BEST OF 2012: Mangrove conservation grapples against development

Local fishermen will be trained in aquatic resource management, but is conservation what the community needs?

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LANG CO, Vietnam (14 May, 2012)_Nestled on a narrow strand of sand that encloses Lap An Lagoon on the central coast of Vietnam are the village’s last few remaining hectares of mangroves, hovering above the water upon their stilted roots.

Some of the mangroves’ torpedo-shaped seeds have poked into the ground and spawned fragile little seedlings, but a visiting entourage obliviously stepped on the emerging offspring as they tramped out to the coast to photograph the delicate remainder of this once robust ecosystem.

According to the Vietnamese NGO, Center for Community Research and Development (CCRD), Lang Co had a thriving 100 hectares of mangroves two decades ago, but today there are only five hectares of poor quality mangrove, and those are now at risk of being turned into a golf course.

Mangroves, which hold three to four times more carbon than other forests, are indispensable repositories for carbon storage and play a key role in the struggle to rein in greenhouse gases and climate change. However, these vital coastal ecosystems are up against the more powerful forces of population growth, development and the growth of shrimp farms, and are being razed at such an alarming rate that scientists fear they could vanish in a century.

“In past 50 years, it has been deforested almost 50 percent. Almost 1.2 billion (tons of carbon are) emitted annually from mangroves,” CIFOR scientist Daniel Murdiyarso recently told a group of Vietnamese journalists during a workshop in Da Nang.

Mangroves grow along the coasts of 118 countries, and a quarter of the world’s 40 million hectares are in Southeast Asia. When they are thriving and healthy, their trunks and roots form a gigantic barrier against the sea, controlling erosion, protecting communities from storms, and providing an ideal environment for greater fish diversity.

CIFOR research published last year found that mangrove forests contain an average of 1,000 tons of carbon per hectare, compared with 300 tons per hectare of tropical forest, which could help to fight climate change by keeping carbon locked away on land, and out of the atmosphere.

The scientists found that 49 to 98 percent of the carbon in mangrove forests is stored below ground in rich, tidally submerged soil in which organic material decomposes anaerobically and therefore more slowly in the absence of oxygen.

Murdiyarso and other scientists from CIFOR and the US Forest Service, who for last year’s study laboriously trekked through mangroves in Micronesia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, are now helping to develop Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines on the storage of greenhouse gases in wetlands – a crucial development since these ecosystems have not previously been given much attention in international climate change processes.

Furthermore, they are cooperating with partners – in Vietnam, India, Gabon, Mozambique, Mexico, Costa Rica and Ecuador – to measure the carbon stock in wetlands around the world.

Yet up against development and dollars, mangroves stand little chance of survival without greater awareness and protection. In Vietnam, laws to protect the forests and mangroves exist, but enforcement is lax, if not non-existent.

“My interpretation is that it’s illegal but everything is negotiable in Vietnam and since there is no consequence for breaking the law (at least in the environmental domain), mangroves get cut.  Anyway, since there are so many conflicting laws, you can probably legalize what you’ve done by reference to a previous law,” said Jake Brunner, programme coordinator for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Vietnam.

Shrimp farming is a principal culprit behind mangrove deforestation. A 2011 analysis of images of Vietnam’s southern Mekong delta – an area that is typically mangroves – found that from 1973 to 2008, more than half of the mangroves were converted into shrimp farms, triggering serious erosion.

Nonetheless, communities and governments take little notice of mangroves’ protective properties until catastrophes strike – such as the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed some 180,000 people in western Indonesia’s Aceh province.

“In Aceh, after the tsunami, the result wouldn’t have been like this, if we still had mangroves,” Murdiyarso said.

Indonesia is now acutely conscious of disaster management and risk reduction, but in most countries – and most of the time – climate change impacts are incremental and unlikely to spur action.

“People become aware when the danger is huge, but what if the danger is small? We do not expect climate change to be just like that,” Murdiyarso said, snapping his fingers. “A cyclone or a hurricane is an extreme event, unusual from normal life, but not very frequent. Climate change is steadily occurring, and that is why we tend to forget the danger. Changing habits – changing the paradigm – is very difficult, especially if you have to deal with entities like government institutions.”

Mangroves for the Future (MFF), an initiative set up after the 2004 tsunami and co-chaired by IUCN and the UN Development Programme, offers grants to communities like Lang Co to protect their mangroves. Since 2008, MFF has implemented about 90 projects in its eight member countries across South and Southeast Asia. Lang Co’s US$29,000 project includes $23,000 from MFF and $6,000 from the grantee organisation, CCRD.

Under the MFF project, the Lang Co fishing association will take care of the mangroves. Local fishermen will be trained in mangrove and aquatic resource management and protection, but some do not seem convinced that conservation is what the community needs.

“If local authorities develop a golf course, it will not affect my life. Even if the mangroves are cleared, it won’t have much effect,” said Le Duy Hung, the 49-year-old chairman of the Loc Hai commune youth corps.

Mai Truc Lam, a 69-year-old fisherman, felt the golf course could even benefit the community: “If tourists come, then we can make a living.”

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