In Photos: Blue Carbon Around the World

From Senegal to Indonesia, conservation groups are linking coastal restoration to the climate change movement

Back in 2009, a new term entered the conservation lexicon: “blue carbon.” The phrase was coined by a handful of United Nations agencies to describe the carbon stored in coastal ecosystems. Mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes, they were discovering, are incredible sponges for the greenhouse gas, storing up to five times more per acre than rainforests do. They are also disappearing much faster than rainforests, mainly due to coastal development, conversion into shrimp ponds, and timber harvesting. Those changes not only release what one blue carbon enthusiast dubs “nuclear bombs of carbon,” they also strip coastal communities of their buffer against sea and storms, destroy vital fish nurseries, and harm essential habitat for species ranging from marsh mongooses to monkeys. Since the 1960s, scientists say the world has lost around half of its mangroves and tidal marshes.

photo of a mangrove stand, viewed from above and below water© Burt Jones and Maurine ShimlockA mangrove forest on Indonesia’s Bird’s Head peninsula nurtures a stunning array of marine species. Environmental groups around the world are using payments they receive for the “blue carbon” that these coastal ecosystems capture to fund conservation projects. Conservation International, which has worked to protect Bird’s Head, is a leader in this push.

Conservation groups quickly realized that by linking coastal restoration to the climate change movement, and especially to carbon credit funding schemes, they could turbo-charge efforts to protect these ecosystems. A handful of local and international organizations have already put the idea into action. In at least five countries, corporate investors like Danone and Michelin are funding mangrove restoration to offset their carbon emissions.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about these projects. Critics like the 10-million-strong World Forum of Fisher Peoples worry that communities will lose access to food and fuel if coastal areas are cordoned off for the climate’s sake – as has happened with some terrestrial carbon forestry projects in the past, sparking a heated debate over the legitimacy of the carbon credit concept. But Emily Pidgeon, a senior scientist at Conservation International and a strong proponent of blue carbon, is confident these problems can be overcome. “The lessons are out there in the carbon community,” she says. “We in the marine community need to be actively working out how to apply them when they’re wet.”

For more on blue carbon pilot projects around the world, scroll through the images below.

© Blue Ventures | Garth CrippsOn the island of Madagascar, off Africa’s south-eastern coast, mangroves cover an area equivalent to 300,000 soccer fields.

© Blue Ventures | Brian JonesThe Madagascar mangroves are crucial nurseries for the fish that islanders rely on for income and subsistence.

© Blue Ventures | Brian JonesHowever, they are rapidly being cut for timber and charcoal, which islanders also need.

© Blue Ventures | Brian JonesA woman plants mangroves as part of a restoration project led by Blue Ventures, a charity headquartered in London. The organization is experimenting with carbon credits at two sites in Madagascar. To compensate for the income these communities may lose due to not selling mangrove wood, the group has launched sea-cucumber aquaculture, beekeeping, and ecotourism projects, along with alternative fuel plantations. “We want to ensure that blue carbon makes financial sense for communities,” says Blue Ventures’ Leah Glass. “It won’t be a long-term success [otherwise].”

Photo: Winifred BirdIn Senegal, ten European companies paid millions of dollars for carbon credits that funded one of the largest mangrove restoration projects in the world. The up-front payments made by Danone and other companies to the Livelihoods Fund translated into 150 million trees planted in delta communities like this one on the island of Niodior.

Photo: Winifred BirdIslanders like Saly Sarr enthusiastically supported the project. But they also worry about lost access to wood and fishing grounds, and say that Oceanium, the Senegalese non-profit that managed the project, did not inform them about the carbon credit arrangement.

Photo: Martin SkovA much smaller carbon-funded mangrove restoration project in Kenya’s Gazi Bay has garnered praise for better balancing the needs of local residents and the global climate. The community-led project is called Mikoko Pamoja, which means “mangroves together” in Kiswahili. School kids visit the sites on field trips and benefit from the funds it brings in.

Photo: Mark HuxhamResidents of the local fishing community are planting 4,000 mangrove trees each year, with support from the Kenyan government and international partners.

Photo: Salim AbdallaIncome the Mikoko Pamoja project makes from selling carbon credits on the voluntary market – about $12,500 per year – has gone toward restoration work and community projects like school construction, books, and water pumps like this one.

Photo: NEWSIn the Sundarbans region, on India’s border with Bangladesh, the Livelihoods Fund paid for mangrove restoration on nearly 15,000 acres. The forests are expected to store 700,000 tons of carbon over the next two decades – and so far they’re outpacing projections three-fold.

Photo: NEWSMangrove propagules await replanting. “[Previously] everyone was doing small projects,” says Ajanta Dey of the Nature Environment Wildlife & Society (NEWS), which oversaw the recent work in the Sundarbans. “Carbon funding allowed scaling for more impact.”

Photo: NEWSDey says grazing and illegal cutting has been a problem at some of the restored sites. A network of local stewards monitors the sites, and some communities have formed protection committees to defend them.

Photo: Counterpart InternationalA college student calculates the carbon stored in a mangrove forest in Nigua Ecological Forest in the Dominican Republic. A recent study led by the nonprofit Counterpart International found that in the country’s northwest corner, converting mangroves into shrimp ponds was creating huge per-acre carbon emissions. The study prompted the government to include mangroves in its national climate change strategy, or NAMA – the first time that has happened anywhere.

Photo: Counterpart InternationalCounterpart hopes to eventually use carbon funding to protect mangroves nationwide. In the meantime, it is teaching college and high school students how to measure blue carbon. Here, Oregon State University ecologist Boone Kauffman shows students the deep soil where most of the carbon is stored.

Shrimp farming has devastated mangroves in Vietnam, too. A coalition of government and conservation groups working with farmers in the Mekong Delta considered selling carbon credits to fund restoration, but ultimately decided organic shrimp certification would be an easier and more profitable way to protect mangroves.

The Naturland organic certification guarantees a high price for shrimp, but also requires that mangrove forest cover half the farming area. That has led to 200 acres being replanted, and about 31,000 acres protected from clearing since 2013. The project is called Markets and Mangroves.

Photo: Jim Wright/LightHawk/The Nature ConservancyThe Nature Conservancy is investigating carbon credits as a way to fund wetland restoration along New Jersey’s Delaware Bay and Atlantic Coast. The model hasn’t been applied yet in the US, largely because carbon prices typically aren’t high enough to offset the costs of carbon credit validation and restoration work here. But NOAA science advisor Ariana Sutton-Grier says that if carbon prices rise, blue carbon could be a “game changer” for urgently needed coastal conservation.

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