Restoring mangrove forests is a priority for local communities living along the Kenyan coast. Extensive logging of the trees in the past three or so decades has been a major contributor to the current situation in which a healthy mangrove ecosystem in Kenya is in danger. This is precisely why local communities are tapping into the potential mangroves have to offer for development without compromising coastal ecosystems.
By May Livere
Introduction: Mangrove Restoration in Kenya
Mangroves make up less than 0.4% of the world’s forest, but they are disappearing faster than forests as a whole. In Kenya, over 70% cover loss (since 1985) has been recorded in peri-urban areas like Mombasa, and this has mainly been due to over-harvesting. For the longest time, mangrove resources have been used primarily for wood harvesting, barely taking into account the important role they play in biodiversity and shoreline protection.
The threats to mangroves in Kenya are many, and most of them human-induced. For example over-harvesting of wood for timber production – mangrove is a cheap, strong and durable building material. It also makes for high quality charcoal and good firewood because it smolders well. This over-exploitation risks some mangrove species becoming extinct. Urban areas such as Tudor Creek in Mombasa have lost nearly 80% of the vegetation cover through harvesting of fuel wood. Additional threats include conversion of mangrove areas to other land uses, pollution, rising infrastructure and development leading to human encroachment and increasing demand for mangrove resources.
The Kenya National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Plan (2017 – 2027) gives three root causes of mangrove exploitation, namely: poverty and economic development, ignorance and weak governance. These have in large part contributed to the present deforestation and degradation of mangrove forests.
Continued deforestation of mangrove areas disturbs habitats and damages biodiversity, a key effect of this being the decline in fishery yields. For coastal communities fishing is a main source of income; a dwindling fish population means little to no income for many households. This makes it urgent to balance the food chain, and mangrove restoration is a necessary first step in the process.
Recent times too, have seen information become increasingly accessible, raising awareness on the need for local communities to sustain their mangrove forests. Participation of these communities in the recovery and management of mangroves is vital for the survival of the ecosystem.
The communities are accomplishing this through several conservation efforts. Three key efforts are:
- Mangrove Reforestation programs
- Community-led partnerships
- Ecotourism and Mangrove Restoration
Mangrove Reforestation Programs
Planting mangroves in degraded areas is essential in rehabilitating areas that have been over-harvested.
In Gazi village, a settlement that borders a mangrove forest by the Indian ocean, the villagers come together to plant mangrove seedlings for three days during the rainy season. Like in most coastal villages, fish trade is a main economic activity here and mangroves play a key role in promoting fish production. Mangrove forests provide nursery grounds for many species of fish that rarely breed in the deep ocean because of strong water currents and predators.
The tree planting exercise is a beneficial, communal activity. A healthy mangrove ecosystem raises the numbers of fish, and is an economic advantage to the fishermen and community.
Reforestation is not exclusive to settlements along the coast. Brain Youth Group, a community-based organization in Mombasa, has a purpose to conserve the mangrove forest along Tudor Creek. Members of the group, aged between 18 and 35 years, plant mangroves along the creek to restore depleted areas. They also create awareness by educating coastal communities on the importance of mangrove conservation.
Community-led partnerships emphasize restoring depleted forests for sustainable use. These partnerships are supported by the local community, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, and they work to encourage participation of all stakeholders with the community being at the forefront.
Conservation projects will likely be successful when decision making takes local input into consideration. Coastal communities know their needs, challenges and traditional ways of maintaining mangrove forests. Allocating forests to communities with knowledge in mangrove management allows them to be active in the process of conservation.
Lamu holds 60% of Kenya’s mangroves. Lamu Old Town, which is of historical value, has an architecture that relies on mangroves. A community-led partnership in the area is supporting conservation via activities such as training the community and partners on mangrove management and planting nurseries as well demo plantations to rehabilitate degraded areas.
Gazi and Makongeni villages have in place a carbon offset project, the first of its kind in the world to successfully trade mangrove carbon credits. Mangroves store three to five times more carbon than tropical forests, which makes them elemental in the fight against carbon emissions and global warming.
The carbon offset project is an initiative of Mikoko Pamoja (Mangroves Together) a community group, and the sale of carbon credits is used to fund mangrove conservation alongside development programs within the villages.
The group plants four thousand seedlings (about one acre) every year at the degraded sites and at the same time maintains the existing forest. The plan is to sell three thousand tonnes of CO2 per year for a period of twenty years. Income from this trade will enable development projects for example, supplying clean water in the villages and renovating classrooms.
Ecotourism and Mangrove Restoration
There are tangible benefits in keeping mangrove forests as a resource, without harvesting wood, and in so doing generate income from tourism and associated employment opportunities.
The wealth of developing countries is normally tied to natural resources like forests and land that can easily be used for commercial development or agriculture. Exploiting these resources could alter or destroy natural areas and habitats. By the same token, local communities may not be too enthusiastic about nature conservation if they do not have the finances or business skills to cater to their livelihoods.
Ecotourism promotes responsible, nature-conscious travel that conserves the local environment and improves future opportunities for the community. It raises the funds needed to develop local infrastructure while gaining support for biodiversity conservation.
A mangrove forest is home to a myriad of species, making it an ideal tourist attraction. Different kinds of birds for instance, shelter in the dense branches and provide a bird watching opportunity for tourists. By engaging in tourism activities such as tour guiding or food services, the community generates income and reduces the need to exploit mangrove forests.
Mikoko Pamoja manages a mangrove ecotourism enterprise in Gazi Bay. The recreation unit features a boardwalk among the trees, and a restaurant that offers a Swahili cuisine experience to tourists.
In the long term, the enterprise is expected to assist in reversing over-exploitation of mangroves by reducing dependence on wood harvesting and investing in community development.
The Future of Kenya’s Mangrove Forests
Reforestation, community-led partnerships and ecotourism are three of many efforts that coastal communities may undertake to conserve mangrove forests while benefiting through associated development initiatives.
Sustaining the mangrove ecosystem is integral to the lifestyle of local communities along the Kenyan coast. A thriving mangrove forest means a better livelihood for the community; conservation shifts the narrative from exploitation to restoration.
Though progress is being made to use the forests in a sustainable way, there is room for more by adding many other eco-friendly, income generating initiatives and reforestation projects. Alternative fuel wood and timber resources can be incorporated, for example through agro forestry projects. Lastly, training and support programs in mangrove conservation should continue.
A healthy mangrove ecosystem is a must for communities living along the coast, now and in the days to come.
Carbon offset project boosts conservation of Kenyan mangroves
Lamu launches mangrove restoration campaign
Mangrove conservation, Kenyan style
Reforestation project Tudor Creek mangrove restoration, Kenya
The coastal Kenyan villages bringing their mangrove forest back to life