongly felt by terrestrial ecosystems, as well (Rog).

Here we are, in the 21st century, staring down the fact that in the past 50 years, around a third of worldwide mangrove stocks have been eliminated (Alongi). This can only spell catastrophe, but oddly, it hasn’t dented the public consciousness as much as other grave phenomena. Mangrove forests tend to be less glamorous, toting a smaller biodiversity palette than other beleaguered counterparts (Alongi). Nevertheless, they have been wiped out faster than both rainforests and coral reef zones (Valiela). Current estimates indicate that as much as two percent of the remaining total mangrove stock is done away with annually; some have revised this number to as low as .4 percent in recent years (Freiss).

The unfortunate dilemma is that many countries, trying to develop and raise their living standards, cannot justify leaving large mangrove stocks untouched when they could be converted into something far more profitable--for example, shrimp aquaculture. Shrimp farming is the number one cause of thinning mangrove stocks (Valiela). Industry practices are egregiously wasteful, yet there is intense pressure worldwide to pursue commercialization: often to supply more affluent countries’ tastes. Of course, some mangrove loss is the inevitable effect of expanding human settlement and the more significant amounts of waste that cities pump out into the environment every year (Alongi). After all, thirty-seven percent of humanity lives within one hundred kilometres of the coast (Valiela).

Aggregate data, however, can sometimes paint an excessively gloomy picture, covering up the occasional bright spots of small but positive developments. Although every continent saw vast net losses, a handful of countries have, in recent years, actually managed to increase their mangrove stocks: Belize, Cuba, Jamaica, and Guinea, to name several (Valiela).

In many cases, aid from developed countries and multilateral institutions has been the source of improvement. For example, Jamaica began implementing in early 2020 a major project on its southern coast targeting one thousand hectares of land for mangrove forest restoration (“Project Details”). It is funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which plans similar projects in other locations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean (Serju).

Cuba’s case is highly instructive: their pivot to sustainability, albeit wobbly, was given a jump-start when, thanks to the USSR’s collapse, their imports of petroleum and industrial pesticides tanked. Virtually overnight, their economy shrunk by a third and could no longer sustain the same kinds of modern, industrial modes of agriculture (Goulart). With United Nations assistance, the shift to an alternative, biodiverse method of agriculture--what has been described by the Guardian as a “small-scale organic farming revolution”--was fostered (Atwood). In tandem with this adjustment, a sea change came in the main thrust of government policy towards preserving biodiversity. Successive waves of buffs to forest protections saw Cuba’s total forest coverage increase by thirty-nine percent in the last two decades (Goulart). Much of that was mangrove forests.

No one needs to be reminded: the world has a lot of difficult rebuilding and restructuring to do in the wake of COVID-19. What Cuba, along with other notable exceptions to the general trend of ecological destruction, shows is a critical message for humanity going forward. That a country, reeling from economic devastation caused by the sudden uprooting of its mode of production, can rebuild its capacity more sustainably than before is a great precedent. It gives hope for the future: hope that we--the larger society inhabiting all of planet Earth--can rise out of the ashes. Not by returning to normal, but by completely retooling our ways of existence and sustenance, in a way that brings us back from a state of war into a state of peace with, and respect for, our natural home.


Works Cited:

Alongi, Daniel M. “Present State and Future of the World's Mangrove Forests.” Environmental Conservation, vol. 29, no. 3, 2002, pp. 331–349. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44520614. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.

Atwood, Roger. “Organic or Starve: Can Cuba’s New Farming Model Provide Food Security?” The Guardian, 28 Oct. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/28/organic-or-starve-can-cubas-new-farming-model-provide-food-security.

Friess, Daniel A., et al. “Mangroves Give Cause for Conservation Optimism, for Now.” Current Biology, vol. 30, no. 4, Feb. 2020, pp. R153–54. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1016/j.cub.2019.12.054.

Goulart, Fernando, et al. “Conservation Lessons from Cuba: Connecting Science and Policy.” Biological Conservation, vol. 217, Jan. 2018, p. 280. ResearchGate, doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2017.10.033.

Serju, Christopher. Major Mangrove Restoration Project Coming for Clarendon. 7 June 2020, http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/news/20200607/major-mangrove-restoration-project-coming-clarendon.

Project Details | IADB. https://www.iadb.org/en/project/JA-T1169. Accessed 10 Feb. 2021.

Rog, Stefanie M., et al. “More than Marine: Revealing the Critical Importance of Mangrove Ecosystems for Terrestrial Vertebrates.” Diversity and Distributions, vol. 23, no. 1/2, 2017, pp. 221–230. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44213904. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.

“The Blue Carbon Initiative.” The Blue Carbon Initiative, https://www.thebluecarboninitiative.org. Accessed 10 Feb. 2021.

Valiela, Ivan, et al. “Mangrove Forests: One of the World's Threatened Major Tropical Environments.” BioScience, vol. 51, no. 10, 2001, pp. 807–815. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1641/0006-3568(2001)051[0807:mfootw]2.0.co;2. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.

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