Written by Miguel Cifuentes, Climate Change and Basins Program CATIE
I started working with mangroves and blue carbon back in 2012 after I heard about a meeting on the topic in Indonesia. I knew similar work had not been done in Central America and recognized the enormous and untapped potential mangroves have in the region, securing ecosystem services, providing climate change mitigation, adaptation and supporting the local coastal community development. This kind of simultaneous “quadruple-win” outcome is only seen in mangrove forests; one reason working with them is so interesting and rewarding. Despite their incredible importance, they seem to have been left in a “limbo”, ignored by terrestrial biologists and foresters, and shunned by marine biologists, left to be degraded, over-exploited, and commonly drained to promote other, “more productive” land uses.
With funding from the German cooperation GIZ, I gathered a research team from CATIE to quantify the ecosystem carbon stocks of the Térraba-Sierpe National Wetland in Costa Rica. That was the first-ever such study conducted in Central America and the Caribbean. Since then, I’ve expanded our work to Panama, El Salvador, and Honduras, thanks to funding from Conservation International and USAID’s Regional Climate Change Program. It has been an exciting opportunity to explore new methods, start valuable collaborations with other scientists across the globe, lead local capacity development, and lay down the early ideas and the foundation of what I hope one day will become a vibrant regional blue carbon network of scientists, practitioners, policy makers, finance mechanisms, and local people.
Thanks to this growing body of work, we now know that the loss of a few thousand hectares of these ecosystems can represent close to a third of a single country’s CO2 emissions. These mind-boggling results still need to be included in the national emissions accounting of the vast majority of countries and feed into policy processes but we are working closely with the Governments of Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras to make that happen. We also need to quickly design, promote, and implement actions targeted at restoring these ecosystems, while also strengthening local livelihoods and development. Lots of work to be done!
A special kind of crazy
I was told once that “it takes ‘a special kind of crazy’ work in mangroves”. I believe that to be at least partially true, because working with mangroves has many challenges that are not evident when working with terrestrial forests. Field work can be physically excruciating and mentally demanding. Long hours in the field, more biting insects one can ever imagine, mud up to one’s knees (if not deeper), the occasional thunderstorm while cruising through open waters, and many other features of mangrove work keep us on our toes.
The rewards, however, far outweight the challenges. The beauty of coastal-marine ecosystems has no equal. The openness of the ocean, the clear waters, the beauty of the mangrove forest itself – its tranquility, the fact that it thrives where no other plants can survive, it’s unique fauna, etc. – and the absolutely most beautiful sunsets you will ever experience are among the rewards you will receive. Most importantly, engaging in work that can directly benefit local coastal communities, generally among the most impoverished and marginal among our countries, invigorates our commitment with applied ecological research and tropical conservation.
I wholeheartedly invite you to join our research and policy development ventures in Central America, the Caribbean, and other places around the world. Visit a mangrove forest, and I can guarantee you will be coming back for more!