More than a fifth of the world’s mangroves have been lost over the past 30 years alone, and many of the remaining forests are degraded. The depletion of mangroves in many developing countries in particular is a cause for serious environmental and economic concern.
This stems from the fact that mangroves play a vital role in moderating monsoonal tidal floods as well as other forms of coastal protection. Mangroves support numerous forms of fauna and flora, as well as estuarine and near-shore fisheries. They also sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide, which helps to mitigate climate change. Consequently, the continuing degradation and depletion of this vital resource will reduce not only terrestrial and aquatic production and wildlife habitats, but also the stability of coastal forests, thus threatening the livelihoods of people who depend on their ecosystem services and functions.
The value of nature’s ‘services’ and its non-market benefits need to be better understood, and incorporated into countries’ development choices. The total economic value associated with the more sustainable management of ecosystems is often higher than the value associated with its conversion into farming, mining, logging, or other intensive and unsustainable practices. This quantification is important for establishing the ‘true’ value of a mangrove forest, and therefore for enticing investment back into conservation. These decisions are particularly pertinent to Africa, where numerous countries are poised to acquire significant new wealth from oil, coal and gas deposits, with potentially devastating consequences for the physical environment. In Nigeria, Guinea Bissau and Mozambique, mangrove forests coincide with fossil fuel deposits and related infrastructure developments. In the wake of this extractive boom, African countries need to fully understand the consequences of natural resource exploitation for their fragile ecosystems, in order to minimise the negative impacts and avoid unnecessary and unwise trade-offs. Commercial economic activities must be planned in ways that avoid potential conflicts with other coastal habitat users, and take biodiversity into account.
It is therefore particularly important for resource-rich African countries to start utilising the ecosystem services approach to their natural resources, thus providing them with an instrument for balancing economic growth, social development needs and environmental protection. They need to examine the intersection of these sectors and take account of exacerbating factors such as climate change, population growth, and a subsequent increase in resource needs. The ecosystem services approach provides policymakers and planners with a framework for the integrated and sustainable management of land, water and living resources.
Mangrove ecosystem services, for example, need to be integrated into mainstream economic planning and development policy at all levels. At the national level, ecosystem services need to be incorporated into existing regulatory mechanisms, complementing existing approaches but not necessarily replacing them. Also, existing conflicts of interest in coastal zones need to be immediately addressed and resolved, thus aligning economic development with the maintenance of vulnerable coastal ecosystems. Policy-makers must be made aware of the combined and cumulative impacts of their decisions on all sectors, thus enabling them to combine their decisions to pursue mega-projects with effective measures to mitigate negative environmental impacts. Governance tools and management planning, such as thorough Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs) and the use of Strategic Environment Assessments (SEAs), can help to achieve this goal.
Mangrove losses in various countries differ considerably, often due to national differences in policies, legislation and management. Reversing the trend of mangrove loss and the growing vulnerability of coastal communities will require a real commitment by governments to develop and implement robust high-level policies and good management practices, and establish clear frameworks for owning, using and managing mangroves. Mangroves are being restored in many countries, thus reversing the patterns of loss while bringing considerable socio-economic benefits to coastal areas. Also, restoration and protection is achievable and more likely to occur if strong economic arguments and incentive structures are used to emphasise the value of natural capital in support of sustainable development goals. In this regard, there is an urgent need for better ecosystem accounting as well as new ways of financing environmental schemes, such as Blue Carbon financing under climate change mitigation frameworks.