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Dahr Jamail | Mangroves in Crisis: Why One Man Works to Save the Plants That Fight Climate Disruption

A man in Washington State is working to slow climate disruption by saving mangrove forests.

A mangrove forest in Malaysia. Mangrove forests act as virtual carbon scrubbers, yet are under threat by the shrimping aquacultural industry. (Photo: Yasser Abusen / Flickr)

Part of the Series

It’s not news that anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is accelerating at unprecedented rates, according to climate scientists. Fifteen of the 16 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000, and this year is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded — by far. And the pace of planetary warming is only increasing, as is made dramatically clear in this recently published graphic.

Hence, the need to do everything possible to work towards mitigating this crisis is obvious. There is no way to completely reverse the trend, but as more and more people acknowledge our shared moral responsibility to mitigate the impacts, some are uncovering creative strategies for fighting planetary warming. For instance, an unlikely epiphany led one man towards an effort to preserve and protect mangrove forests, a tactic that would not necessarily be most folks’ first tactic to address climate disruption.

To see more stories like this, visit “Planet or Profit?”

In 1992, Alfredo Quarto was in southern Thailand working on an article about fisherfolk when he became aware that mangrove forests were under threat by the shrimping aquaculture industry.

“The common threat I saw to all these local farmers [was] outside investors who were destroying both their lands and livelihoods by destroying the mangrove forests they depended upon in order to make more shrimp farms,” Quarto told Truthout. “I was deeply moved by a village headman whose father had been murdered by a local shrimp mafia because he defied their cutting down the mangroves.”

Quarto said that the man told him, “If there are no mangrove forests, then the sea will have no meaning. It is like having a tree with no roots, for the mangroves are the roots of the sea.”

The man’s words made a profound impact — in fact, they shifted the course of Quarto’s life. Quarto went on to become the cofounder and co-director of the Mangrove Action Project (MAP), whose aim is the preservation and protection of mangrove forests around the world.

The Importance of Mangroves

Quarto now lives in Port Angeles, Washington, with his family, where he helps run MAP, giving him a global reach from his small rural home in the Pacific Northwest. While he’s able to do much of his work via the internet and phone calls, he still often travels to the tropics to work with those active in mangrove conservation projects.

Mangrove trees store up to five times as much carbon as other trees, which makes mangrove forests one of the most carbon-rich habitats on the planet. Recent scientific reports confirm the importance of the mangroves: They act as virtual carbon-scrubbers, taking CO2 out of the atmosphere.

“This means that if you want to slow carbon emissions, one of the first places you could look would be in the mangroves,” wrote Mark Spalding, a senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy. “Stop an acre of loss here, and you will achieve a much bigger win than in many other areas.”

Mangroves are common along coastlines in both tropical and subtropical regions around the world, and even beyond their carbon-related impacts, they are of critical importance to a healthy marine ecology. They act as a protective buffer zone against strong storms and wave damage, their deep roots stabilize soil and protect from erosion. They even filter sediments and pollution out of the water.

It’s apparent why Quarto refers to mangroves as “a cornucopia of life” and “a rainforest by the sea”: They serve as important nurseries for countless marine life, and are used as stopover sites for millions of migratory birds. They are home to endangered and threatened species like the Bengal tiger, sea crocodiles, manatees and sea turtles.

Mangroves are also inhabited by fish, crabs, shrimp and mollusks, and the fisheries they form are a critical source of food for millions of people around the world who live near them.

Scientific studies have even shown that mangroves have an impact on global weather patterns, primarily by their ability to sequester so much CO2 and thus lowering the impacts of ACD by scrubbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Yet these natural carbon capturers are themselves in danger due to climate disruption. For years, scientists have been concerned about the loss of mangroves around the world, with sea level rise and pollution being two of the biggest threats to their survival. For instance, a number of very recent reports are showing “diebacks” of mangroves in Australia.

Quarto said that when he first became aware of the importance of mangroves in 1992, “They were hardly noticed, even by long-established environmental groups.”

He explained that even the well-known Rainforest Action Network had officially decided they would not include them in their list of projects.

“Mangroves were at that time often called ‘wastelands’ and ‘mosquito infested, muddy swamps,’ not very appealing to most people, unless you happened to be from a local coastal community whose very life and livelihoods were connected to the mangroves,” he said.

But then the massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean struck in 2004, and the importance of mangroves was brought to the fore. More people began to understand the role these forests played in buffering shorelines against the impacts of tsunamis and hurricanes.

“It was then that big money was raised to create such international organizations such as Mangroves For the Future (MFF) that had presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush as figureheads in helping raise nearly $20 million to be used for mangrove ‘restoration’ along the denuded coasts of tsunami affected countries,” Quarto said. “Unfortunately, much of this funding resulted in innumerable failed restoration efforts, which we at MAP had tried to advise against, [such as] planting one species in mudflats and other unsuitable terrain.”

The high-profile “restoration” efforts did not “save” the mango forests, and meanwhile, the impacts of ACD continued to become more severe. As time passed, even Quarto was surprised to learn the extent of the role mangroves played in carbon sequestration.

“With this recognition of tackling both bioshield needs and carbon storage, mangroves suddenly grew in value, from $1,000 per hectare or less back in 1992, to $300,000 or more in some places now,” he said.

While he acknowledges the increasingly important role that mangroves play in ACD mitigation is not common knowledge to most people, Quarto sees a growing number of people becoming interested in them.

As evidence of this, he points to the government of Sri Lanka, which recently began acting to protect and preserve that country’s entire mangrove area. In El Salvador, the government has given permission to local communities to manage and restore the mangroves in their areas.

“MAP is now working with government officials elsewhere, such as in Thailand and Honduras, to gain official support for mangrove conservation and restoration,” Quarto said, adding that these efforts are just a start — the issue still needs much more attention from both governments and the larger public.

An “Ally Against Climate Change”

Only half the area of mangroves remains from what they once were, and their annual loss is currently estimated to be 1 to 2 percent, according to Quarto.

Meanwhile, the crucial role they play in pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it cannot be overstated.

“Mangroves, tidal marshes and seagrass beds remove massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and fix it in mangrove soils, where it can remain for millennia,” Quarto has written. “Unlike terrestrial forests, marine wetlands are constantly building carbon pools, storing large amounts of so-called ‘blue carbon’ in highly organic sediments, storing up to five times more carbon per unit area than tropical rainforests. Their carbon sequestration potential is significant in helping to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. Including the carbon stored in soils, mangrove forests store the most carbon per hectare of any other forest type.”

Mangroves’ effectiveness at carbon sequestration is underscored by the fact that, while they account for only 0.7 percent of the tropical forest area being deforested, the destruction of mangroves accounts for 10 percent of unsequestered emissions from deforestation globally.

Quarto said current estimates show that mangroves account for approximately 15 percent of the total carbon amount that is present in marine sediments around the world, as they are among the most carbon-rich forests in the tropics.

This is part of the reason that deforestation and land-use changes currently generate between 8 and 20 percent of total global CO2 emissions, running second only to fossil fuel combustion.

“Mangroves store the equivalent to roughly [two and a half times] the annual global CO2 emissions,” Quarto said. “And upper-end estimates of the amount of annual global emissions resulting from the loss of mangroves are 159 million tons of CO2.”

If current deforestation and sea level increase trends continue — and there is nothing to indicate they will not — most of the carbon stored in mangroves, along with their ability to sequester more in the future, will be released back into the atmosphere, as they are likely be gone completely by 2100.

What Is to Be Done?

However, Quarto isn’t losing hope: He encourages people to support MAP and other mangrove preservation projects, both directly and indirectly. An important “indirect” tactic: simply reducing your consumption of imported shrimp, given that shrimp aquaculture is one of the leading causes of the loss of mangroves.

“Farmed shrimp in the global South results in massive mangrove loss, and trawled shrimp from these same nations is cause of terrible marine habitat damage and immense fish by-catch problems, all of which hurts the local communities as well as the mangroves,” Quarto explained.

Local communities are a cornerstone of Quarto’s approach to fighting the destruction of the mangroves. What sets MAP apart from other groups that engage in mangrove preservation, like the Clinton and Bush-led projects, is that MAP works in partnership with local communities in the preservation process, as well as in conservation.

“MAP works more at the grassroots, often partnering with community-based NGOs on projects,” Quarto explained. “I think this more close connection with the local coastal communities sets MAP apart from the mainstream environmental groups such as MFF, IUCN and Wetlands International that also work on mangrove issues.”

Pisit Charnsnah, Quarto’s old friend and co-founder of MAP, told him in 1992: “Mangroves sustain the people who sustain the mangroves.”

With the global ACD crisis mounting, the mangroves’ function as carbon sequestering areas makes them more important than ever — and shows why they must not only be preserved, but given room to expand and flourish.

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