Even before dawn, heat lingers over the parched Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. A van jolts and rumbles along a dusty road, past grazing cattle and empty irrigation canals. The tide has gone out, and the lagoon looks like a desert. But even here, mangroves can grow. The van is carrying people on their way to plant them, and so are other vehicles all over the island. Mangroves are dying, but Sri Lanka is determined to save them.
Unlike most trees, which do poorly when exposed to salt, mangroves thrive in brackish and saline water. They form mangrove forests along the tropical and subtropical coasts of more than 118 countries, creating vital wildlife habitats. Their extensive root systems allow them to withstand tides, waves, and storm surges, which means they also provide valuable ecosystem services, such as protecting coastal communities during storms. Mangroves also excel at absorbing and storing carbon and can sequester three to five times as much carbon as other forests. Sri Lanka’s government calls them “indispensable in combating climate change” and has included their restoration as a key action in its 2019 budget. And when older mangrove trees die, they don’t release the carbon: they sink below the water and bury it as “blue carbon” beneath the soil.
Mangroves, which grow in tropical and subtropical waters around the world, are under threat, and mangrove forests are considered to be among the most at-risk ecosystems in the world. But Sri Lanka, which boasts more than 20 native mangrove species, is establishing itself as a leader in mangrove research and restoration. Both government agencies and NGOs are using community-based approaches to save and replant mangrove forests before they are lost for good.
Around two thirds of Sri Lanka’s population live in coastal areas, and many communities depend on mangroves for their livelihoods. Vositha Wijenayake, executive director of SLYCAN Trust, puts it like this: “Mangroves provide various ecosystem services to local communities and are often essential for their livelihoods by providing resources and fishing grounds. They are also critical component of ecosystem-based adaptation in the coastal areas of Sri Lanka, to build resilience to climate risks and impacts.”
Over the last century, and especially the last few decades, enormous areas of Sri Lanka’s mangrove forests have been destroyed in state-sanctioned enterprises: to make room for shrimp farms, construction of roads, salterns, factories, tourist attractions, and expanding human settlements. Industrial pollution, resource extraction, and the country’s 26-year civil war have taken a toll as well.
These surviving forests are further threatened by the impacts of climate change, which is causing temperatures to increase and sea levels to rise. Due to coastal development, mangroves cannot move further inland to keep up with rising sea levels. Rising temperatures can also decrease photosynthesis and increase water salinity, which in turn can lessen the productivity of mangrove forests.
The devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami opened the eyes of many Sri Lankans to the vulnerability of mangrove-less coastlines and set in motion numerous reforestation projects. However, many of these projects were donor-driven and focused on the rapid planting of trees for coastal protection, often without proper technical knowledge surrounding reforestation or community involvement. Fourteen years later, the results are sobering. A 2017 study shows that of 1,000 to 1,200 hectares of previously restored forest, only 200 to 220 hectares survived. In 9 out of 23 evaluated planting sites, all the seedlings died due to a combination of inappropriate planting locations, unsuitable choice of mangrove species, and a lack of post-planting care.
Conservationists have learned from these experiences, and have changed the approach over the last several years. Successful projects have adopted an inclusive approach that relies on technical expertise, local knowledge, and sustainable cooperation with coastal communities.
The Sri Lanka Mangrove Conservation Project is a perfect example. Initiated in 2015 by US-based NGO Seacology, the Small Fishers Federation of Sri Lanka (now Sudeesa), and the Sri Lankan government, the project is a central piece in the country’s conservation efforts. It strives to protect all of the country’s existing mangrove forests and also replant almost 4,000 hectares of mangroves, using a grant from the Global Resilience Partnership and an additional $3.4 million in funding. According to a press release announcing the project, it makes Sri Lanka "the first nation in the world to comprehensively protect all of its mangrove forests."
To achieve this goal, the project has implemented a community-based approach that provides alternative job training and microloans to 15,000 people in 1,500 disadvantaged coastal communities. Most of the job training and microloan recipients are women who can now open or expand small businesses like food shops, bakeries, or farming enterprises, have gained more awareness about the importance of healthy mangrove ecosystems, and no longer need to harvest them for firewood or cut them down as a source of income.
The project recognizes that mangrove conservation cannot happen without local communities, and that any successful conservation program has to take developmental problems and poverty (exacerbated by climate change) into account. By building the capacities of local communities and women in particular, the project creates sustainable livelihoods and allows for long-term ecosystem protection.
Beyond the Sri Lanka Mangrove Conservation project, other mangrove restoration efforts bring together government agencies, university and grade school students, civil society, NGOs, and local farmers as well. They produce informational material in the form of local-language brochures and books, establish mangrove education centers, support community-run mangrove nurseries, and create committees to look after the newly planted mangroves. Sri Lanks has also established the world’s first mangrove museum, made mangrove forest conservation part of the national curriculum, and in 2018, was named as the leader for mangrove conservation in Commonwealth countries.
Furthermore, Sri Lanka has pledged to restore 200,000 hectares of forest by 2030, including coastal mangrove ecosystems, as part of the “Bonn Challenge” launched by the UN in 2011 that aims to restore 150 million hectares of forest by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030.
Sri Lanka’s effort to conserve its mangroves could serve as an example for other countries in the region — some 40 percent of the world’s mangrove ecosystems are in Asia, but these mangrove forests have been shrinking at the fastest rate globally. And there’s been some effort to coordinate efforts to stem this loss. The Bay of Bengal — with its eight surrounding nations, including Sri Lanka — contains 8 percent of all mangrove forests in the world. The ongoing Sustainable Management of the Bay of Bengal Lage Marine Ecosystem Project (BOBLME) has now entered its second stage, and the Global Environment Facility has pledged $15 million funding in June 2018 to connect and coordinate mangrove conservation efforts of all adjacent countries, combine their knowledge, and find common solutions.
If Sri Lanka’s mangrove forests become a success story, there is hope that other mangrove-rich countries around the Bay of Bengal and the world will watch, learn, and emulate Sri Lanka’s community-based strategies to protect these unique and vital ecosystems.