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The Importance of Mangroves to Biodiversity and the Blue Economy

Jul 27, 2023

The Importance of Mangroves to Biodiversity and the Blue Economy

In Belize, mangroves play a crucial role in providing a safe home for endangered Antillean manatees and their young calves. However, these coastal ecosystems are under constant threat from development, leading to a decline in mangrove cover and subsequently impacting the manatee population. Mangroves are not only vital for marine biodiversity but also hold economic significance, contributing to carbon sequestration and supporting the blue economy. Efforts are being made to protect and restore mangroves, but striking a balance between development and conservation remains a challenge. The nation recognises the importance of coastal ecosystems in the face of climate change, and there is an ongoing focus on preserving mangroves for their multiple benefits in mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. With support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, Hipolito Novelo reports on the importance of mangroves. 

Hipolito Novelo reporting 

An endangered Antillean manatee and her young calf spotted off the coast of Belize City- in between mangroves. They know they are safe here. Mangroves are of paramount importance to manatees due to the numerous benefits these coastal ecosystems offer to these gentle marine mammals- and of course to many others too- but they are threatened by development.

Jamal Galves

Jamal Galves, Marine Biologist, Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute

“Mangroves and manatees, they go hand in hand. It’s critical for them for survival as it’s their home and a home is a place in which you live and which provides the things that you need in order for you to survive.  So when you look at mangrove as it relates to manatees, it’s not just a structural figure or something that provides just protection from wind. But it’s their home.”

But now their home is under constant threat. Situated along the picturesque coastlines of Belize, the vital ecosystems of mangroves hold a profound significance for the well-being and survival of the beloved manatees. These majestic marine mammals, often referred to as gentle giants, rely heavily on the intricate network of mangrove forests for their sustenance, protection, and overall existence. Jamal Galvez is a marine biologist who works for Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute headquartered in Florida.  He has been working with manatees for most of his professional career so much so that the public now knows him as “Manatee Man” and the Manatee Man is extremely concerned that vast amounts of mangroves are being destroyed.

Jamal Galvez

“It is already shown that we’ve seen areas that manatees used to occupy in the past they no longer are there because those areas have lost significant vegetation when it comes to mangroves and seagrass. So that pushes them to find new spaces. So pushes them to find new spaces and with the increase of development in Belize, all across the country, we are seeing mangroves devastation, destruction for development across the coast of Belize. That has limit space in which the manatees have for survives.”

Research conducted by Galvez in 2021 shows that there are an estimated 1,000 manatees in Belize’s water. The number keeps decreasing as the destruction of mangroves continues. According to Earth Sciences and Geography, 578.54 km2 of mangrove ecosystem area was identified and mapped in 2020 with 372.04 km2 located along the mainland coastal zone and 206.50 km2 distributed throughout the chain of islands and cayes. And as the report found, mangroves within the Mesoamerican Region are under considerable stress from both anthropogenic (coastal development) and natural ( localized eutrophication in combination with sea level rise) threats, which resulted in mangrove cover declining by approximately 30% across the region between 1990 and 2010. Small patches of mangroves, like those around cayes, are the most immediately threatened.

Monique Vernon

Monique Vernon, Environmental Activists

“One day I took some volunteers there to do some cleanup and we normally do birding and whatnot there as well. And we were surprised to see, we were taken aback to see the amount of mangrove that was completely cleared for the development of the island, the Cay itself. It was devastating. Honestly, I wanted to cry at that moment. It was just sad to see.”

Monique Vernon is an environmental activist based in Placencia. She has witnessed firsthand the destruction of mangroves on the peninsula and what it means for biodiversity.

Monique Vernon
“This is definitely bad because it’s driving a lot of wildlife from the community and it’s also affecting the local wildlife in the lagoon itself. We have a lot of crocodiles and the West Indian manatee, which we know is already, their population is at risk right now. And so it’s affecting the wildlife for sure.”

According to an action Plan by the Belize Mangrove Alliance, a chapter of the Global Mangroves Alliance which is primarily made of environmental NGOs, in 2019, approximately 12,800 ha of mangrove were under protection – only 16.6% of the total mangrove coverage in Belize. Considering the high value and importance placed on this ecosystem, and the increasing pressures it faces, there is a recognized need to increase focus on ensuring its long-term viability. This is especially true as Belize begins to focus on boosting its Blue Economy. Andre Perez is the Minister of Blue Economy. According to the United Nations, the Blue Economy comprises a range of economic sectors and related policies that together determine whether the use of ocean resources is sustainable.” Mangroves are important to the blue economy and the ministry says mangroves play a vital role by serving as critical fish nurseries, supporting tourism, and providing coastal protection. And there is wealth untold, hundreds of millions of dollars possibly from a climate perspective, mangroves contribute to carbon sequestration.

Andre Perez

Andre Perez, Minister of The Blue Economy 

“The value of the mangroves in terms of carbon sequestration. I think the most important thing is more than a forest. The mangroves do it. The carbon sequestration occurs with the mangroves and seagrass are two important factors that must be preserved. Yes, there is development occurring, but the value that these two, seagrass and mangroves can contribute, we cannot be forgetting.”

Kenrick Williams

Dr. Kenrick Williams, C.E.O., Ministry of Sustainable Development 

“What we found in a recent assessment is that mangrove storage, both above ground in the carbon biomass and as well as in the soil, actually sequesters six or seven times more carbon than terrestrial, trees or forests, secondary forests and other forests. So mangroves actually sequester way more carbon than, than does, than the terrestrial side. And so there’s significant benefits to protecting these mangroves, again, in terms of our fight to climate change.”

Andre Perez

“The development of this country has to be done in a very sustainable manner, that when the… Developers come in, they must take into consideration some kind of preservation of the mangroves. You cannot come in here and clear totally the mangroves. And it is an ongoing problem. It is not happening yesterday or today. It has been happening for decades now. So we are in a present real danger right now as a country.”

Dr. Kenrick Williams

“If we lose mangrove, particularly the rates that we’re losing them now due to coastal development and other areas, then we lose the storm surge protection, the coastal protection functions that they provide. We lose the environmental benefits that they provide in terms of nursery to important marine habitats. So, for example, there’s a ripple effect in terms of our marine health, our marine species that we depend on, that coastal communities depend on. So, again, there’s a direct connection to the social benefits that they provide. And then financially, they’re important for tourism, they’re important for, again, the coastal protection resources that we provide.”

CEO in the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Dr Kenrick Williams says that Belize has a healthy population of mangroves with only three percent loss over the last 20 years.It was not immediately certain whether he referred only to the area under legal protection. The Forest Department holds jurisdiction over mangroves, governed by the Forests (Protection of Mangroves) Act, which aims to safeguard these ecosystems by prohibiting their clearance or modification without the required permits and authorization. The act imposes penalties and fines for non-compliance, but it acknowledges that enforcement challenges need resolution before these measures can effectively serve as deterrents. Successfully addressing enforcement issues and securing a conviction in the first case will be crucial to establish the act’s credibility and efficacy in protecting mangroves.

Nadia Bood

Nadia Bood, Country Representative, WWF
“A lot still to be done. The Forest Department is, you know, is increasingly giving attention to mangroves now. In fact, we’ve been working closely with them in terms of looking at how we can promote better actions as it relates to the conservation of mangroves and restoration of mangroves. We had worked with them to take the mangrove regulation that currently exists. Which, as you know, legislations are written in a very technical manner, not easily digestible. So we took that and created a reader friendly summary of that. And we, um, we share that we are working with them to disseminate that across coastal Belize, um, to land developers, to local communities, so they are aware of what’s in the regulation, and so they,  they can report back when they see infractions. We are also working with the Forest Department now to try and develop a national mangrove restoration plan that highlights where, you know, along the coast, the vulnerable locations where we can work with the local communities, um, and partners to try and restore the area. So these kind of work, they are still in the early stage. In terms of the restoration, in fact, we just created the terms of reference for a consultancy to develop such a national plan for mangroves. Um, they have, um, recently gotten money from the new, um, Trust in the Belize Fund for a Sustainable Future to look more also at looking at Belize’s blue carbon potential because there’s a potential market for that. And as a country, the government is interested in looking at what is there in terms of carbon from both the blue carbon and from upland forests. Um, and so having this information can help make the case for why we need to protect our ecosystems. And hopefully, you know, incentivize the government to do the right thing. Um, and to help, still enough of our natural environment where possible now, where there are sensitive ecosystems, where the coastline is very vulnerable, that a development might not be suitable for that particular area. So, they need to think more integratively, you know, more holistically as we think, as we move forward into the future. If we are to truly try to effectively manage and, you know, and conserve these ecosystem.”

According to World Wild Fund Country Representative, Nadia Bood, the economic potential of mangroves is estimated at more than half a billion US dollars. The national targets include protecting an additional 6,000 hectares of mangroves by 2025, restoring 2,000 hectares, halting and reversing net mangrove loss, assessing below ground carbon stock, and exploring financing options for mangrove protection and restoration. Local NGOs like Reef Keepers Belize, environmental activists, businesses and government departments such as the Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute have been partnering to plant mangroves in vulnerable areas such Goff’s Caye and South Water Marine Reserve.

Kent Garbutt

Kent Garbutt, Assistant Lab Technician, CZMAI
“In this instance, we’re using bamboo. We’re not using PVC pipe because in case of a hurricane, we know that the structures out here are not solid enough to handle a hurricane. So we’re using the bamboo in case of that, that if it floats away it’s gonna deteriorate in the environment unlike the plastics. So, in planting the mangroves, we’re using the, some, some sort of the rally in casement method. I say some sort because I have altered it due to the area that we’re working in. So basically the rally encasement method is just using a round surface to capture, to hold the proper goods in place. You have to cut the slit all the way through from the bottom to the top. In this case, all the slit, the bottom part because I don’t want the um, bamboo to open all the way. So basically we’re just gonna stick the bamboo in the ground. And fill it, put about 3 to 4 inches of sand because we’re not trying to raise the sea, the sea level. We just need enough sand that it can grab root and could go from there.”

Arlene Young

Arlene Young, Director, CZMAI

“Goff’s Caye really is one of the tiny islands, one of her jewels that is really, um, vulnerable, or more vulnerable, I should say. It really has a dynamic beach. You will come at one time and the beach has shifted. So, it has a natural dynamics, but over the past several years, we have been noticing impacts of the increasing rates of erosion, as a result of storm damage and so we are here today. We have recently done infrastructure upgrades, but everyone wants to know what are you doing to help to bring back the beach to help to protect the island. And so this is one of the measures that we identified along with Bowen that we can help to contribute and also, protect some of the infrastructure that’s here on the island.”

Lisa Mulcahy

Lisa Mulcahy, Executive Director, Reefkeeper Belize 

In 2012, I came to help Southwater Key Marine Reserve start their education program. And, and our thought was that kids needed more information or they needed booklets. But then we started realizing that it was really important for kids actually to get out here and see the marine reserve and see the environment first hand. So, our thought is that if kids can see and experience and touch and learn to love the marine environment, then they’ll protect it for future generations. And that’s what we’re trying to encourage. So we’re doing a little mangrove restoration as well, too.”

But can there be a balance between development and destruction? With so many proposed port projects in the Belize District, threatening mangroves ecosystems, can there be a balance?

Dr. Kenrick Williams

“I think it’s going to continuously be a challenge as we try to balance development as well as environmental protection as well as we try to restore in some critical areas. I think if we get the developers and we get the Belizeans to understand that we don’t have to clear cut, we’re going to be in a better position.”

Monique Vernon

“Development. We can’t really avoid it because people will continue having babies. The population will keep growing. So we cannot avoid development. I think what we should more look into is sustainable development. There can be a balance, but it’s very tricky because it’s hard to change people’s mind from a business perspective to a more of a sustainable type of way of living. So it would take some time, but I think it’s definitely achievable.”

Jamal Galvez
“There has to be a balance. An ecosystem is important to an economy. An economy will collapse if an ecosystem dies. So, it has to be some way that we can sort of develop in a more sustainable way. But if we’re destroying the very same thing that they come here for, then we’re going to have another economic collapse.”

Andre Perez

“It cannot be that the Blue Economy is going to be the environmental economy. At the same time, it is not only fully economy based ministry. It’s a combination of both. And a combination of both means that we must work with developers anywhere that we want to do the development of our waters, of our shores. But at the same time is also is that we have to find that balance in preserving not only the beach, not only the coast, not only the mangroves, but also our fishing waters.”

Nadia Bood

“I firmly believe that there could be a balance between development and conservation. And as a conservation organization, we, we try to put You know, we, we, we worry about the environment, but we also worry about human needs and human desires so that there could be, you know, win-win along the way.”

The updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) report identifies mangroves as a vital component of Belize’s forest. As a Small Island Developing State, Belize acknowledges the significance of coastal ecosystems for the well-being of people and the planet. Mangroves are recognized as nature-based solutions to climate change with multiple benefits in mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. They sequester substantial carbon, mitigate flooding in low-lying areas, protect communities and infrastructure from climate impacts, and foster resilience, making them a triple-win for Belize.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Reporting for News 5, I am Hipolito Novelo.