Coastal mangroves: Unsung heroes in climate resilience

Mangrove planting activity at Kidundu, Kilifi. [Courtesy]

In what could be considered a historic move for environmental conservation in Kenya, the National Tree Planting Day initiated on November 13 saw leaders nationwide, led by Internal Security Principal Secretary Raymond Omollo, plant trees as part of the President’s plan to combat climate change, targeting 15 billion trees by 2032.

The State Department for Roads and Transport planted 30,000 mangrove trees in Mombasa. The team overcame challenges in Gana Hona’s inaccessible roads and planted an additional 27,000 mangrove trees in the Mambo Sasa Forest, Lamu.

Kenya’s coastal mangroves, often overlooked, play a pivotal role in climate change mitigation. Statistics reveal Kenya has over 50 hectares of mangroves spanning from Kiunga in Lamu to Vanga in Kwale, boasting nine species. Mangroves are hailed for their unique ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, bee farming, cultural practices, and solid waste interception in the coastal strip among others.

Conservationist Kelly Banda notes mangroves’ efficiency, sequestering carbon at up to four times the rate of tropical rainforests. Their adaptability to waterlogged, muddy, and anoxic soil makes them exceptional.

“They can store carbon at a rate of up to 4 times that of a tropical rainforest. This is because mangroves have a high leaf area index, capture more sunlight and grow faster, leading to greater carbon storage,” Banda further explained.

Eunice Kiriamiti, a Majaoni resident, acknowledges positive changes due to anti-deforestation policies, a move that has even created a shortage of charcoal.

“More sensitisation is needed for the broader community and residents should be encouraged to plant trees even in their homes,” Ms Kiriamiti suggests.

Journalist Lolani Kalu highlights the cultural significance of mangroves to ancestors, now threatened by commercial interests.

“The preservation of mangroves was done by our ancestors in a very unique way -they were the ones who knew which mangroves were suitable for cutting and when,” said Lolani Kalu.

Mangroves have also attracted local and international tourists from as far as Asia. Laurent Monda, an Environmental Scientist says tourists have been interested in research interventions in mangrove restoration, oceanography, fisheries and of course, boardwalks.

Monda emphasises the tourism sector’s role in conservation, advocating for involvement in coastal clean-ups, resource contribution and planting mangroves. He adds that one mangrove is equivalent to ten normal trees in terms of environmental benefits.

“If the beaches are not outstanding and white as they should be, then tourists won’t be happy to visit,” adds Monda.

Environmentalist Bosco John Juma identifies encroachment and pollution as major threats to mangroves. He pointed out that implementing a monitoring system using geographical information systems is crucial.

International collaboration is vital for mangrove protection as well. It requires alignment and clarification of policies across diverse stakeholders.

“Cohesive policy framework. We must align and clarify policies, involve diverse stakeholders for effective implementation, especially considering devolved responsibilities to county governments,” says Bosco who’s also Big Ship Organisation’s Executive Director.

Mapesa Nelson, a senior corporate communication officer at the National Environment Trust Fund says the government actively partners with communities, funding tree nurseries, and providing jobs for youth and women.

“After nurturing the seedlings, the government purchases them, pays the community in raising nurseries, to planting, ensuring active participation in protection and tree growth,” he says.

Policies to enhance protection include agreements with communities, women, and youth groups, exemplified by the collaboration with the Kwale community, formerly engaged in mangrove harvesting for livelihoods. The Kenya Forest Service (KFS) further reinforces these efforts by employing a “green army” dedicated to mangrove care and compensating them.

To counter encroachment, the government urged developers and hotel investors to allocate space for mangrove cultivation.

Threats like deforestation, aquaculture, pollution, and urbanisation necessitate protective measures for mangrove ecosystems. Protecting and restoring mangrove ecosystems is crucial for their blue carbon potential and the myriad benefits they offer, including coastal protection, fisheries habitat, and biodiversity conservation.

Mangroves play a crucial role in coastal protection against natural hazards, yet integration with other risk reduction measures is often required. Optimal risk reduction involves incorporating mangrove conservation into broader coastal zone management planning, protecting and restoring them and allowing wise use where possible as advised by Kelly Banda.