Kenyans heal devastated land with the power of mangroves

Malindi (Kenya) (AFP) – Along a bank scarred by logging, Joseph Mwandenge Mangi points out a solitary mangrove tree, a species once abundant in the forest where the mighty Sabaki River meets the sea.

“It’s the last one. It’s gone,” said the 42-year-old Kenyan, who grew up on the estuary and has a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of its flora and fauna.

The surviving tree is a grim reminder for local communities working to restore this critical ecosystem and repair the plunder of the past.

For generations, villagers living near the Sabaki estuary relied on its natural wealth for timber and firewood, fresh water, seafood, farmland, and plants for traditional medicine.

Maintained in a sustainable way, the coastal wetland is also a resilient ally in the face of climate change: it stores carbon, filters water pollution and protects against extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels.

But years of uncontrolled logging have inflicted terrible damage on mangroves, mudflats, freshwater pools and sand dunes at the mouth of Kenya’s second longest river.

Mangrove timber – sustainably harvested for centuries to build traditional Swahili houses – has been cut to fuel construction in fast-growing coastal towns like nearby Malindi, a popular tourist hub.

Local women from a community group plant mangrove seedlings on the banks of the mighty Sabaki River Simon MAINAAFP

Locals overfished the river, using nets that trapped even the smallest marine life.

Fertile soils were uprooted and washed downstream into the Indian Ocean, further reducing fish in the Sabaki and killing offshore coral reefs.

“The landscape has changed. Back then we had a huge forest with elephants and monkeys,” said Francis Nyale, a 68-year-old village elder, standing in the middle of a clearing of gnarled mangrove stumps.

Climate ally

But one tree at a time, local villagers are bringing the estuary back to life.

For local communities, there are economic benefits to rehabilitating nature
For local communities, there are economic benefits to rehabilitating nature Simon MAINAAFP

Further down the Sabaki, where its brown waters meet the blue ocean and swarms of migrating birds flock overhead, a team of volunteers are planting young mangrove trees along the shore.

They have planted tens of thousands over the past few years, reclaiming cleared land and helping with significant forest regrowth, said Francis Kagema, regional coast coordinator for conservation group Nature Kenya.

There are warning signs that their efforts are paying off.

Crouching in a grove of older trees, Kagema spotted clusters of tiny green shoots sprouting from the dark ground – evidence of natural regeneration, a healing ecosystem.

One tree at a time, local villagers are bringing the estuary back to life
One tree at a time, local villagers are bringing the estuary back to life Simon MAINAAFP

“The world is changing, a lot. But for mangroves, their ability to bounce back…and colonize areas they once were, is quite encouraging,” he said.

These remarkable trees are also very useful to the planet – mangroves can absorb five times more carbon than terrestrial forests and act as a barrier against storm surges and coastal erosion.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which sponsors the Sabaki Restoration Project, protecting mangroves costs 1,000 times less per kilometer than building dykes against rising seas.

“Healthy wetlands – essential for climate change mitigation, adaptation, biodiversity, human health and prosperity – outweigh their weight in terms of benefits,” said UNEP Senior Coordinator Leticia Carvalho for marine and fresh waters.

– ‘Our trees, our heritage‘ –

For local communities, there are economic benefits to rehabilitating nature.

UNEP estimates that a single hectare of mangrove forest can economically yield between $33,000 and $57,000 per year.

In Sabaki, local guides supplement their income by taking visitors and school groups to see the hippos and birds that inhabit the estuary.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, protecting mangroves costs 1,000 times less per kilometer than building dykes against rising waters.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, protecting mangroves costs 1,000 times less per kilometer than building dykes against rising waters. Simon MAINAAFP

Work is underway to improve tourist facilities, develop traditional beekeeping in the forest and open a nursery for young plants.

Convincing Sabaki’s four villages that conservation has value requires careful diplomacy and a local touch, said Mangi, who leads a community group restoring the estuary.

They work with fishermen to abandon unsustainable practices, and volunteer rangers who catch loggers in the estuary handle infractions internally to keep everyone okay.

“We don’t take them to the police. We talk to them. We want them to understand that please there is something good in these trees (rather) than cutting down,” Mangi said.

Jared Bosire, of the Nairobi Convention, a regional environmental partnership for the Western Indian Ocean, said the Sabaki community demonstrated how local approaches to conservation can be mutually beneficial.

For generations, villagers living near the Sabaki estuary relied on its natural wealth for timber and firewood, fresh water, seafood, farmland, and plants for traditional medicine.
For generations, villagers living near the Sabaki estuary relied on its natural wealth for timber and firewood, fresh water, seafood, farmland, and plants for traditional medicine. Simon MAINAAFP

“The hope is that there will be lessons learned that could be replicated in other areas,” said Bosire, the Convention’s project manager.

Over 80% of mangroves have already disappeared along the western parts of the Indian Ocean.

For Mangi, there would be no community without them: “If we don’t have these trees, we lose our heritage.

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