The benefits of mangrove forests are increasingly well known, but numerous efforts to protect them have met with limited success. Now a pioneering fund is taking a novel approach by providing economic incentives to local communities in Ecuador in exchange for conserving mangrove forests in a bid to reverse decades of destruction of these vital habitats. The funding has been announced on Monday 26 July to coincide with International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem.
The Coastal Habitat Stewardship Fund is a partnership between the world’s leading certification programme for farmed seafood, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), with international NGO Conservation International and the Ecuadorian government’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition. It is a first for any aquaculture certification body and marks a new chapter in the development of ASC’s engagement in proactive environmental projects which will compliment and run along-side its certification work.
Socio Manglar, a conservation incentives programme implemented by Ecuador’s government, will oversee the fund’s work through financial support to local groups working to enhance mangrove health. Local associations are given regular economic incentives as well as access to mangrove areas in return for voluntarily committing to Sustainable Use and Stewardship Agreements to protect and maintain mangrove areas. To date, there are over 37,000 hectares of mangrove under Socio Manglar incentive agreements. 26 local organizations in three provinces are managing investment plans and 4,000 people have directly benefitted from the programme.
Mangrove forests sequester carbon from the atmosphere, prevent coastal erosion and provide habitat to countless species. Despite these benefits, and growing awareness of them, over a million hectares of mangrove forests were destroyed globally over the past thirty years, including around 30,000 hectares lost in Central America.
Mangroves face threats from multiple human activities and industries. Of these, the clearance of forests for shrimp farming is perhaps the most well-known, though other activities are equally significant such as their use for fuel, construction material and land clearance to make way for hotel development and other tourism activities. Often such activities can further marginalize communities historically dependent on mangroves for their livelihoods.
In many cases, the underlying cause is a lack of economic alternatives for local communities, which this new fund aims to tackle. The fund has been set up as a trust, with further fundraising anticipated, with the intention of support Socio Manglar’s work indefinitely.
‘First in a number of projects’
Chris Ninnes, ASC CEO said: “ASC has a long-standing commitment to the protection of mangrove forests through the stringent requirements in our Shrimp Standard which prohibits deforestation.
“We are dedicated to ensuring that shrimp farming is done responsibly and in a manner that conserves blue carbon ecosystems and supports the communities’ dependent on them. As the leading certification programme for environmentally and socially responsible farmed seafood, we think it is our responsibility to now extend our work to areas complimentary to farm certification and this is the first in a number of projects we will undertake to do so.”
Luis Suárez, Vice President and Executive Director of CI-Ecuador said: “We believe a bigger impact is possible through innovative partnerships among the private sector, local communities, national authorities, and environmental organizations. The Coastal Habitat Fund is an innovative financial mechanism to bring support from the aquaculture sector to enhance the financial sustainability of the conservation incentives program.”
Nancy Serrade, Manager of Socio Bosque Program at the Ministry of Environment said: “Socio Manglar is a program that combines nature conservation with human well-being. Since its creation it has generated multiple benefits for the conservation and restoration of mangroves, and fostered sustainable productive development for local communities who depend on mangroves for their livelihoods.”
Environmental and Socio-economic Impacts
The Coastal Habitat Stewardship Fund is an incentive-based programme which aims to have both environmental and socio-economic impacts. Efforts have been made around the world to educate local people about the importance of mangrove forests, however when local residents have no alternative means to earn income the areas may be cleared out of economic necessity. In return for voluntarily committing to Socio Manglar’s Sustainable Use and Custody Agreements to protect and maintain mangrove forests, local residents are given annual payments as well as access to the forests. The funding from ASC will go towards expanding the scheme and securing its ongoing viability.
Research has established that mature mangrove forests are far more effective carbon sinks than restored areas, a finding that has particular relevance as the world battles climate change. To ensure these areas are not lost to development, the first phase of the project is focused on the protection of intact mangrove areas. As the fund expands over time a greater emphasis will be placed on restoration work to help repair deforested areas.
The programme also includes education and resources for local residents and numerous industries, including those that farm both the land and the coastal waters, on the importance of conserving mangrove forests. Currently, there are 30 ASC certified shrimp farms in Ecuador, all of which have committed to protecting the local ecosystem as a condition of achieving certification.
Understanding Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Shrimp farming is not solely responsible for the loss of mangrove forests, but poor aquaculture practices can contribute to their depletion. The ASC Shrimp Standard bars farms established after 1999 from achieving certification if mangroves were destroyed as a result of their siting and, in some cases, requires the replanting of previously destroyed forests by farms in operations before 1999 as a condition of certification. However, ASC is the only certification scheme that has gone beyond farm level improvements to safeguard the world’s remaining mangroves.
Chris Ninnes continued: “We very much hope that our initial and ongoing commitment to such projects will be a catalyst for other companies engaged with the ASC to also support us in this work. As we all face up to the collective challenge of redressing climate impacts the ASC is committed to developing further initiatives to help everyone involved in aquaculture to play their role in doing this. This is why we are developing a number of tools to calculate sector greenhouse gas emissions so that we can better understand the scale of our impacts and the mitigation needed to be carbon-neutral. The first of these will be piloted later this year.”