Mangroves: The last frontier of our coastal marine ecosystems

By Carlos Salvatierra – Executive Secretary of Redmanglar International and collaborator with COGMANGLAR

Trees with twisted roots that plunge into brackish waters in the tropical coasts, flocks of pelicans, seagulls and herons, fish that venture to the shores of the estuaries showing you their eyes, crabs marching through the silt. In the distance a small canoe, back from a trip through the wetlands, carries fishermen returning with food for their families after a day of fishing in the mangroves. Mangroves are one of the most productive ecological units on the planet, along with coral reefs and seagrass beds.

Vecinos de Tulate en el manglar de la zona, Tulate, Guatemala. Foto por: COGMANGLAR

Tulate residents in an area mangrove, Tulate, Guatemala. Photo by COGMANGLAR.

These ecological systems are found in tropical and subtropical coasts, and are characterized by their salt-tolerant species. Their name comes from the Guarani word ‘mangle’, literally ‘twited tree’; one of the most characteristic species is the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) whose roots resemble spider legs that rise above the water’s surface. (The Guaraní language comes from the area of Paraguay.)

The richness and high productivity of mangroves make them a strategic ecosystem to the food sovereignty of coastal communities. For years, communities and ancestral peoples of the mangroves have maintained a close and harmonious relationship, using and benefiting from fishing, shell collection, crabs, and other crustaceans and molluscs. The waters of the estuaries and canals also serve as a means of transportation for residents. These elements also make the mangroves important sites because of their high aesthetic value – key to community tourism.

Water is the key element that connects the mountains and rivers with these important ecosystems. Fresh water comes down from the mountains and the volcanic chain and joins the salty waters of the sea, nourishing the mangrove systems and other wetlands.In Guatemala, mangroves are found in the Pacific and Caribbean coast, totaling 18,840.08 hectares, of which 17,670.56 are in the Pacific. Several studies indicate that the loss of mangroves in the country has occured at an alarming rate, with 39% less surface area tan that reported in 1950.

Improper land use is the major cause of this destruction, resulting in the destruction of mangroves for the construction of housing complexes, harbors or ports – like the case of Champerico – as well as shrimp and salt production ponds. Shrimp farms generate negative impacts on coastal areas, not only for the mangroves, but for other associated wetlands as well. Historically, industrial shrimp farming has been responsible for most of the world’s mangrove loss. Mangroves are usually destroyed to build shrimp ponds. They salinate freshwater sources with negative impacts for communities, and they use many antibiotics that damage the wetlands. In addition, they spill wastewater into estuaries, creating water pollution and affecting ecological diversity.

Roots of the red mangrove tree. Photo by Patricia Macías.

Roots of the red mangrove tree. Photo by Patricia Macías.

The hoarding of land devoted to vast monocrop plantations like sugarcane and African palm is also a major threat. These plantations also use large quantities of water, illegally diverting entire rivers and altering their course. The lack of water does not only affect local populations, whose rights are violated, but also affects the ecosystem. This phenomenon is experienced in several municipalities of the southern coast of Guatemala, where mangroves are drying up due to lack of water, leading to a slow and systematic death.

With the death and disappearance of mangroves, not only are species lost, but one of the earth’s oldest vocations is also affected: artisanal fishing. There are thousands of people who fish for a living and live off this ecosystem. To decide not to take urgent action to restore and protect the few remaining mangroves means we will face the extinction of artisanal fishing and yet more poverty in these communities.”

An example of the greed of the monoculture plantations is what happens in the basins of the Coyolote and Madre Vieja rivers in Suchitepéquez and Escuintla, where communities have been left almost like islands amongst sugarcane and palms. When these rivers are diverted, communities suffer a lack of water for their crops and homes during the dry season, and in the rainy season the water encroaches on the communities, causing heavy flooding.

Given the serious situation posed by a lack of water, eighty fishermen and peasants from communities in the lower basin of the Madre Vieja River organized themselves last April to defend the river and its mangroves. Tired of long negotiations and unfulfilled agreements by the Molina family’s palm oil company, they decided to release six dams with their own hands – dams that illegally diverted the waters of the Madre Vieja towards their plantations.

They spent a whole day with shovels and pickaxes, removing the bags and earthen walls that prevented the passage of the river, despite the fear caused by threats from the companies’ security guards. These companies have private security, armed men protecting their interests, who also pose a serious risk to the integrity of communities and their leaders.

For years, various communities of the Pacific coast have organized themselves to defend their coastal territories, forming neighborhood associations, civic associations of fishermen, community development councils, and other organizations. In 2006, these groups formed the Guatemalan Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Mangroves and Life –COGMANGLAR. Over the years, COGMANGLAR has worked to support communities defending their territories and livelihoods, through local mangrove recovery programs and by filing public and legal complaints against those who destroy the natural assets of the people of the mangroves.

These past years have offered important lessons regarding the process of defending coastal ecosystems: organization as the base for local empowerment and protection of collective rights, community monitoring as a strategy for the dissemination of information and documentation of cases of destruction or contamination, as well as the direct rehabilitation of mangrove forests through reforestation with local participation.

But the work has not stopped there, as COGMANGLAR has also organized exchanges between countries of the region. In 2013 and 2014, the group participated actively by sharing their experiences of struggle with communities in El Salvador, which contributed to the formation of an Association of Mangrove Communities in Bahia Jiquilisco. The realities of the coastal communities of El Salvador and Guatemala are very similar. Both there and here, these communities face the large and powerful interests of activities related to industry, large-scale tourism, and agribusiness, each of which tries to monopolize their territories. In addition, they face political systems that show little interest in or will to defend the mangroves.

But the journey in defense of the mangroves is long, and continues, because the coasts where they are located are highly strategic locations. Given this strategic panorama, we know that only unity can bring strength.

When you visit mangrove regions, use community tourism services, accommodation, and restaurants, through which local communities can directly benefit from tourism. In places like the Monterrico Multi-Use Reserve, there are local guides who offer tours of the mangroves. Tourists can also visit the offices of the Center for Conservation Studies of the University of San Carlos (CECON) and its turtle hatchery facility in Monterrico. Eat seafood and fish from the mangroves that come from artisanal fishing, and ensure that the shrimp you eat does not come from the industrial shrimp industry.

Visit our website www.redmanglar.org or send emails to redmanglar@redmanglar.org.

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