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Is mangrove afforestation the climate action panacea?

  • Published at 10:42 am November 4th, 2020
climate change
Friendship Mangrove Plantation caretakers at work at the mangrove nursery; Photo: Courtesy

Mangrove afforestation along the coastline is a great natural solution that also functions as a natural machine to reverse carbon emission

The world’s largest mangrove forest exists in the lower reaches of Bangladesh, a small country in South Asia. Called the Sundarbans – literally meaning “beautiful forest,” it is not just the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, and countless other species of wildlife, but it is also an essential component in the lives, livelihoods and safety of communities in and around it, the whole country and perhaps for a much greater area still.

“The Sundarbans is our mother,” says Reshma Khatun, a young mother herself, from Mirgang village in Shyamnagar, a sub-district in the south.

“She gives us so much – our whole livelihood. We collect fish, crab, shrimp, honey, different herbs and fruits, firewood, both for us to use, and to sell. Not just that, but she protects us too; shielding us from cyclones, tides and erosion. She feeds us, nurtures us and protects. She is our mother.”

Bangladesh is already a small, developing country with an immense population of 170 million people – which is to say that the stress on resources is severe. The southern coastal region where the Sundarbans lie is isolated from infrastructure and prone to cyclones, storms, tidal upsurges, flooding, salination and a host of other natural disasters.

In recent years the cyclones Sidr (2007), Aila (2009), Roanu (2016), Fani (2019), and Bulbul (2019), have ravaged lives and property in low-lying coastal areas. Then in May 2020, just as we were feeling the peak of the impact of Covid-19, the super-cyclone Amphan battered the region, killing 80 people and leaving in its path ravaged embankments, countless uprooted trees, power blackout, and losses running into $1.5 billion (Tk12,744 crore).

Besides the constant threat of cyclones, coastal regions have the added disadvantage of not being particularly fertile. Add to this the increasing salinity, and you get a dangerous reduction of food crop production, and therefore food security. Salinity continues to increase due to the reduction of the flow of freshwater from upstream. In the 19 coastal districts of Bangladesh, inhabited by more than 35 million people, salinity has increased around 26% in the coastal region of Bangladesh over the last four decades.

Salinity and lack of fertility also affect grazing land and fodder crops for livestock. The reduced ability for cattle-raising in Bangladesh has had serious economic and nutritional consequences, especially for children. However, people have also converted freshwater areas through the intrusion of saline water for shrimp culture, increasing the salinity in the surrounding areas and damaging the grazing areas of livestock. 

There are many ways to mitigate or overcome the salinity problem. The top priorities are building and strengthening embankments, constructing sluice gates and irrigation mechanisms, establishing rainwater harvesting systems, and introducing salinity-tolerant crop varieties with adequate nutritional content. Our solution was to use mangroves to fortify built embankments.

Mangrove afforestation along the coastline is a great natural solution that also functions as a natural machine to reverse carbon emission, reduce storm impact and foster alternate livelihood for coastal dwellers. This unique ecosystem is a great combination of three things; as an embankment protection, source of livelihoods and climate change mitigation.

Friendship’s participatory approach addresses most of these concerns in a manner that is tailor-made to integrate into all of Friendship’s other interventions – climate action or otherwise, and cohesively create a better quality of life for everyone. Health, education, water, sanitation, legal rights, economic opportunity and of course the environment are all part of the actions which start and end with the beneficiaries; in a bottom-up approach that sees to their needs as they define them.

To be specific, Friendship, jointly with local government and department of forest, engages the local communities in mangrove plantation efforts by training them and subsequently handing responsibility over to them for maintenance and guardianship, which fosters ownership. The approach has covered basic knowledge and skills for mangrove plantation and care along with alternate livelihood opportunities. Thus, these holistic interventions are not stand-alone, but overlap with all the other activities of Friendship in the area. Committees and groups are formed, training sessions conducted, and regular follow-up meetings held to keep everyone on the same page.

Historically, NGOs have been unable to sustain standalone plantation projects. Friendship’s mangrove plantation project is part of a holistic program that includes health interventions, water treatment plants, special assistance for fishermen, sustainable economic development programs, disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, which have been set up gradually over the years.

Over time we worked to build the community’s trust and acceptance. Then, before diving into the project, we worked to enhance awareness and understanding of the benefits of the mangrove forest towards climate action and against the effects of climate change. There is also a strong focus on women, and though gender parity is the objective, more women are employed as they have little-to-no other opportunities elsewhere. The engagement of the local community means the caretakers are always at hand, and the plantation has the chance to reach maturity without the need for external assistance The initiative has aligned with the spirit of national and international mandates with close cooperation and networking with the, Bangladesh Forestry Department (BFD), IUCN, and other NGOs.

As this project started in 2018 it is still at a nascent stage, with around 200,000 trees on 100 hectares of land in Symanagar and Ashashoni upazilas of Satkhira district. The signs are promising, to say the least. The model is easily scalable and replicable, given funding is available.

Perhaps newer methods of finding that funding can be explored on a larger, more global scale as mangrove forests can process four times as much carbon as a tropical forest, thereby making them almost necessary to combat climate change. So far the mangrove plantation project has been funded by the Luxembourg Ministry of Environment, from its International Climate Finance budget adopted after the COP21 summit.

Planting mangrove forests has led to the common good, in this case, simultaneously solving community-level problems, while serving as the most efficient carbon-absorbing machine possible. But for such a project to run sustainably, it’s important to bring all the stakeholders together: the communities; technical and logistical support from the local government; and local authorities that provide land and ensure sustainability, guardianship and continuity. Friendship essentially fills the gaps and brings everyone together cohesively in a shared interest towards mutual benefit.

Finally, Reshma is happy to see the mangrove near her house. She is hoping the plantation will one day, save her family from the storm, and that she will join with her husband to find crab, fish, honey, leaves from the plantation areas to sell in the market. She may or may not understand climate change but she can imagine a green shade around her which would bring happiness and security.

Kazi Amdadul Hoque is the Senior Director, Strategic Planning and Head of Climate Action at Friendship, a Social Purpose Organisation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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