My first introduction to mangroves occurred in Vietnam in 2007, when my mother and I toured the Mekong river. In 2009, I volunteered for an organization in Honduras and was once again struck by the beauty of the mangrove ecosystems. Little did I know that I would be working in the Honduran mangroves three years later.
Mangroves are fascinating tree species that provide numerous ecosystem services. Mangroves grow in coastal saline or brackish water in tropical or subtropical regions. They tolerate salt since they are capable of excluding or expelling salt, and they improve water quality by filtering out sediment, excess nutrients and heavy metal ions. They help reduce erosion and protect against extreme weather events and waves. They also store a huge amount of carbon. Mangroves form the basis of the inshore food-web, as they provide food in the form of leaf debris, algae and bacteria which feeds nearby marine creatures, as well as habitats or a variety of other species, including birds, fishes and crabs. They also provide a home to endangered species like the Bengal tiger and proboscis monkey. They serve as important nurseries and feeding grounds for marine life and vital resting sites for millions of migratory birds. In addition, considering the beauty of mangrove ecosystems, they also help the local economy by being ecotourism destinations.
As I coordinated a community resilience and mangrove restoration program in Honduras for Falls Brook Centre, we were confronted with environmental difficulties at one of our project sites that went beyond my knowledge and expertise. Our partner organization, Cuerpos de Conservacion Omoa (CCO), and its director, Roger Flores, coordinated the project in the area of Barra Cuyamel and Motagua, located at the border with Guatemala. CCO oversees the National Park Cuyamel-Omoa and Ramsar Site 2133. They were seeing multiple challenges: sea level rise, garbage accumulating from the sea, agrochemical contamination, mangrove loss and unsuccessful mangrove restoration.
Looking for mangrove expertise, I made contact with Alfredo Quarto, Co-Executive Director of the Mangrove Action Project, in 2014. The Mangrove Action Project (MAP) aims to, among other things, implement a successful method of mangrove restoration. Mangrove restoration worldwide is often made with the same mindset as regular reforestation or tree planting: planting seedlings in line, often of a single species, regardless of site conditions. However, considering the complexity of mangrove ecosystems, mangrove restoration is not that easy, as we were experiencing in Barra Cuyamel and Motagua.
MAP’s methodology, Community-Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration (CBEMR), was developed by Robin Lewis and uses hydrological restoration to facilitate the natural regeneration of mangroves. MAP’s method is successful because it looks at every aspect of a proposed restoration site – its ecology (hydrology, local species, topography) as well as cultural, political and social issues – and is always done with the involvement of the local community. Only by allowing the local community to take stewardship of their coastal environment can mangrove restoration be successful and sustainable.
Barra Cuyamel and Motagua was our most difficult project site. The sea was rising at a staggering rate at about 12 m per year. (People who lived several kilometres away from the sea now get flooded multiple times a year and many houses are uninhabitable). To this day, these communities have to be relocated. What we learned from MAP was that our mangrove restoration work was less successful than at other sites because the sites chosen were not appropriate. The environmental stressors (too much salt water in some sites, stagnant water in others, too much wave energy, garbage) were too prominent for mangroves to thrive.
In October 2014, Dominic Wodehouse, the lead CBEMR trainer, and Alfredo Quarto suggested a different restoration site in Laguna de Chachahuala. This site was previously filled with mangroves, but had been encroached by fishermen. Being in the lagoon, it was protected from the sea; thus it had fewer environmental stressors.
THE SITE BEFORE THE RESTORATION (October 2014):
After choosing the proper site, we followed MAP’s Community-Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration methodology. First, we studied the 400 m2 site: looked at species present and saw that some natural regeneration was already taking place – which is very promising. We spoke to the neighbours and the Navy team who was in charge of surveying the lagoon. Then, we analyzed the site’s hydrology and topography. Finally, we dug a small channel to assist nature and promote natural regeneration. Since CCO had a tree nursery, we chose to plant a few mangroves and let nature fill in the rest of the gaps.
RESTORATION WORK IN ACTION:
The results were great. Mangroves began to thrive and regenerate naturally. Black and white mangroves predominated. Two and a half years later, mangroves are approximately 4 m high! The ecosystem is healthier. Crabs, birds and fishes are observed in the site.
MANGROVES 2.5 YEARS AFTER RESTORATION WORK (MAY 2017):
Of course, there have been a few challenges. An individual wanted to take over the site and plant coconut trees. Thankfully, the local environmental organization, Unidad Ambiental de Omoa (UMA), and the Navy quickly stopped the invasion. In addition, garbage accumulation remains a problem, even more so when it is high tide and during tropical storms.
The site was declared an ‘important site for wildlife’ in October 2015 by the Honduran government forestry department, Instituto de Conservacion Forestal (ICF): it is part of the PAMUCH Fishing Restoration Area. This declaration helps promote mangrove protection and restoration.
In conclusion, a lot of people and organizations participated to create this successful mangrove restoration story: Falls Brook Centre, Cuerpos de Conservacion Omoa, Mangrove Action Project and the Community-Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration methodology, the Honduran Navy, as well Unidad Ambiental de Omoa and Instituto de Conservacion Forestal. When forces unite, great things happen!