“About three years ago I noticed that the high tides were coming up into my rice fields, and taking the soil away with them. I’d never seen that before,” Philippe, a rice farmer from the village of Ambalahonko, tells me from under his wide-brimmed straw hat; something my fair-skinned and fine-haired self, unfortunately, did not have the foresight to invest in prior to our four-hour excursion.
“That’s what convinced me to join the mangrove management association. It’s getting serious, and we have to do something.”
Ambalahonko is about three miles off the Route Nationale 6, just north of the city of Ambanja in northwest Madagascar. I’ve come here today to learn a bit more about Philippe and his association’s work, which we at Blue Ventures have been supporting for the past two years.
Turning off the tarmac road, we head down a rutted sand path cutting through verdant cacao and coffee plots dotted with the occasional thatch house on stilts. Massive shade trees provide relief from the blazing tropical sun as we carefully pick our way, dodging an incessant stream of bicycle-mounted fish vendors, making their daily dash from the fisher landing sites to the markets in Ambanja. Eschewing the frivolity of a bell or a horn, the only warning of their approach is a hastily shouted “beep beep!”
These fish vendors are master strategists, constantly weighing the benefit of staying to buy a bit more fish against cutting out early and trying to be the first to market in order to get a better price.
Philippe is also president of Ambalahonko’s mangrove management association, locally referred to as the “CLB”, a French acronym for Communauté Locale de Base. The name of his village, meaning “the place of the mangrove fences”, is a testament to its inhabitants’ dependence on these remarkable coastal forests that grow at the interface between land and sea.
Mangrove forests provide building materials, support important fisheries including crab and prawn, are a source of natural remedies, and protect coastal settlements from erosion and cyclone damage. They also sequester massive amounts of atmospheric carbon, around four-times that of other major forest types on a per hectare basis, depositing it deep into their sediments, making them one of the most important carbon sinks on Earth.
Globally, mangroves are being lost at an alarming rate. By some estimates, as much as 50 percent of mangrove forests have been destroyed in the last 50 years. Most of this loss is a result of the expansion of shrimp aquaculture, which has roughly tripled in the past 15 years, as well as tourism development in coastal areas.
Ambalahonko’s mangroves are part of the greater Ambanja and Ambaro Bay mangrove ecosystem. Together, these two bays are home to the second largest area of mangroves in Madagascar, which is itself fourth among African countries in total extent of mangrove forests. A recent study carried out by the University of Antananarivo and Blue Ventures found that between 1990 and 2010, Ambanja and Ambaro Bays lost approximately 20 percent of their mangroves.
In northwest Madagascar, charcoal production for urban markets is the biggest driver of this loss. Mangrove charcoal burns hotter and lasts longer than charcoal from terrestrial forests, making it more desirable for the discerning Malagasy cook.
“The problem with charcoal production,” explains Michel, a member of the Ambalahonko CLB, “is that it’s not selective. When you cut a tree to build a house, or a fence, you choose the straight ones, and you leave the crooked ones. They drop their seeds, and the forest fills itself back in naturally. With charcoal production, you cut everything, and no trees are left to repopulate.”
“This bit here is nothing, further north it’s a catastrophe,” Philippe tells me as we trudge through the thick, carbon-rich mud and tiptoe over cut mangrove stumps, “our forest is destroyed.”
Tellingly, some community members, in describing the scale of the problem to me, estimated the cleared areas in terms of how many helicopters they think could safely land there.
So the solution is clear: stop charcoal production and plant mangroves. But the picture is a bit more complicated than that.
While most charcoal production is carried out by transient teams with little concern for the long-term health of mangrove forests, it also acts as a safety net for the most vulnerable locals. It’s a low-skill, low-technology way to make some money during hard times, such as when a storm destroys your crops or a family member falls ill.
“People need other activities to make a living,” explains Philippe, “we’re too dependent on export crops like cacao, vanilla and coffee. The markets go up and down. I’d like to see my village learn how to grow vegetables. The hotels around here spend a lot to bring vegetables in from the central highlands. We have fertile soil, we could be supplying these hotels.”
Today, Philippe, some of his fellow CLB members, teachers from the primary school and Blue Ventures’ Blue Forests team are leading a student mission to plant mangroves. In just a couple of hours, over 100 students from Ambalahonko manage to plant more than 3,600 propagules in areas that have been heavily cut by charcoal producers.
As we head back to the village, Philippe points out an area where students did a planting five years ago. “Some of the trees are already shoulder height, and producing seeds. It’s important to involve the kids so that they’ll grow up with an appreciation for the forest. Planting mangroves will just be something they’ve always done.”
“Our CLB is just starting out, but we have high hopes. We want to do plantings every month and put in place a permit system for those who need to harvest mangrove wood for building,” Philippe adds. “But it’s difficult. Not everyone wants to participate or follow the rules. You need patience. And thick skin.”
Though it’s still early days, a number of community members sound cautiously optimistic. “Charcoal production has almost completely stopped, and you can see where the forest is beginning to grow back,” said one middle-aged man I spoke to. “It’s still in bad shape, but if we keep planting, and the CLB does a good job of enforcing the rules, I think we’ll see the forest go back to how it used to be.”
Blue Ventures works with coastal communities in Madagascar and Belize to develop community-led fisheries management initiatives. Our Blue Forests work in Madagascar is generously supported by the Darwin Initiative, the Waterloo Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the French Facility for Global Environment (FFEM), and the Global Environment Facility.