Restoring Mexico’s mangroves can protect shorelines and store carbon

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PROGRESO, Mexico (AP) – When the smell of rotten eggs rises from the mangroves of southeastern Mexico, something goes right. This means that this key coastal habitat for mitigating the impacts of hurricanes has recovered and is capturing carbon dioxide – the main ingredient in global warming.

As world leaders seek ways to end the climate crisis at a United Nations conference in Scotland this month, one front in the battle to save the planet’s mangroves lies in the thousands. kilometers (kilometers) from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Decades ago, mangroves lined these shores, but today there are only thin green bands of trees by the sea, interrupted by urbanized areas and reddish segments killed by too much salt. and by dead branches coming out of the water.

A few dozen fishermen and villagers have made building what is left of the mangrove part of their lives. Their work is supported by academics and donations to environmental groups, and government funds help train villagers to organize their efforts.

The first time they came to the swamp for seasonal restoration work was over ten years ago with Jorge Alfredo Herrera, a researcher at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at the Mexican Polytechnic Institute of Yucatan. He told them that the mangroves needed a network of intertwined canals where fresh and salt water would mingle.

Digging them was hard work and only paid $ 4 a day. Men from Chelem, a fishing village in Progreso, refused the job, but a group of women accepted it, believing they could accomplish a lot with little money.

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Recently, after an intense rainy season, the women worked to complete the second part of the restoration process: planting young mangroves in a swamp near this port city. Under the sun, they chuckled, remembering the time they encountered a crocodile and barely managed to escape.

Then, they placed 20-inch mangrove plants in mounds of mud held together by mesh, creating tiny islands of about a square meter.

“The happiest day is when our plants take flight,” said Keila Vázquez, 41, chief of the women who are now paid $ 15 a day and are proud to put their “grain of sand” in the kitchen. well-being of the planet. “They are like our children.

GLOBAL THREAT TO MANGROVES

This mangrove restoration effort is similar to others around the world, as scientists and community groups increasingly recognize the need to protect and restore forests to store carbon and protect coasts from associated extreme weather conditions. climate, including more intense hurricanes and storm surges. Further restorations are underway in Indonesia, which contains the largest expanses of mangrove habitat in the world, in Colombia and elsewhere.

“Mangroves are a very important ecosystem for combating climate change,” said Octavio Aburto, marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California.

While tropical trees only grow on less than 1% of the Earth’s land, he said, “on a per hectare basis, mangroves are the ecosystem that sequesters the most carbon… They can bury approximately five times more carbon in sediments. than a tropical rain forest.

Yet all over the world, mangroves are under threat.

From 1980 to 2005, 20 to 35% of the world’s mangrove forests were lost, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

From 2000 to 2016, the rate of loss declined as governments and environmental groups shed light on the problem, but destruction continued – and about 2% of the world’s remaining mangrove forests disappeared, according to The NASA Satellite imagery.

In Mexico, as in much of the world, the biggest threat to mangroves is development. The area near Cancun lost most of its historic mangroves to highways and hotels from the 1980s.

Swathes of mangroves on the country’s south Pacific coast have also been cleared to make way for shrimp farming, while oil exploration and drilling in the shallow waters off the Gulf of Mexico threaten mangroves there. -low, said Aburto.

Mexico only started protecting some of its mangroves after excessive tourism development in the 1980s. And although Mexico took steps to establish a climate action plan in 1998 and was one of the first developing country to make voluntary commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, its commitment to the environment began to wane in 2015, said Julia Carabias, professor on the faculty of science at the National University Autonomous Region of Mexico.

Over the past six years, Mexico has cut resources devoted to environmental conservation by 60%, according to Carabias.

And that, combined with growing government support for fossil fuels and ongoing infrastructure and tourism projects in the region, sounds the alarm bells.

Despite the country’s monitoring system, local researchers say for every hectare (2.5 acres) of mangrove forest restored in southeastern Mexico, 10 hectares are degraded or lost.

EFFORTS TO SAVE THE MARSHES

The halt in efforts in Mexico to protect and restore mangroves, even as others are lost, reflects situations elsewhere. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Agency estimated in 2007 that 40% of Indonesia’s mangroves had been felled for aquaculture and coastal development projects in the previous three decades.

But there have also been restoration efforts.

In 2020, the Indonesian government has set an ambitious goal of planting mangroves on 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of degraded coastline by 2024. Key ministries are involved in restoration efforts which include community awareness and education.

Yet there have been setbacks. Accurate mangrove mapping and data are difficult to obtain, making it difficult for agencies to know where to focus. The newly planted mangroves were swept out to sea by strong tides and waves. Community awareness and education has been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Mexico, successes exist, even if they are slow to come.

Manuel González, a 57-year-old fisherman known as Bechá, proudly shows off the recovery of mangroves in the seaside community of Dzilam de Bravo, about 97 kilometers east of Progreso. He walks in the mud, avoiding the intertwined mangrove roots that burrow into it. Some trees are already 9 meters high.

In 2002, Hurricane Isidoro devastated this region, but after a decade of work, 120 hectares (297 acres) have been restored. The fisherman says that now the storms are not hitting the community as hard. And fish, migrating birds, deer, crocodiles and even jaguars are back.

But mangroves face a new risk, as evidenced by the stumps scattered among the trees.

“In 10 years you have a really nice mangrove forest for someone with a chainsaw to come and take,” González said. “This is something that really hurts me.”

Cutting mangroves has been a crime since 2005, but González says authorities closed and amended the projects, only to reopen them later.

The Yucatan state government said it was aware of complaints about illegal logging, but the harvest has only grown.

While more funds are needed for protection and restoration, some communities prefer to think about how to make conservation profitable.

José Inés Loría, head of operations in San Crisanto, a former salt harvesting community of around 500 people between Progreso and Dzilam, believes the way to integrate the local mangrove “into the community’s business model” is to use new financial tools such as blue carbon credits.

These instruments, already used in Colombia and other countries, allow polluting companies to offset their emissions by paying others to store or sequester greenhouse gases.

Some in Mexico say that credits are still not well regulated in the country and could invite fraud and scams. But Loria defends them. “If conservation doesn’t mean improving a community’s quality of life, it doesn’t work.

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Larson reported from Washington, DC; Milko reported from Jakarta.

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On Twitter, follow Maria Verza: @verzamex; Christine Larson: @larsonchristina, and Victoria Milko: @thevmilko

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.



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