Capacity Building for Mangrove Restoration in Kenya

Capacity Building for Mangrove Restoration in Kenya

In May 2021, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Edinburgh Napier University’s Professor Mark Huxham to discuss his work on CAMARV: Capacity Building for Mangrove Assessment, Restoration and Valuation in East Africa”. This project was designated as falling under the Global Uncertainties project umbrella, within the “climate change” theme.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a little bit about how you came to work on the topic of mangrove conservation in Kenya?

Professor Mark Huxham: I began working in partnership with the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute on mangrove conservation and restoration back in 2001, originally fuelled by an interest in the technical and scientific questions around the ecological restoration of degraded mangrove sites. Mangroves are a type of tropical and subtropical forest, and the challenges involved in conserving these ecosystems are significant – we have lost about 50% of global coverage of these types of forest. Sometimes, these sites can naturally recover, but they often cannot. I was interested in why natural forest recovery did not always occur, and in exploring techniques for helping forests recover. We were working at a site that had been deforested 35 years before to provide fuel for a long-gone brick business. What was left behind was a barren wasteland, with salinization problems, which required nursery species to be brought in to initiate ecological restoration. So that was the beginning of the story. 

How did you end up moving the focus of your work beyond the initial set of technical questions which had brought you there?

Six or seven years into our work, I was approached by people from the local community, who were interested in ensuring that the community directly benefitted from the mangrove restoration work. Until that point, I had focused on ecological outputs, and because I knew mangroves are important for people in terms of providing them with timber, fuelwood, fisheries, and coastal protection, I had thought that any work to preserve these mangroves was by definition of benefit to the local people. However, the local people wanted a bit more than that. As a result, we began looking into the ability of mangrove forests to conserve, sequester, and store carbon. Mangroves are one of the most efficient natural carbon sinks on the planet, and using the science around carbon storage we were able to initiate a project that sells mangrove carbon sequestration to the voluntary carbon market. That project – which is still ongoing – is called Mikoko Pamoja, which means “mangroves together” in Swahili.

Can you tell me a bit more about that project?

Through Mikoko Pamoja we have worked to conserve mangrove forests and to enhance and restore degraded areas. We then use science to calculate the amount of carbon we are saving and securing, and then sell that on the voluntary market. The profits fund conservation efforts and community development, and we now work at two sites – our original site, and a second site on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border.

From the perspective of vulnerability and shocks, one of the reasons we are so interested in mangroves is because of their role in providing for local people and in protecting them to some extent against physical, biological, and social shocks. In the communities we work with, roughly half of the population has not completed primary education. These communities are heavily dependent on artisanal fisheries, and the health of these fisheries have a strong link to the health of mangrove ecosystems. People also rely on mangroves for protection from coastal erosion and storm surges, and we sometimes try to describe this value in economic terms when speaking with policymakers about the value these ecosystems have for local people.

Are there broader lessons we can learn from your work at these sites?

Definitely. One thing we learned from studying an El Nino event in 2015/16 was that even an event which is not as biologically severe as predicted can still have significant social effects. In that year, while there were no massive diebacks of mangroves and there was not widespread flooding in Kenya, those who were already vulnerable really suffered from this event. The wealthier individuals in communities had concrete houses in high ground and secure food supplies and were largely unaffected. However, vulnerable households – including widows and unmarried mothers – living in poverty in relatively vulnerable areas, tended to live in mud-walled houses which were badly affected by even minor flooding. These people lost their homes for six, seven months. They became vulnerable in all sorts of ways – losing their food, forced to live with neighbours temporarily, etc. Even once the flooding had cleared, the children from those households were less likely to come back to school, because the families could no longer afford the small costs involved in school attendance and now needed the children for household work. So, the lesson there is that it does not take a catastrophic event to tip thousands of people into desperate straits – all it requires is something quite small, which amplifies existing vulnerabilities. In the face of climate change, this really drives home the importance of adaptation work, and the need to enhance people’s general security through institution building and addressing social inequalities. This is also linked back to the mangroves because those who are most dependent on the mangroves are exactly those who are the most vulnerable – these mangroves are a natural safety net for many in those communities, because they provide fish and materials.

Is there a scalability to the type of carbon sequestration project you have worked on at these two sites? Are these projects self-sustaining?

The first carbon sequestration project we launched, back in 2013, is now self-sustaining, generating over 2000 tons of credits a year. A charity in Scotland is involved in the governance structure for selling credits, while a community-based organization in Kenya runs the project on the ground. There is a strong demand for these types of credits, and a growing interest in this type of project. Our sister project at the second site, Vanga Blue Forest, serves 8000 people. Moreover, we are now in conversations with several other community organizations in Kenya, Tanzania, Gambia, and Indonesia who are very interested in our model. It has a lot of potential to help similar communities.

Has the success of your project shifted the thinking of local decision-makers surrounding mangrove protection?

It’s important to emphasize that this is not a model which requires people from the outside to go tell people how to run their forests. Most mangrove forests around the world, including those in Kenya, are owned by the government, and local communities have tenureship of those resources and have used them for hundreds or thousands of years. So traditional communities understand the value of these resources, but there are lots of newcomers into these places who are not used to living in balance with these environments, and local communities sometimes have difficulty managing unsustainable exploitation. If people turn up from the outside and begin cutting the forest, then challenging those people is potentially dangerous for locals and requires a lot of organizational courage. There are limited government resources to enforce the laws which are meant to protect these ecosystems, so really this is a problem of enforcement. With a relatively modest amount f money, we have found we can make a real difference in the ability of local communities to organize and to employ local forest scouts who can patrol the forest to stop illegal deforestation or poaching. The carbon selling programs work because they cover the costs, making a big difference with a small intervention.

Our project now has a high profile within Kenya, and the Kenyan government has been supportive – it has showcased our work at COP meetings, using it as an example of good practice in international climate policy discussions. That has helped us to influence national policy within Kenya – for example we were part of a conversation which contributed to the creation of a national mangrove ecosystem plan, which has massively decreased the rates of mangrove cutting nationally.

What is next for your work?

Ecosystems are co-dependent on contiguous ecosystems – in this case seagrass and coral reefs. We are now trying to incorporate seagrass conservation into mangrove conservation. Both habitats store a lot of carbon, while some fish spend different parts of their life cycle in each of these habitats. You asked me earlier about scaling up, and I think that an important item on the agenda needs to be making the move from looking at discrete ecosystems to the seascape as a whole. That increases complexity and brings in more stakeholders, but if you get it right, you can benefit local livelihoods and nature.

You can learn more about the Vanga Blue Forest and Mikoko Pamoja mangrove restoration projects and the Association for Coastal Ecosystem Services on their website.