Let’s start from the beginning. What exactly are mangroves? No, they’ve got nothing to do with a man’s facial hair. :P
Mangroves are extraordinary ecosystems, located at the interface of land and sea in tropical wetland regions of some estuaries and marine shorelines. The vegetation that grows in these ecosystems are adapted to tolerate high levels of salt, low oxygen levels and harsh coastal conditions. Since they spend a lot of time partially inundated in seawater, they have evolved root-like structures which protrude above the soil to absorb oxygen directly from the air, much like breathing through a snorkel.
Mangroves: swampy forests inhabited by reptiles of every shape and size and the famous Bengal tigers, don’t garner as much attention and appeal that coral reefs and rainforests enjoy; despite being a beautiful union of the two, in a way. Mangroves, are not only preferred habitat for several species but also act as natural defenses against storm surges, cyclonic events and tsunamis. They’ve recently started gaining some traction in environmental conversations, but there’s so much more to these unique ecosystems than just being coastal barricades.
Good guy: Mangroves
In addition to these unique traits, mangroves also play a major role in the overall wellbeing of their surrounding ecosystems and the communities.
These wetland forests offer quite a rich biodiversity supporting complex communities, where thousands of species thrive and interact. They provide a valuable nursery habitat for fishes and crustaceans (crabs, prawns and shrimps); a food source for monkeys, deer, birds; and an essential source of livelihood for thousands of coastal communities.
Coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef is something everyone has probably read or heard about and scientists predict that it will likely worsen due to the effects of climate change. The health of a coral reef is an indicator to the overall health of the ocean. But mangroves, the friendly neighbourhood superheroes that they are, provide a safe shelter for young corals and reef fishes, thus protecting them from bleaching. Studies show that there around 25 times more species of fishes in coral reefs close to mangrove areas, than in areas where mangroves have been cut down.
The dense root systems of mangroves help in stabilising and shaping the coastline by preventing soil erosion and they also act as a wall against hurricanes and cyclones, preventing severe coastal damage.
In addition to being a bio-shield for the coastal biodiversity and communities, mangrove ecosystems are also effective carbon sinks. They help the environment by using vast amounts of global warming causing carbon dioxide and storing them within the soil, leaves, branches, and roots. One hectare of mangrove can store 3,754 tons of carbon which is equivalent to 2,650 cars being taken off the road in one year.
Mangroves and Mankind…
Although they are found in more than 120 coastal countries mangrove forests are globally rare, representing less than 1% of all tropical forests worldwide, and less than 0.4% of the total global forest coverage. India has around 4921 km2 mangrove cover which accounts for 3.3% of the global mangrove cover. Sundarbans (from West Bengal up to Bangladesh), Bhitarkanika (Odisha), Pichavaram (Tamil Nadu), Godavari-Krishna delta (Andhra Pradesh), and Bartang Island (Andaman and Nicobar Islands), are just some of the better known mangrove forests of India.
But just like all heroes have their nemesis, mangroves aren’t completely immune to human atrocities either. The world has lost more than 35% of its mangrove forests because of direct or indirect human intervention. This is as high as 50% in countries like India, Philippines, and Vietnam, while in the Americas they are being cleared at a rate faster than the tropical rainforests!
Given their marshy surroundings, mangroves are often cleared out to make more room for agriculture, human settlements and coastal infrastructure;
Mangrove-based resources like timber, and fishes and crustaceans are subjected to overharvesting and unsustainable practices to feed a growing human population and demand;
Toxic chemicals waste, oil spills, and marine plastic waste smother these forests;
Diversion of rivers for freshwater can lead to altering salinity levels, increasing erosion, and eventual drying out of mangroves ecosystems;
Mangrove forests require stable sea levels for long-term survival, which makes them extremely sensitive to current rising sea levels and increasing ocean temperatures caused by climate change and global warming.
Human Lives Depend on Environmental Rights
In light of their significance and their dwindling numbers due to human influence and activities, UNESCO has declared 26 July annually as the International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem for raising awareness of the importance of mangrove ecosystems and promoting their conservation.
For a very long-time nature conservation has only focussed on the ecological and other biophysical conditions necessary for protecting and rehabilitating an ecosystem. What the narrative has lacked is a more robust understanding of the social aspects of conservation, such as land governance, resource rights arrangements, rights of indigenous communities, and women’s rights in decision-making, among others. Strengthening local governance systems is essential for the success of mangrove restoration and rehabilitation projects. Local communities, given their dependence on these ecosystems, are the first ones to bear the brunt of the negative effects of mangrove degradation.
Likewise, they are the direct beneficiaries of the restoration projects. Experience from terrestrial forest conservation measures show that when communities are empowered and granted legitimate rights and authority to manage their own forests, the community, the government, and the forest ecology all thrive.
Several countries including India, have decent legislations for the conservation and management of mangroves, but implementation and adaptation is proceeding at a snail’s pace when it comes to giving due consideration to the local communities and their rights, adopting indigenous knowledge for conservation, and participatory governance systems.
‘Conservation’ needs to be Conversation of the Hour
In the meantime, what we can do is encourage sustainable fisheries, eco-tourism and coastal cleanliness drives; raise awareness about the significance of mangrove conservation; and urge authorities to consider inclusivity in their approach to coming up with solutions. Here’s an inspiring story of a local bird guide turned mangrove saviour from Goa who is utilising his knowledge of the local biodiversity to protect mangroves and raise awareness about their conservation.
Mangroves play a key role in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change in addition to doing so much more already. It’s therefore imperative to protect and strengthen them through a good balance of scientific know-how, socially inclusive governance institutions and by just showing these swampy treasures some love!