When the smell of rotten eggs wafts from the mangrove swamps in southeastern Mexico, things are going well. This means that this key coastal habitat for hurricane mitigation has recovered and is absorbing carbon dioxide, a major component of global warming.
As world leaders seek ways to end the climate crisis at a United Nations conference in Scotland this month, one front to save the planet’s mangroves lies thousands of miles away in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Decades ago, these shores were mangrove, but today the sea has only thin green strips of trees interrupted by urbanized areas and reddish patches killed by too much salt and dead branches sticking out of the water.
Several dozen fishermen and villagers have made construction on what remains of the mangroves a part of their lives. Their work is supported by scientists and donations to environmental groups, and government funds help train villagers to organize their efforts.
They first came to the swamp for seasonal restoration work more than a decade ago with Jorge Alfredo Herrera, a researcher at the Center for Research and Advanced Study at the Mexican Polytechnic Institute in Yucatan. He told them that the mangroves needed a network of intertwined channels to mix fresh and salt water.
Digging them up was hard work and paid only $ 4 a day. Men from Chelem, the fishing village of Progreso, turned down the job, but a group of women took it up, believing they could do much with little money.
Recently, after a heavy rainy season, the women completed the second part of the restoration process: they planted young mangroves in a swamp near the port city. In the sun, they giggled as they remembered having run into a crocodile and barely had time to escape.
They then placed 20-inch mangrove seedlings in a pile of mud, held together by a net, forming tiny islets about a yard (meter) in size.
“The happiest day our plants grow,” said Keila Vasquez, 41, a leader of women who are now paid $ 15 a day and proud to contribute their grain of sand to the planet’s well-being. “They are like our children.”
GLOBAL THREAT TO MANGROVES
These mangrove restoration efforts are similar to others around the world as scientists and community groups become increasingly aware of the need to protect and restore forests to store carbon and protect coastlines from climatic extreme weather events, including stronger hurricanes and storm surges. Other restorations are underway in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest mangrove habitat, Colombia and elsewhere.
“Mangroves are a very important ecosystem in the fight against climate change,” said Octavio Aburto, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California.
While tropical trees only grow on less than 1% of the land, he says, “Mangroves are the ecosystem that sequesters the most carbon … per hectare … They can store about five times as much carbon in bottom sediments. than a rainforest. “
However, all over the world, mangroves are under threat.
Between 1980 and 2005, 20% to 35% of the world’s mangroves were lost, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
From 2000 to 2016, the loss rate declined as governments and environmental groups took notice of the problem, but destruction continued – and, according to NASA satellite imagery, about 2% of the world’s remaining mangrove forests disappeared.
In Mexico, as in many other countries in the world, the biggest threat to mangroves is development. In the area near Cancun since the 1980s, much of the historic mangroves have been lost to highways and hotels.
Patches of mangrove on the country’s southern Pacific coast have also been cleared to make way for shrimp farming, Aburto said, while oil exploration and drilling in shallow waters off the Gulf of Mexico threaten the mangroves.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Mexico began to protect some of its mangroves. And while Mexico took steps to develop an action plan to tackle climate change in 1998 and was one of the first developing countries to make voluntary commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, its commitment to the environment began to recede in 2015, said Julia Carabias. , professor at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Over the past six years, Mexico has cut resources for environmental protection by 60%, Carabias said.
And this, coupled with growing government support for fossil fuel energy and ongoing infrastructure and tourism projects in the region, is alarming.
Despite the country’s monitoring system, local researchers say that for every hectare (2.5 acres) of mangrove reclaimed in southeastern Mexico, 10 hectares have been degraded or lost.
EFFORTS TO RESCUE SWEETS
Mexico’s dwindling efforts to protect and restore mangroves, even though many are lost, reflect the situation elsewhere. In 2007, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agency estimated that 40% of Indonesia’s mangroves had been cleared for aquaculture and coastal development projects in the previous three decades.
But there were also restoration work.
In 2020, the Indonesian government set an ambitious goal of planting mangroves on 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of degrading coastline by 2024. Key ministries are involved in reconstruction efforts, including outreach and education.
However, there have been some setbacks. Accurate maps and data on mangroves 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. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down outreach and education.
In Mexico, there are successes, even if they appear slowly.
Manuel Gonzalez, a 57-year-old fisherman known as Beja, proudly displays the regenerating mangroves in the seaside village of Dzilam de Bravo, about 60 miles (97 km) east of Progreso. He walks through the mud, avoiding the intertwined roots of the mangrove tree, which burrow into it. Some trees are already 30 feet (9 meters) tall.
In 2002, Hurricane Isidoro devastated the area, but after ten years of operation, 297 acres of land were reclaimed. The fisherman says that now the storms do not hit the population so hard. And fish, migratory birds, deer, crocodiles and even jaguars are back.
But the mangroves are under new threat, as evidenced by the stumps scattered among the trees.
“In 10 years, you will have a very beautiful mangrove forest that can come and get a chainsaw,” Gonzalez said. “This is what hurts me a lot.”
Clearing mangroves has been considered a crime since 2005, but Gonzalez says the authorities are closing and fining projects, but later reopening them.
The Yucatan state government said it was aware of complaints about illegal logging, but the harvest has only grown.
While more funds are required to protect and restore, some communities are choosing to think about how to make conservation profitable.
Jose Ines Loria, head of operations for San Crisanto, an old salt-collecting settlement of about 500 people between Progreso and Dzilam, believes the way to make local mangroves part of the “community business model” is through the use of new financial instruments such as like blue carbon. loans.
Already in use in Colombia and elsewhere, these tools enable polluting businesses to offset emissions by paying others to store or capture greenhouse gases.
Some in Mexico say that credit is still poorly regulated in the country and can lead to fraud and fraud. But Loria protects them. “If conservation doesn’t mean improving the community’s quality of life, it won’t work.”