Celebrating mangroves, guardians of our tropical forests
Happy International Mangrove Day! Mangroves ecosystems are incredibly impactful on our global climate, especially now that the need for carbon sequestration and erosion prevention is higher than ever. Read on to learn more about these incredible organisms!
Anne Birch, The Nature Conservancy Florida’s Marine Conservation Manager said it best. “Mangroves are magical forests where we discover nature’s secrets. They straddle the connection between land and sea and nature and humans. Mangrove forests nurture our estuaries and fuel our nature-based economies.” She’s absolutely right– the estimated 54-75 species of mangroves on Earth are vital for healthy ecosystems and human health and safety. During extreme weather events, which have become increasingly common due to our changing climate, mangroves also provide natural infrastructure and protection to nearby populated areas by preventing soil erosion and absorbing storm surge.
Mangroves are woody plants and shrubs (including trees, palms, and ground ferns) growing in intertidal regions on the foreshores of coastal lakes and estuaries of tidal creek systems. They occur throughout the tropics, from 30° north to 30° south of the equator, as they require temperatures consistently greater than 24° Celsius. Asia has the largest area cover of mangroves– and the most biodiverse array thereof, followed by Africa and South America respectively. Across the globe, these vulnerable ecosystems occupy 18.1 million hectares of land, which accounts for not even 1% of the total forest cover of the world.
Mangroves are known for their high potential for carbon sequestration. Because the soil they take root in is typically “waterlogged” and low in oxygen, they have developed efficient systems for survival in coastal environments. Red mangroves have lenticels, which are propped above the water and absorb oxygen through the tree’s bark, while black mangroves use pneumatophores for the same purpose; these can be thought of as “breathing roots.” These dense prop root systems allow mangroves to handle the daily rise and swamp of tides without damage to the tree itself. Mangroves are so effective at slowing the flow of water onto the coast that sediments from the water build up on the shore during low tide, creating a soft, muddy backdrop for the trees to grow. Few other plants would thrive in such an environment.
Mangroves’ reproductive systems are also expertly adapted to their unique environment. Mangroves are viviparous, meaning that their embryos can break out of their seed coats independently of the parent plant. These seeds are extremely buoyant, meaning that they can stay afloat amid rough currents until they can find an ideal location to essentially plant themselves. Without human interference, mangroves are incredibly resilient, self-sustaining species.
Mangroves provide high quality tangible and intangible ecosystem goods and services. These fragile ecosystems act as a buffer zone between land and sea, reducing catastrophic damage from environmental events. They absorb pollution from the air and water, conserving both of these vital resources to the benefit of the entire planet. In addition to curbing natural calamities like tsunamis, the magnificent mangroves act as a powerhouse in belowground carbon sequestration and retention. Compared to terrestrial trees, mangroves boast a much higher ratio of carbon stored above the ground to underground carbon stores. In fact, research has shown that mangroves can sequester up to four times more carbon than our rainforests!
Detritus is essentially the waste product of any natural ecosystem and mangrove ecosystems are no exception. However, nature can make use of its organic waste! Mangrove detritus is composed of fallen mangrove leaves and branches, as well as biological waste from local animals. Detritus forms the base of the ecosystem’s food chain. It attracts decomposers such as mud lobsters, which in turn attract larger predators, forming a complex intertidal food chain. Mangrove ecosystems are also home to countless endangered plant and animal species; marine animals include sharks, manatees, and fish, while reptiles such as turtles and crocodiles and mammals like monkeys, sloths, and tigers roam the land.
According to the Mangrove Action Project, a fellow Supporting Partner of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, mangrove trees are being cut down at “alarming rates”, yet there is less public concern surrounding these ecosystems when compared to terrestrial rainforests. Mangroves are typically lost to coastal development, deforestation for the extraction or minerals or production of consumer goods, and aquaculture. This is an unsustainable pattern that will trigger an increase of atmospheric carbon and widespread habitat loss, if it is allowed to continue on its current trajectory.
Saving the planet’s mangroves will require an all-hands-on-deck approach. In order to inspire behavioral changes among the public, governments, policymakers, and community-based organizations must ensure that the plight of the mangroves is well understood. Public policies should aim to educate locals on the benefits of healthy mangrove ecosystems, while also protecting these fragile habitats from further human exploitation. These policies should be informed by all community stakeholders, especially the indigenous stewards of these lands.
The Global Mangrove Alliance is a commitment coordinated by two dozen world renowned conservation organizations to reverse the loss of critically important mangrove habitat worldwide by aiming to expand and rejuvenate the status of the critically important mangroves by 20% until 2030. The alliance supports initiatives focused on the wide array of challenges facing mangrove ecosystems, from land use planning and policy to climate adaptation and preservation of local livelihoods.
The Global Mangrove Alliance is an example of multiple stakeholders coming together to defend mangroves in a way that works for everyone. In order for such projects to be successful, voices from every community need to be amplified. Governments at every scale must be willing and able to collaborate with their citizens, NGOs, the private sector, and, of course, each other. The current threats to our physical environment affect everyone who lives on this planet, and therefore we all have a role to play in its preservation.
The Treetracker platform is a great resource for mangrove restoration practitioners! Our mobile Treetracker app and Web Map allows planting organizations anywhere in the world to take an inventory of the mangroves they plant and care for. We partner with community-based organizations that engage local communities to steward their lands, acting as a third-party facilitator for the fair monetary compensation of those stewards. We also verify the reforestation data provided by each organization so that they can transparently show their environmental and social impact to potential funders.
Greenstand currently has 4 planting partners who are restoring coastal mangroves: Ecosystems East Africa Ltd. out of Tanzania, Ceriops from Kenya, the #FreetownTheTreeTown initiative by the city council of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and our newest partners, Women Against Poverty, also based in Tanzania. Women Against Poverty is not typically a tree planting organization; their work is focused on improving the socioeconomic status of women and girls, but none of that would be possible if vulnerable ecosystems like mangroves are not protected. Using the Treetracker provides members of Women Against Poverty with monetary incentive to be stewards of their environment at such a significant moment in the fight against climate change.
Between the climate crisis, extreme poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging communities across the world, we need nature-based solutions that promote sustainable development for everyone. The Greenstand system provides rural people with monetary incentive to restore their own environment, and is the perfect service to make your tree planting project more accountable. If you are interested in partnering with us, please fill out our Treetracker project survey and a Greenstander will be in touch when onboarding resumes this fall.
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