When Kahindi Charo gathered 30 of his friends to replant mangroves in the 32 square kilometer (12 square mile) Mida Creek area, people in his village of Dabaso in Kilifi County dismissed them as crazy idlers.
Charo recalls that back then, in 2000, the creek had suffered badly from unregulated harvesting that had left the area bare, with rotting stumps and patches of old mangrove trees.
Today, Mida Creek, about 60 km (38 miles) north of Mombasa, flourishes with dense mangrove plantations that provide a habitat for birds, fish, and crabs. There is also a boardwalk leading to a 12-seat eco-restaurant perched beside the Indian Ocean.
“If there were no mangroves, we would be dead, since most of us are fishermen and fish lay their eggs and get their food from mangrove marshes,” Charo said, sitting at the restaurant.
The task of the Dabaso Creek Conservation Group (DCCG) was not an easy one. At first, the group planted mangrove seeds that had washed ashore, not realizing that some were from different ecological zones and unsuited to the environment at Mida Creek. Fewer than half the trees first planted by the budding conservationists survived, Charo said.
Some discouraged members left, but others pushed on with the work. Nowadays the 26-member organization is one of more than 50 mangrove conservation community groups with a total of around 1,500 members, spread along Kenya’s 600 km (375 mile) coastline.
Over the last 10 years, conservationists in the region have planted an estimated 10 million mangroves, and the forests have in turn provided for the community. During the peak tourism season, which runs from August to March, the Dabaso Creek Conservation Group earns over 300,000 Kenyan shillings (around $3,600) from the eco-restaurant, birding excursions, and selling crabs and fish to hotels in Dabaso.
As the project’s supervisor, Charo himself receives a salary and no longer relies on selling groundnuts to make a living.
Like Charo, 29-year-old Mwatime Hamadi, a nursery school teacher from Gazi, 50 km (31 miles) south of Mombasa, has seen her earnings rise through mangrove conservation.
Hamadi belongs to Gazi Women Mangrove, a group whose 36 members farm fish and crabs and keep bees for honey in the mangroves. There is also a boardwalk for visitors interested in touring the marshes, with a fee ranging from 50 shillings ($0.60) to 300 shillings (around $4) for international tourists. The women also run a curio shop targeted at tourists.
Some of the earnings from these projects fund classes for illiterate adults in the community.
Michael Njoroge, a researcher with Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) Gazi station, explained that the institute also trains communities on planting other trees as well as mangroves – such as the fast-growing casuarina tree, which matures in just three to five years. Researchers hope it could take pressure off mangrove forests.
“We now use casuarina for building and wood fuel,” said Hamadi. “If you cut mangrove it takes 25 years (for a new tree) to mature, and other trees can’t shield us from high tide like (mangrove).”
Last year, the research institute provided almost 3,000 casuarina seedlings for planting around Gazi, a village with some 1,000 residents. Local institutions like Gazi Primary School have provided land for communal woodlots where the trees are planted. Once mature, the trees will be sold to locals, for construction and other uses.
The casuarina woodlots should help reduce the pressure on mangroves from unlicensed harvesting, although some mangroves are still felled by people who are too poor to afford other sources of fuel, according to Njoroge.
A 2010 study by Coastal and Marine Resources Development Africa (COMRED Africa) reported that 70 percent of coastal Kenya’s wood requirement was met using mangroves, including 80 percent of the poles used for building houses. But since a presidential ban on mangrove harvesting was enacted in 2000, there has been an increase in mangrove planting and losses have slowed.
A study released last year by Landsat, Ocean Coast Management, and KMFRI showed that from 2000 to 2010 mangrove depletion in Kenya totalled 1,340 hectares (3,310 acres), compared to 4,950 hectares (12,230 acres) lost in the eight years prior to that.
Currently there are 54,000 hectares (133,000 acres) of mangrove spread across 18 forest formations along the Kenya’s coastline, according to the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). In Gazi and Dabaso any mangroves cut must be licensed by the service, which consults with community forest associations that act as grass-roots protectors of the mangroves. Communities also provide guards for the mangroves, paid for by the forest service.
Mangrove conservation is important in the fight against climate change, and not just because mangroves can slow storm surges, prevent erosion, and lower disaster risk for coastal communities.
An Earth Watch study reported that 1 hectare of mangroves can sequester 1.36 tons of carbon in a year, equivalent to the annual emissions of six cars. Mangroves and other coastal vegetation like seagrasses and salt marsh grass, which are collectively known as blue carbon, can sequester carbon up to 100 times more effectively than terrestrial forests, one study shows.
Locals hope the carbon-absorbing properties of the trees will help produce more income for communities around Gazi Bay once a “payment for ecosystem services” scheme dubbed Mikoko Pamoja is assessed and certified by Plan Vivo, a charity working on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).
According to project coordinator Noel Mbaru, the project covers about one-fifth of the 615-hectare Gazi Bay Mangrove Forest. The scheme is expected to sell carbon credits equivalent to 3,000 tons each year, earning the community about $15,000.
Mikoko Pamoja also oversees the casuarinas woodlots, and aims to replenish degraded land with 4,000 mangroves annually for the next 20 years.
“If mangroves are destroyed, we won’t get any more money or educate our children, (so) we need to conserve them carefully,” said Hamadi of Gazi Women Mangrove.
• James Karuga is a Nairobi-based journalist interested in agriculture and climate change issues.
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.