Our efforts in restoring mangrove ecosystem crucial, but are we doing it right?

Mangroves create a conducive breeding ground for fish and prawns, on which we rely for both sustenance and income through sales.

By Ruth Keah | rkeahkadide@gmail.com

Growing up, Fatuma Mwinyi witnessed her grandfather’s dedicated efforts in nurturing and preserving mangrove forests, which were just a few metres away from their homestead in Jomvu Kuu, Mombasa County, Kenya.

Fatuma recounts how her grandfather played a pivotal role in ensuring the mangrove forests remained untouched. She says he diligently ensured that if there was ever a need to cut down the mangroves, they would first seek permission from the authorities.

“My grandfather used to say if you cut down one tree, it paves the way for others to cut down the rest. So, he used to oversee the process of mangrove cutting, if need be, to ensure they were still conserved for future generations,” she narrates.

However, with the passage of time and after her grandfather’s death, outsiders began encroaching the area, cutting down the mangrove trees without obtaining any permission. Gradually, what was once a flourishing forest started to transform into a desolate desert-like landscape.

Now, the villagers have united under the banner of the Bidii Creek Conservation Group, determined to rejuvenate the mangrove ecosystem and restore the area to its former glory.

“Where we are standing now used to be teeming with mangrove trees, but today, it’s barren land. So, we have joined forces to plant mangroves and reclaim our resources because we understand the invaluable benefits they bring,” Fatuma says.

“They create a conducive breeding ground for fish and prawns, on which we rely for both sustenance and income through sales.”

The situation faced by Fatuma and her community in Jomvu Kuu is not unique, as it mirrors the challenges that many coastal communities are grappling with in terms of mangrove loss.

According to Julie Mulonga, the Director of Eastern Africa at Wetlands International, Kenya has witnessed the loss of 1,000 hectares of mangrove forest over the past two decades. Hence, various stakeholders have made concerted efforts to plant mangroves, with the aim of bolstering the forest cover and fostering biodiversity in the region.

A mangrove forest. There are fresh calls to train and empower local communities on how to grow and protect the trees

However, scientists have expressed growing concerns about the manner in which mangrove conservation is being conducted.

Dr Dominic Wodehouse, the Executive Director of the Mangrove Action Project (MAP), emphasises that mangrove ecosystems differ significantly from terrestrial forests.

Speaking during a MAP’s Community-Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration Training event for the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) in Mombasa, Dr Wodehouse stressed the necessity of treating mangroves differently if there is a genuine desire to fully restore the diverse biodiversity of the ecosystem.

“What we observe worldwide, including in Kenya, is that mangrove restoration is often approached by governments and communities similarly to terrestrial production plantations, with straight lines and single species,” he said.

“So, what we are striving to promote is a comprehensive understanding of how the ecosystem functions, recognising the significance of hydrology, and addressing the challenges posed by saline and waterlogged soils.”

Dr Wodehouse added, “This approach aims to make restoration more site-specific, emphasising appropriate site selection and actions to be taken.”

Dr Bernard Kirui, a lecturer at the Department of Natural Resources at Egerton University and a mangrove expert, stresses the importance of considering the hydrology of an area when selecting a site for mangrove planting. This involves ensuring the existence of channels that facilitate the inflow of seawater to the highest levels within the chosen site.

“This is crucial because the water not only brings in seedlings but also provides the necessary nourishment for the planted mangroves, which is a critical aspect,” says Dr Kirui.

He explains that people can also assess the issue of salinity by conducting a visual inspection.

“Just seeing white patches indicate that there is a high saline condition and that should be a no-go zone,” he says.

Dr Kirui acknowledges that in Kenya, mangrove restoration is often carried out improperly, and at times, it is more of a ceremonial gesture. He says many stakeholders are encouraging community members to plant mangroves, but this effort lacks the necessary technical expertise and guidance.

“Sometimes there is no assessment of the sites to determine if they are ideal for specific species, and we tend to plant in the wrong places. The decision to replant an area should be guided by what is naturally growing adjacent to that area,” he advises.

Communities, reeling from past mass destruction of mangroves are now determined to rejuvenate and restore the forests.
Photo Credit I SOMN 2.0

Nafasi Mfahaya, the outgoing Regional Forest Conservator for the Coast Region, acknowledges that KFS has been lacking in the knowledge of mangrove conservation, and the training has come at an opportune time.

“The training has provided us with the knowledge of what to consider before planting. We must identify the appropriate species, assess the soil conditions, and evaluate the salinity of the location. These are aspects we previously overlooked, but now we understand the importance of thoroughly examining all factors before undertaking site restoration,” she says.

Mfahaya says they will now focus on raising awareness among the communities about the correct methods of mangrove conservation, as these communities are the ones residing closest to the mangroves.

“If the community understands our objectives, I can assure you that the restoration efforts will be executed perfectly, leading to a positive transformation of the mangrove environment,” she says.

Shawlet Cherono, Project Officer Lamu for Wetlands International, states that Kenya has a total mangrove cover of 61,000 hectares, and the training of KFS managers in the coastal region is a crucial step in rectifying the past approaches to mangrove conservation.

By ensuring that the information they have acquired is disseminated to the communities, she says it will help guide them in undertaking the correct conservation practices.

“Realistically, planting has traditionally been viewed as the sole method of restoration. However, we are now introducing new approaches, such as gaining a comprehensive understanding of the site, addressing social issues, and considering biodiversity. This holistic approach aims to create a more well-rounded ecosystem, as opposed to merely a planted one,” she says.

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