Forgotten forests carry not only the power to save the communities who depend upon it for their livelihoods but also to save all of us.
São João da Ponta, Brazil — We fall silent as we enter the mangrove forest. As if stepping through a portal, the noise of the river recedes in the distance and we are bathed in green light as our boat slips beneath the canopy, aided only by paddles. We seek narrow channels that wind through the trees and their spidery tangles of roots. Beneath us, the water is like black tea, its oily surface interrupted on occasion by the swirl of a fin of a fish, unseen below. No one dares speak above a whisper and break our holy awe.
We are near the mouth of the Amazon River, a few hours’ drive from the northern city of Belem.
We pull up the boats onto a scrape of mud and disembark, our bare feet sinking into the silkiest black mud as we make our way deeper into the forest. To linger is to sink deeper.
I am with a team from Conservation International in Brazil, along with a local partner, Waldemar Vergara, and other community members who work with him. They come from four generations of fishermen. This morning they are searching for mangrove crabs.
Mangroves grow only on the slimmest of margins — that fragile and narrow boundary between land and water. They thrive in the heat and humidity and in places with tides. They must have been a formidable barrier to early Western explorers seeking a toehold on solid ground, only to be confronted by an unimaginably dense thicket and sucking mud. Perhaps that’s why mangroves are so misunderstood.
Humans have dredged, scraped, burned, and drained mangrove swamps. We have cleared them for forts and ports, and more recently, for aquaculture like shrimp farms. Today, only half the world’s original mangroves remain, and they are still being converted at a swift pace: Each year, an area of mangroves the size of Houston is lost.
Only recently have we begun to realize their true worth to our planet. Fast growing, mangroves have an uncanny ability to extract carbon from the atmosphere and lock it away, most of it beneath the surface of the water and many meters into the mud below, where it can sit for millennia. Though mangroves represent only 0.7 percent of the surface area of the planet, their burning and destruction contributes disproportionately to global carbon emissions — up to 10 times that of terrestrial forests.
Scientists know that any hope of meeting our global targets for carbon emissions is impossible without protecting tropical forests — and why so much effort and expense are being mustered to do so. And hectare for hectare, no tropical forest ecosystem is more important for the climate than mangroves.
Of course, local people like Waldemar always knew these places were special. Now, my organization, Conservation International, is piloting a project by which local communities will become protectors of these forests and fully realize their true value.
The men go about setting crab traps. Every few meters or so, a hole appears in the mud, excavated grain by grain by a busy crab. The men lay out small snares of twine anchored by a stick at the entrance of the holes, marking the spot with a smear of mud on a nearby branch. After the tide rises and falls, they will return to check their traps. On a good day, half will entangle a crab.
Just a couple of years ago, the men would have kept all the crabs they caught, all but wiping out crab populations in some areas. But today, only males larger than 8 centimeters (about 3 inches) are kept, with the rest cut loose.
Thanks to a grant from Google Brazil, these communities now track their crabs from swamp to table. As a result, crab-fishing cooperatives have cut out the middlemen and command higher prices for their newly traceable, sustainable catch. In just one year, communities have doubled their income from the sustainable crab fisheries that mangroves can provide.
As the tide starts to come in, we prepare to leave. Waldemar offers a prayer of thanks for the bounty these mangroves provide to their community, making us press our palms into the soft mud as if it were wet cement, then holding up our blackened hands for all to see.
Later in the village’s community center, we watch crabs from a previous outing be tagged and packed into blue crates under wet blankets for shipping to the market.
The São João da Ponta community now protects its adjoining mangrove forest and carefully regulates fishing and crabbing. We saw no signs of cutting, burning or clearing of the forest. The area of about 2,000 hectares (nearly 5,000 acres) is safe.
For the people who live here, a better and sustainable livelihood is now possible and there is a clear value in protecting the habitat of fish and crab they depend on.
But that is not all they are protecting. This small reserve protected by this one community stores the carbon equivalent of the emissions of 1.5 million cars.
Of course, 2,000 hectares of mangroves is still relatively small, but up and down the Brazilian coast, other communities with proximity to mangrove forests are clamoring for a similar program that will help to transform their community from simply forest users to forest protectors.
Inside the community center, children perform songs celebrating mangroves, crabs and the river. Outside, under some mango trees, women from the village set up a lunch of fish stew and a giant pot of red mangrove crab.
I am struck by how these forgotten forests carry not only the power to save the communities who depend upon it for their livelihoods but also to save all of us.
A line Waldemar uttered in the mangroves runs through my mind:
“One can only be considered a fisherman,
those whose hands do the work of a fisherman;
In their hearts, bring a sense of sharing,
And in their minds, hold conservation.
We are half human, half crab, following a stream of desire.”