Q+A: Raising the value of a mangrove forest in Colombia

Conservation International develops blue carbon accreditation system
Men in boats cast fishing nets over the water
Cispata Bay mangroves from the Vida Manglar project in Colombia. Credit: ©Daniel Uribe/Conservation International

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Earlier this month, a mangrove forest in Cispatá on the northern edge of Colombia’s Caribbean coast became part of a landmark initiative that is redefining the way the financial net worth of stored carbon is evaluated and measured.

Under a unique carbon accreditation system designed by partners and executed by Verra, a leading global carbon crediting organization, Conservation International and local partners are generating “blue carbon” credits that account for the full value of mangroves as a nature-based climate mitigation tool.

The approach differs from others because — in addition to measuring carbon stores in the mangrove trees alone — it assigns value to the carbon they store in the soil below, according to Jen Howard, who supported the Cispatá project for Conservation International.

Mangroves, which protect shorelines against erosion caused by ocean tides and rising sea levels, have long been considered significant blue carbon sinks, storing up to 10 times more carbon than terrestrial forests.

Despite this, they have been underrepresented and undervalued in voluntary carbon markets, said Howard, in an interview with Forests News.

“We realized that the methods that currently existed were not sufficient to fully account accurately for the carbon value of coastal systems or to take into account some of the unique stressors and risks that those ecosystems face,” she said. “So, working with partners, a methodology to address those issues was developed  so that we would have access to the carbon market for the full value of these ecosystems.”

The project, financed by Apple Inc. was developed under the Verified Carbon Standard and now issues Verified Carbon Units that will bring new financing to the people living in the 11,000-hectare mangrove forest. It is also designed to protect sea mammals.

The project will be expanded to include other mangroves in the Gulf of Morrosquillo, where Cispatá is located, and discussions are also underway to replicate the project in other mangroves in Colombia, she said.

Q: What kind of activities are disturbing the carbon?

A: Cattle ranching was one of the main threats to the Cispatá mangrove ecosystem. During the dry season, local cattle ranchers would move their fences into the mangroves, cutting the trees down in the process. At Conservation International, we work with local communities to negotiate, providing services if they agree not to encroach anymore. It’s a mutually agreed-upon negotiation. Everybody feels like they’re being heard. They’re getting what they actually need, not what we think they need. Both the community and Conservation International are held accountable – it’s a two-way agreement. We’re using that model to persuade cattle ranchers to stop encroaching on the mangroves. In response, we’re providing livelihood improvements. On the restoration side, we have partners that go in and clear channels so the tidal flow of saltwater and freshwater remains stable, allowing the mangroves to flourish. Formerly, they were becoming overgrown and filled with sediment. Some were cut off from tidal flow and then dying. In the middle of mangrove patches, vegetation was dead due to the alteration in  hydrology — so that was being restored.

Q: How does the carbon credits system work?

A: Within a project, activities reduce ecosystem loss and degradation and include some restoration. We use very robust scientific methods to measure the carbon benefits of those activities, then get a third party to validate our findings. The validator confirms the activities, the carbon content of the area, and the estimated climate mitigation benefit . Once the validation is done and Verra approves the project, credits are issued. In our case, the project is selling verified credits on the voluntary market. We’re working with various companies that meet our standards and criteria around their own climate mitigation goals that are interested in purchasing blue carbon credits to offset emissions that they cannot mitigate on their own. To purchase these credits at a premium price, the project will also conduct a three-phased auction beginning June 8th. It’s an invite-only auction where companies that have met certain criteria as far as their own internal efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and their social responsibility profiles meet our criteria, will then get to bid on packages of credits. Once the credits are sold, that finance will be transferred to a centralized fund controlled by the local management team.

Q: How do you ensure compliance over time?

A: Local government representatives, the research institute that does the actual science (Invemar), non-governmental organizations engaged in the biodiversity monitoring and community outreach (Omacha Foundation), as well as community representatives manage the fund into which all the blue carbon money is channelled. And it is complemented by the mangrove management plan on how to implement all the activities and monitoring to ensure that the conservation and restoration activities are sustained. Within that plan, the management team will prioritize funding toward specific agreed upon activities that conserve and restore the mangrove area.

Q: How easy is it to restore mangroves in comparison to other ecosystems?

A: I’d say that they’re different in the sense that historically, when terrestrial forests were going to be restored, you plant a bunch of trees. However, I hope that’s now shifting to more of an assisted natural regeneration model. In coastal ecosystems with mangroves, the real key is the hydrology and addressing the threat. Mangroves are pretty prolific; they’ll come back on their own if the conditions are right. The mistake has been historically in mangrove areas to go in and plant – taking that terrestrial approach – but if you’re not putting them in the right places and using the right species it’s not going to work and that’s how a lot of these restoration projects fail. It’s not because it’s harder to do, it’s because they were applying the wrong practice. If you restore [disrupted] hydrology, mangroves should come back pretty much on their own, which makes it, in that sense, easy to restore. Then you’re really just looking at the benefit of doing supplemental planting.

Q: What are some of the benefits for the local community?

What we call blue carbon isn’t just mangroves, it’s salt marsh and seagrass as well. Within all of those ecosystems, there’s the climate mitigation benefit, but there’s also a lot of climate adaptation benefit — coastal protection from storms and erosion, flood protection from extreme weather events, increased access to food security through fisheries improvement. Additionally, coastal ecosystems provide respectable work — and for a lot of mangrove areas in particular, women are actually the ones that are in the mangroves, taking care of them, monitoring them, collecting shellfish to feed their families and sell to local markets.

Q: What was the role of the local partners?

One of the real successes is how we’ve brought all of the various stakeholder groups together. The local government that manages that area was very engaged right from the beginning and was a great partner. That area had been monitored for many, many years, which gave us a good basis of data to build upon. Those partners will continue to engage as we move forward. We also worked with a lot of local community leaders. From this process, which included local community groups, we had a really strong buy-in from key players from the very beginning. I think that was incredibly valuable and something we will definitely replicate in all of our projects moving forward.

Q: How did Apple get involved?

A: Conservation International has been a leader in the blue carbon space for about a decade now — pioneering thought leadership around how to utilize the climate benefit of these ecosystems to promote their conservation and restoration. We needed good partners who were interested in pushing the envelope and helping the field of blue carbon grow and that’s where Apple came in. As a tech company and an innovator, globally, they were very interested in this new asset class, and how to really grow that program. Their main interest was to push the field of blue carbon to where it needed to be – and they looked to us to help with that. It is a really great partnership – it really just all came together and we’re seeing the fruits of all that labor now.

In addition to Apple the project would not have been possible without the support of the Colombian government and local partners including INVEMAR, Omacha Foundation, Carsucre, Southpole, AENOR and Allcot. The local collaboration has been key to the success and will remain an integral part of the effort as we hope to scale the model into other areas.

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