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Latin America - “What was this area like three years ago?” I asked researcher Jorge Herrera as we dipped our feet into the warm waters swirling around the trunks of a stand of mangrove saplings in Ciénaga del Progreso, a 40 minute drive from the hot and humid city of Mérida in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

“Nothing; it was all dry land,” responded Herrera, who leads a team of Mexican researchers working on a major mangrove restoration project implemented by the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV-IPN).

Now, noticeably, the area is brimming with life. As we swish through the mud and water, shoals of small fish dart away among the mangroves and small birds splash nearby, unafraid of us.

“There are even crocodiles in other areas,” Herrera said.

I had accompanied three journalists on this field trip to observe a mangrove restoration project.  The four of us  glanced nervously at each other at the thought of a ferocious crocodile perhaps lurking nearby.

“This is one of the marvels of the mangrove,” Herrera said.  “While in the restoration of land ecosystems vegetation comes first then the fauna follows, the fauna comes first in the mangrove (ecosystem).”

The calculations of CINVESTAV researchers demonstrate that barely three years after restoration activities began in Ciénaga del Progreso, roughly 53 hectares (48 percent of the total degraded area) is recovering.

“One year later there was already fauna: fish; mollusks and birds,” Herrera added, daring us to find an example of “the restoration of land ecosystems that show results at the end of just one year.”

Our visit was part of the planned activities of a blue carbon regional workshop entitled “Coastal ecosystems: pillars of mitigation and adaptation to climate change in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean,” organized in late September 2019 by the  Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program (SWAMP) and jointly hosted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) and the U.S. Agency for International Development in Merida.

Mangroves and other coastal ecosystems, which include marshes and sea grasses, are classified as “blue carbon” ecosystems.  Although they are now recognized for their potential to address the key climate and environmental challenges of our time, they still need more attention not only from policymakers, but also through scientific research.  In recognition, the workshop organizers brought together over 50 government specialists and technicians from Mesoamerican countries to exchange and discuss options to support the inclusion of blue carbon in national climate change strategies, such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

   Curva de Yucalpeten. 70% of degraded mangrove area has been restored, bringing back flora and fauna. Yoly Gutierrez/CIFOR.

NATURAL SOLUTIONS

Blue carbon ecosystems offer multiple services, which include: enhancing productivity of fisheries; improving coastline stability; offering a barricade against erosion and increased sea level; protection against storms; water filtration and biodiversity conservation, but they can also contribute efficiently and effectively to the fight against climate change.

“From the mitigation viewpoint, blue carbon ecosystems are recognized for their high productivity rates and for their great capacity to store carbon in the soil, said Rosa Roman-Cuesta, a scientist with CIFOR.  “And from the adaptation viewpoint, they are fundamental for the supply of food and for coastal stability with respect to the rising sea level or the increase of tropical storms,” she added.

Despite these benefits, mangrove degradation is all too common the world over, making it crucial to redouble efforts aimed at preservation, sustainable management and restoration.

Yucatán’s mangroves, have disappeared mainly due to the development of urban, tourist and highway infrastructure.  Studies conducted in 2017 have determined that overall Mexico has lost more than 18,000 hectares of mangroves, compromising their social and ecological benefits.

   Ciénaga del Progreso, Yucatán, México. Claudia Teutli underscores the importance of an ecosystemic approach for the success of mangrove restoration. Yoly Gutierrez/CIFOR.
   Jorge Herrera explains mangrove restoration activities to journalists of Mesoamerica in Curva de Yucalpetén, 60 minutes drive from Mérida. Five of a total of seven degraded hectares are restored. Yoly Gutierrez/CIFOR.

FOUR KEYS TO SUCCESSFUL RESTORATION

Claudia Teutli, a postdoctoral researcher in the science department of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), has known ever since she was young that she wanted to remain close to the sea for the rest of her life, so after graduating as a marine biologist she focused her career and research on mangrove restoration.  With Herrera, she has published numerous scientific studies focused on blue carbon ecosystems and mangrove restoration.

Although the scientists warn that their findings may vary depending on environmental conditions and the initial state of each site slated for restoration, they offer four main best-practice lessons for mangrove recovery.

   Mangrove seedling, Ciénaga del Progreso, Yucatán. Yoly Gutiérrez/CIFOR.
   Adult mangroves, Celestún reserve, Yucatán. Yoly Gutiérrez/CIFOR.
  1. Think of mangroves, think of water

“One thing we must not forget when proposing to restore mangroves is that we have to consider two components: reforestation and hydrological conditions,” said Teutli, explaining that often those who implement mangrove restoration actions overlook the fact that these are wetlands.

Sometimes just a little help is enough she said, explaining that reintroducing water to recover the area’s  hydrological nature – for example, if a natural channel has been blocked by infrastructure – will favor the appearance of native fauna and vegetation due to natural regeneration.  She cited as examples such locations as Ciénaga del Progreso and Curva de Yucalpetén in Merida, where interventions have been successful.

While the first step to restore these sites was to bring back water, they also established a planting strategy that took into account a natural selection criteria by planting 10 — parts of the mangrove that work as seeds – each time, knowing at least one, as in nature, would survive.  It worked.

  1. Restoring isn’t (just) reforesting

“Many mangrove restoration projects use reforestation as a their main approach, in which the plant is started in nurseries, but this brings various challenges,” Teutli said. “For example, the species appropriate for the site isn’t necessarily the one planted but rather the one easiest to replant.”

Another challenge is that often mangrove saplings from nurseries don’t survive when replanted in selected restoration sites.  The reason, according to Herrera, can be explained using a parenting lesson: “Those seedlings are like pampered children who don’t know the world.  They are overprotected in nurseries, but when taken to natural areas, not all are prepared for the sun, salinity, etc., so they don’t survive, just as they would in nature through natural selection.”

  1. Eco-systemic approach or failure

An additional issue observed by researchers is that generally speaking many mangrove restoration projects don’t take into account eco-systemic considerations.  “Mangrove restoration hasn’t generally focused on an ecosystem perspective, but on a plantation approach without considering the many factors that regulate environmental conditions that influence the success of restoration in the long term,” Herrera said.

In his view, this is the possible reason why many mangrove restoration efforts all around the globe have failed.  An obvious but important conclusion from his experience in Yucatan in this regard is the need to concentrate on the health of the ecosystem itself. “If we firstly recover the ecosystem’s health or work to maintain its resilience, replanted mangroves will be able to survive rising sea levels, hurricanes and other events expected to be more frequent with climate change.”

For Herrera and Teutli, taking into account the factors that regulate environmental conditions such as species that facilitate survival of mangroves, salinity indicators and soil sediments changes are crucial to succeed in mangrove restoration.

“Let’s not forget that when we see a mangrove, we need to think of water, soil sediment and vegetation,” stresses Herrera. “Not just seedlings.”

  1. Note that not everyone can restore

Who does the restoration and how is an important factor, Teutli emphasizes.  “Some attempts fail because those trying to do the restoring aren’t restoration professionals.  Restoration requires ecological engineering and the consideration of many factors beyond just reforesting,” she added, urging a return to the basics of science.

“Paradoxically, with technology development and all, we are in an era in which required basic ecological information is no longer being generated,” she said.

She points out the need to look at basic, foundational, ecological formulas for restoration sites, from mangroves to land ecosystems.

“There are standard , but we need to plan restoration considering the specific ecology of the sites. General data is not always applicable to a specific ecosystem and this fact is often overlooked.”

   Mangroves are the first line of defense against storms, capture carbon, filter water and are home to numerous species of wildlife that in turn sustain local livelihoods. Yoly Gutierrez/CIFOR.

ONE STEP FURTHER

What’s next for Yucatán’s mangrove restoration?  I asked Teutli.

The first thing is to continue the restoration activities and the monitoring of progress in the sites where interventions have already taken place, Teutli responded. But it is also key to expand the restored areas by implementing new projects, which in turn, will bring benefits for both the global climate (carbon sequestration) and local economies (ecosystem services).  There is an estimated 5,000 hectares waiting to be restored in Yucatan’s peninsula.

In addition, research is needed to measure the social and economic implications of restored mangrove ecosystems, she said, but also there is need for more data about the physiology of replanted mangroves, their capacity to offset greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to climate change.

In the end, the return of the Yucatan mangroves with its related biodiversity and ecosystem services not only favors local livelihoods, but also offers Mexico a chance to meet its climate commitments, as  stated in its NDCs: “Increase carbon capture and strengthen coastal protection with the implementation of a scheme of conservation and recovery of coastal and marine ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass and dunes.”

   Cienaga del Progreso, 2009 Claudia Teutli.
   Ciénaga del Progreso, 2019. Claudia Teutli.

This article was produced as part of the SWAMP project and CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.

 

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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