Managing the Mangroves
Canadian-Funded Project May Hold Lessons for Bay Islands

August 29th, 2012
by Robert Armstrong

[private] Mangrove forests, which surround much of the Honduran north coast as well as the Bay Islands, are vital both to sustaining marine life and to protecting people on coasts from the ravages of the sea. They are being reduced and degraded by human activities such as agriculture and tourism, as well as the struggle of poor rural communities to survive. Experts are working with communities in Cuero y Salado, west of La Ceiba, to restore degraded mangroves on former banana land. Groups on Utila and Guanaja are studying the model, but so far no official expression of interest has been received from anyone on Roatan.

Three-quarters of marine species spend at least part of their life in mangrove forests and swamps, which also provide habitat for birds, monkeys, crocodiles, manatees and other wildlife. Mangroves also filter saltwater, absorb carbon and buffer coasts from storms.

Three-quarters of marine species spend at least part of their life in mangrove forests and swamps.

Anyone can plant a tree. But how hard is it to return a forest to how God made it? That’s what a group of experts are attempting to do on a former Standard Fruit (Dole) plantation near La Ceiba.

The Proyecto Mangle (community resilience for the protection and restoration of mangroves) – a collaboration between the Fundación Cuero y Salado and the Falls Brook Centre of New Brunswick, Canada – is employing analog forestry techniques to not just replant mangrove trees but replicate a natural mangrove forest with all its associated species, then educate and encourage the people of the area, mostly former Standard Fruit workers, to keep it that way.

The project began three years ago with a small grant from the Blue Moon Fund of Charlottesville, Virginia. Last year the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) provided funds to continue the project through 2014.

Biologists say mangrove forests are among the most productive and complex ecosystems on the planet. They form a transition between land and sea, between freshwater and saltwater. They are nurseries for numerous species of fish and crustaceans and also provide habitat for many birds and land species. Their roots filter pollutants out of the water, and studies show they absorb carbon dioxide faster than terrestrial forests.

Mangroves also buffer coasts from storms and high seas, reducing erosion and damages from hurricanes. In large part because its mangroves no longer adequately serve this function, Honduras was recently ranked third in the world in terms of impact from global climate change.

Proyecto Mangle operates within the Cuero y Salado wildlife refuge, where mangroves have been under threat for decades, beginning with the arrival of the banana companies more than a century ago. More recently they have faced threats from African palm plantations, cattle ranching and impoverished locals foraging for resources.

African palms — an extremely adaptive and fast-growing species — implant themselves within mangrove forests when their seeds are carried in from nearby plantations. Once implanted, the invasive palms out-compete the indigenous species for water, sunlight and nutrients, creating localized monocultures.

View of Pico Bonito from the Salado River in the Cuero y Salado wildlife refuge.

View of Pico Bonito from the Salado River in the Cuero y Salado wildlife refuge.

The project pays local men to cut down the invasive African palms. Women are employed to maintain compost heaps to produce organic fertilizer and prepare seedlings for replanting where the African palms have been cut out.

Standard Fruit is collaborating by making some of its land parcels available for experimental organic production, with the goal of not only creating an export market for sustainable produce but also establishing a corridor between the restored mangrove forests and associated inland forests. Such a corridor would allow monkeys to migrate between the two forests, among other things.

Inhabitants of the refuge are also being taught and encouraged to exploit the forest resources in more sustainable ways. For example, Jesse Skwaruk, a human geography specialist recently dispatched to the project from the Falls Brook Centre, has set up a workshop where local children make jewelry out of coconut shells and other forest waste. They sold Lps. 3,000 to tourists in the first two weeks.

LEFT: Blue crabs feed among the mangrove roots in Cuero y Salado. Poachers entering the reserve to hunt the crabs, whose numbers have declined dramatically in recent years, are a major impediment to the mangrove restoration project.

Poachers entering the Cuero y Salado refuge to hunt blue crabs, whose numbers have declined dramatically in recent years, are a major impediment to the mangrove restoration project.

Anuar Romero, the project’s coordinator, said the most difficult part was not the scientific or technical challenge but the social dimensions, in particular the grinding poverty in which the forest inhabitants live.

“The government’s policy is not good,” he said. “Politicians don’t care about the rural poor,” who encroach on the forest out of necessity.

Romero said the Fundación Islas de la Bahía was studying the project with an eye toward trying to do something similar on Utila. The project has also held workshops for teachers on Guanaja to sensitize students there to the importance of conserving mangrove forests. But Romero said he had received no expressions of interest yet from any groups on Roatan, despite the serious threat he said mangroves confront on Roatan from tourist development.

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