The Future of the Mangrove
By María Isabel García*
A Caribbean community in Colombia is attempting to utilize the mangrove forest in a sustainable way in order to counteract the threat of deforestation.
BOGOTA – Mangrove forests are found in coastal areas that are relatively calm, such as estuaries, bays and coves. The mangrove trees spread inland, following the course of rivers in the areas where seawater and freshwater converge, the salty environment it needs to survive.
It takes four years for a mangrove trunk to reach 10 cm in diameter, and “a good width” of 20 cm takes nearly two decades, according to Ignacia de la Rosa Pérez, head of the Independent Mangrove Growers Association (AMI) of San Antero, in the northern Colombian department of Córdoba, on the Caribbean coast.
“My father says that when I was born, in 1950, it was all different because the Sinú River had changed its course away from the Cispatá Bay. The vegetation was poor and in the less salty swamps, people planted rice and plantain,” she told Tierramérica.
“But as a young girl I found that far from the river bank new mangroves were growing.” Back in 1975, Pérez became the first person to promote the sustainable exploitation of mangrove resources.
“If we open the canal to allow seawater to flow, the mangrove will flourish once again,” she told her neighbors at the time. She was able to convince them, and the unique ecosystem was reborn.
In Colombia, home to 380,000 hectares of mangroves (87,000 on the Caribbean coast, 293,000 on the Pacific), the Environment Ministry grants licenses for selling mangrove wood.
The licenses are assigned according to area and depend on the condition of the mangrove forest.
“If the plot is 10,000 square meters, we can log 2,000 of it and it will be sustainable,” said Pérez.
The 70 growers affiliated with the AMI work with the governmental Sinú Valley Corporation in running a project that provides a livelihood for 500 families.
The association sells the lumber for construction, but it is never used to make charcoal, she said. Her income varies between four and six dollars a day.
The trees that chroniclers of the Spanish Conquest described as very tall and straight with very hard wood grow to 30 meters, though there are some miniature varieties of the species.
The mangrove “serves the same functions as all trees, but also is a source of life and food,” marine biologist Rodolfo Hinestroza told Tierramérica.
Algae, anemones and the organic material of its roots, parts of which are exposed to the air and par submerged in the water, provide food for fish, crabs and starfish, among other species, he said.
According to some studies, “two thirds of the world’s tropical fish species depend on the mangrove forests,” stated Hinestroza.
Furthermore, these forests are important “feeding centers” because a great variety of birds and mammals also rely on these unique ecosystems.
As full of wealth as they are fragile, the mangrove forests mitigate flooding and protect coastline from erosion.
But deforestation, the impact of major infrastructure projects and the intensive farming of fish and shrimp threaten the tree’s future.
Similar dangers affect the mangrove forests growing along the Atlantic coasts ranging from the U.S. state of Florida to northern Brazil, and on the Pacific coasts between the Mexican state of Baja California and Peru.
The planet holds 16 million hectares of mangrove forests, according to the United Nations tropical woods organization.
The mangrove exists in tropical and subtropical zones of New Zealand and Japan and along the western coast of Africa.
* María Isabel García is an IPS correspondent.