Mangrove forests are some of the most productive and complex ecosystems in the world, but despite their importance to both the environment and man, they’re under global threat. Recognizing the urgent need to protect these fragile and unique habitats, Sri Lanka has just become the first nation to embark on a project that will comprehensively protect not some, but all of its mangroves.
Alongside an extensive replantation and conservation program involving the help of local communities, the scheme will ensure that forests are provided with legal protection to prevent further consumer-driven losses. In return for their assistance, project workers will be offered small loans to start their own businesses or alternative job training opportunities, BBC News reports. This government-backed project is headed by a local non-governmental organization (NGO) called Sudeesa, formerly the Small Fishers Federation of Lanka, and has received funding by Seacology, an environmental NGO based in California.
Mangroves are groups of various extensive trees and shrubs that grow along tropical coastal habitats with soft, low-oxygen soils. They can be easily recognized by their characteristic prop roots which twist and tangle into the shore en masse, allowing the plants to cope with the daily changes in tide.
Much like coral reefs, mangrove forests are home to a rich diversity of wildlife and consequently provide both the environment and man with an abundance of goods and services. By trapping sediment as it flows down rivers, their dense roots protect the coast from erosion that would normally ensue from storms and waves. They also soak up and store a significant amount of carbon, absorbing about five times more CO2 than other types of forest, thus representing an important aid in the ongoing climate change battle.
Above water, the trees offer nectar for bats and bees and a source of food for monkeys and kangaroos. Below the surface, an abundance of fish and shellfish call the roots their home, forming not only nurseries for a variety of species, but also a crucial source of food for coastal communities. They also generate a huge amount of money, some $186 million each year, through tourism, the establishment of commercial fisheries and the sale of timber and other plant products.
Despite this long list of services, mangroves have been continually uprooted all across the globe. Throughout the last 100 years, the world has witnessed the disappearance of half of its mangrove forests, the Guardian reports. In Sri Lanka, a substantial chunk was cleared during the civil war as the forests became a hiding place for Tamil rebels, and farmers worsened losses by hacking away at the trees, often illegally, to make way for shrimp ponds.
These precious ecosystems are therefore in dire need of replenishment, and hopefully this new project will do just that. As reported by New Scientist, the $3.4 million (£2.2 m) venture will provide around 15,000 women with small loans of around $100 to set up their own businesses, such as beekeeping or opening restaurants and bakeries. These women will then contribute to rescue and ongoing conservation of the mangroves, planting 4,000 hectares (9,600 acres) across 48 lagoon systems and protecting a further 9,000 (21,800 acres) from destruction.
Additionally, to prevent further losses from the harvesting of wood for charcoal, women will be trained to produce and use alternative fuels for cooking, such as making briquettes out of rice hulls. If successful, hopefully the project will spur other nations to follow suit.