Mangroves, a line of defense against climate change

The Americas are home to 46,284 square kilometers of unrivaled natural wealth that for years has been overlooked and an often underestimated treasure: the mangroves.

Panama, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica, Suriname, Dominican Republic and Guatemala are some of the countries where this vital ecosystem exists, a favorite landscape for thousands of migratory and endemic birds, and a privileged habitat. for biodiversity.

But the benefits of mangroves go beyond: they are the first line of coastal defense in the fight against climate change, which leads to rising sea levels, more extreme weather, all of which put pressure on many coastal communities of the Americas, forcing them to adapt. to maintain their livelihoods. Given the situation, protecting mangroves, along with other vital coastal ecosystems: estuaries, mudflats, seagrasses and coral reefs, is essential to coping with and recovering from the effects of climate change.

Efforts to safeguard these habitats and their values ​​in its real dimension are an urgent task for governments, public, private and multilateral organizations. To this end, environmental organizations are investing time and cutting-edge science to understand the contributions of these coastal ecosystems and to further restoration and conservation strategies.

Julio Montes de Oca, director of Audubon Americas Coastal Resilience, knows firsthand the deep connection between mangroves and coastal resilience strategies. Today, the relationship between mangroves and coastal resilience is more evident than ever: these biodiverse habitats are also the foundation of community livelihoods and, in turn, essential connectors of the landscape and oceans, vital planetary supports for the cycle of life.

On July 26, the International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem, we spoke with Julio Montes de Oca to learn more about the impact of climate change on the region and the organization’s proposals to address its challenges in coastal and marine areas through the coastal resilience approach.

“To understand climate dynamics, you have to start precisely from the oceans,” he explains. “As huge bodies of water, they function like the lungs of the planet, responsible for producing much of the oxygen we breathe. They also significantly influence weather patterns by constantly exchanging oxygen. heat, humidity and carbon with the atmosphere.This natural dynamic, altered by the greenhouse gas effect resulting from the consumption of fossil fuels, modifies weather patterns, generating more extreme conditions and more natural phenomena. intense and more frequent such as tropical storms and drought.”

These conditions and events have a significant impact on the marine-coastal areas, not only because of the exposure factor, but also because in most countries of the region, from a development point of view, they are historical areas. with less access to health, education, and other public services,” concludes Montes de Oca.

But the good news is that we can mitigate these impacts with strategic actions, improving the resilience of marine-coastal ecosystems, where mangroves play a key role. This is precisely the goal of the Coastal Resilience Strategy.

With this approach, Audubon Americas seeks to conserve and restore these marine-coastal ecosystems to sustainably provide the services that support the livelihoods and development of coastal populations, such as:

  • Food, drinking water retention and storage. Genetic and biochemical material (supply services).
  • Climate regulation (including as a carbon sink), water regulation (recharge and discharge), erosion control, storm protection, pollination and sediment retention (regulating services).
  • Leisure, spiritual value, education (cultural services).
  • Soil formation, nutrient cycling (supporting services).

These services help ecosystems resist and recover more quickly from human-induced threats. “And this allows us to turn to nature-based solutions, that is, actions that use environmental services to address climate change and other societal challenges,” says Montes de Oca. .

It is important to note that the biodiversity of coastal areas is both a provider of benefits and a beneficiary of the protection and rational use of these spaces. For instance:

  • A well-preserved mangrove forest acts as a natural barrier that reduces direct exposure to humans and their activities. It can absorb the impact of a tidal wave or even a tsunami, protecting lives, infrastructure and productive activities.
  • Mangroves also serve as nurseries for many species of fish, crustaceans and molluscs upon which coastal communities and commercial fishing species depend.
  • Mangroves store far more carbon per area than rainforests, so they become a crucial ecosystem for climate change mitigation.
  • Due to the natural beauty and biological diversity of coastal areas, organized communities are developing bird-watching ecotourism with local guides, thereby diversifying their economy.

“It is important to have coastal resilience as part of our action plans, which integrate government authorities, productive sectors and organized civil society under the same umbrella. With this approach, we can address development issues different and complex conservation activities present in coastal regions in an integrated and coordinated way”, points out the Costa Rican chemical engineer who holds a master’s degree in human ecology.

Coastal resilience for people and birds

When asked why Audubon Americas has identified coastal resilience as a priority in its strategy, Julio Montes de Oca explains that the starting point is recognizing that coastal areas have inherent vulnerability due to their exposure to the masses of water as well as the socio-economic conditions of their population.

To this condition are added the climatic impacts on different time scales: those of the “slow start”, such as the rise in sea level, greater aridity or average precipitation (trends observed over time ); and variability, which are the specific events that deviate from these averages, with increasing intensity and frequency.

“Furthermore, poor production practices such as excessive use of agrochemicals, lack of solid waste and wastewater treatment, and deforestation affect the ability of ecosystems to provide services. coasts, water retention and filtration; precisely those that help us adapt to these impacts of climate change”, comments Montes de Oca.

“All these aspects added to the lack of land use planning that respects the natural vocation of the territory in the marine-coastal area become a trigger for serious risk”, underlines Julio.

Therefore, a coastal resilience strategy is vital for the Americas. It recognizes coastal areas as a critical environment and an important storehouse of natural and human capital, which can help us adapt to climate change and contribute to its mitigation if properly supported and enhanced.

The primary mission of the National Audubon Society in its more than 100-year history has been to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, their habitats, and the benefits to humanity and biodiversity. These multiple benefits become more visible to decision-makers at different levels and communities through coastal resilience.

Informing and communicating on a technical and scientific basis makes it possible to build appropriate policies and programs and to develop concrete actions which, thanks to their comprehensiveness, generate tangible and lasting benefits over time.

Julio’s extensive experience and technical knowledge of coastal resilience will support science-based decision-making. And it will help promote regional exchanges where countries adapt their experiences to their environment, generate learnings and develop participatory initiatives in response to the most serious threats to communities and nature.

Donald E. Patel