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mangroves: the ‘other’ deforestation

a SHORT by. Angello Faccini & Guille Isa
Country. USA & Colombia
RUN time. 10:46 min

“gives viewers just a taste of Dulce’s world. It’s beautifully shot and offers moments of silence—to ponder perhaps, or to imagine being in their shoes.”
yessenia funes, gizmodo

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the battle for the sundarbans

A short written piece which dives into the loss of mangroves in the Sundarbans - the largest mangrove forest in the world. Learn about the story and get to know the people leading the fight!

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Salma Siddiqa
in collab with
Rafiqul Montu

stories from
the ground

The dominant mental image of deforestation is one of barren patches of land in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, the foliage dramatically segmented, juxtaposed against the striking emptiness of the deforested land. In this vision of deforestation, the aquatic mangrove forests which cover about 53,190 square miles of the surface of the planet offering valuable flood protection, jobs and carbon storage, are often forgotten.

Mangroves are a valuable natural resource for Colombia’s economy and a prominent symbol of national heritage for its people. The ongoing, large scale destruction of global mangrove forests threatens the erasure of such heritage, along with the communities, livelihoods and land the Mangroves have long defended.

On his trek into the Sundarbans, Rafiqul’s guides show him the vast expanse of the Mangrove forest

the battle for the sundarbans

The mangrove crisis is more evident in Bangladesh, where rising sea levels and infrastructure development are posing significant threats to The Sundarbans - the largest mangrove forest in the world.

Bangladesh’s high population density and inadequate infrastructure make it exceptionally vulnerable to climate change. Since Bangladesh is at an average elevation of just one metre above sea level, even the slightest increase would dramatically affect the area. Sea level rise, natural disasters and salinisation have already displaced large numbers of people, and it is only set to get worse - it’s been estimated that by 2050, one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change and up to 18 million may have to move due to sea level rise alone.

A majority of this displacement is internal: most people flee vulnerable coastal areas and end up in urban slums, particularly in Dhaka, one of the world’s fastest-growing and most densely populated megacities. While the climate migrants see the city as a haven, the reality is far from it - the city is fraught with extreme poverty, human trafficking, public health hazards and its own vulnerability to floods.

“Bangladesh is now facing a situation in which a 1 metre of sea level rise will swamp something like half the country. I have seen entire villages disappear in the Sundarbans. Land that was once fertile has just been gobbled up by sea.”
Amitav Ghosh, prominent climate authoR
Rafiqul visiting the mangrove forest, where community led restoration programmes are aiming to revitalise this valuable ecosystem

Rafiqul Islam Montu is a journalist whose extensive work on Bangladesh’s coastline has coined a new term: Coastal Journalism. In summary of the current situation Rafiqul writes “There are 19 districts under the coast of Bangladesh. Out of these 19 districts, 16 districts are most at risk in terms of climate change and natural disasters. The population in the coastal areas of Bangladesh is about 50 million.” He adds that “The people of this region are mostly fishermen and farmers” living “Sundarbans-centric livelihoods”

While mangroves provide the first line of defence and are quite resistant to submersion in water, they can die when floods caused by cyclones occur too frequently or last too long. Rafiqul notes the visible effects of climate change on Bangladesh’s weather patterns, writing “When we look at the weather signals, we see unusual images. Cyclone signals have been issued frequently in recent years.”

The Bangladeshi government’s Forest Department does spend some money renewing mangrove forests and preserving old mangrove forests but according to Rafiqul, the government’s conservation efforts are “very limited”. And, he continues, “even then these works are not being done properly. As a result, the forests are not being protected. People in the affected areas are at risk due to lack of forest protection.”

Protestors gathered to try to stop the Barclays-financed construction of the Rampal power plant in dangerous proximity to the Sundarbans

A recent example of this is the Rampal coal power station, which has been approved by the government and is currently being constructed in close proximity to the Sundarbans. The harmful effects of the coal power plant will destroy the forest, pollute water sources and displace local communities, taking away their homes and livelihoods. Despite protests from local environmental groups, the government approved the project, providing a further threat to the mangrove forest that Bangladesh relies so heavily on. In yet another example of banks financing the climate crisis, it was Barclays that funded the Rampal plant, paying $300m to initiate the project.

But the lack of adequate government assistance has led to an incredible, people-led system of voluntary work to protect their communities. As the monsoon season approaches, the people on the west coast of Bangladesh have to undertake embankment repairs. Rafiqul describes how “Thousands of people from different villages gather to repair the weak embankment” and “Many times at night they guard the embankment” to protect villages from flooding. Whilst this is emblematic of the Bangladesh government’s systemic failures to protect its citizens, it speaks to the spirit of community organising in the region.

Rafiqul believes that this spirit is best exemplified by the work by women and young people in their work regenerating the mangrove forest. “At one time of the year, the fruits of various trees float in the tidal water from the Sundarbans. These were used by the people near the Sundarbans as cooking fuel. But with that fruit, I have seen the initiative to build ‘mangrove nurseries’ in many places. This nursery has been developed on the initiative of women. The saplings of this tree are being planted outside the embankment in the area adjacent to the Sundarbans. As a result, the natural walls are getting stronger.”

Women and young people have been instrumental in the growth of mangrove forests

These communities working on restoration projects have been influenced by the success of the ‘Second Sundarbans’ - a regeneration project to regrow a large part of the mangrove forest that was destroyed during a cyclone in 1970. Rafiqul details the success of the project, “The age of forest plants is over 50 years old. The extent of this forest is increasing every year through some exceptional techniques with the help of local people.”

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mangrove sequestration and growing pains

We take a look at the systemic issues that have put the worlds mangrove forests at such risk and why they are particularly tricky to restore. Plus an interactive map of the best opportunities for restoration.

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the dots

xperts at the University of Cambridge, The Nature Conservancy and IUCN merged innovative data to create a unique mapping tool to allow decision-makers to identify areas where mangrove forest restoration can succeed by highlighting places where they once thrived, and where conditions remain suitable for restoration.

where are
the mangroves?

growing pains

Mangroves are not just the most effective natural flood barriers in existence. They are also incredibly effective carbon sinks. A 2018 study found that in 2000 global Mangrove soil was storing a staggering 6.4bn tonnes of carbon. The rate at which it can store carbon means that it is 4 times more effective than drier soils at sequestering. Sadly the mangrove deforestation that took place between 2000-2015, mainly in Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar, has released up to 122 million tonnes of carbon dioxide - more than 3 times the amount released from car emissions in the UK in a year.

While mangroves are quite hardy and can tolerate conditions that most trees can’t, restoring them is no mean feat. It is not as simple as growing seedlings in a greenhouse and then transplanting them into mudflats along the ocean’s edge. In their natural habitat, mangrove roots are submerged in water for a part of each day, as the tides come in and roll out. And getting this water level right is crucial - it can mean the difference between the survival of the seedlings and imminent death.

Moreover, it’s crucial to plant the right type. Mangroves aren’t a single species - the term covers around 70 species of shrubs and trees that grow in saline water. Each of these species requires a unique set of conditions to thrive; planting the wrong type in the wrong location can kill the plant. After the devastating impacts of Typhoon Haiyan on the Philippines’ coastal communities, the government committed to planting one million mangroves as a buffer against such storms. However, these efforts did not pay heed to the type of mangrove species planted and as a result, many of these trees died.

Most mangroves also take longer than normal trees to grow to maturity - 15 years instead of 10 - meaning that deforestation of mangroves is even more difficult to repair and offset than regular deforestation. This heightens the importance of conservation efforts and shows the drawbacks of blue carbon offsetting schemes that take 15 years to reset damage done.

fighting over the coast

This map shows the location and severity of mangrove habitat loss, measured in kilometres, caused by natural and human drivers from 2000 to 2016. Darker areas experienced more loss in the period. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens

The geographic spaces mangrove forests occupy are part of the reason why they are being deforested at such an alarming rate. Coastal areas are the best places to set up aquaculture farming complexes, meaning that farmers and fisherman see the mangrove forests as unnecessary obstacles to profits. The sustainable alternatives exist in the form of mangrove aquaculture, where the systems support fisheries, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, coastal protection and resilience to climate change. But as the health of aquaculture livestock is heavily affected by pollution, low oxygen levels and salinity changes in the water, it is common to cut down areas of the mangrove forest and set up structures where conditions can be controlled more easily.

Farming communities are realising the importance of mangroves and there has been a movement to balance sustainable aquaculture with mangrove conservation. In parts of Indonesia, people conserve mangroves at the centre of their shrimp farms and plant oil palm along the borders.

The prized coastal locations that Mangroves inhabit are also incredibly valuable to the tourism industry. Luxury resorts and hotels are far more desirable when they are on the seafront than when they are inland, meaning much higher prices and much higher profits for developers. The dark reality is that this tourism is driven by western consumerism, which is happy to be actively complicit in destroying a less developed country’s natural flood defences in exchange for a luxury holiday package.

Natural causes such as shoreline erosion and extreme weather events represent 37% of mangrove losses globally, a figure that has been growing as climate change has exacerbated the damage caused. Ocean acidification from high carbon levels in the atmosphere and plastic pollution rot the roots of mangroves whilst the extreme weather phenomena Rafiqul describes are having destructive effects on mangrove forests in South America and Australia.

zero in

& actions

From creating more protected areas to regeneration frameworks, we look at the solutions to mangrove deforestation. Then find out what you can do to help, wether its by learning, supporting, participating or leading.

take action!

+ actions

how do we untangle this mess?

but, practically, where do you even start?

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