Around the world, forests are being burnt and cut to make room for soy farms, palm oil plantations, logging operations, and cattle ranches. It’s come to a point where articles about it have become commonplace in many publications and there are even world records for greatest deforestation. Yet, there is one kind of forest that is notably absent from most discussions: mangrove forests. Found at the intersection of land and sea in tropical and subtropical regions, they provide a wealth of services to both humans and the environment. This includes:
- serving as a sink for carbon and pollutants
- being home to many species who also depend on it for breeding
- protecting coastlines against erosion, floods, and storms
They are also vitally important to the economy. A 2014 report from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimated that an average square kilometer of mangrove forest provides services worth US$3.3 million to US$5.7 million (€2.71 million to €4.68 million, £2.47 million to £4.27 million). It’s also estimated that up to 80% of fish catches worldwide depend on mangroves.
Despite these facts, mangroves have been disappearing at a rate of nearly 2% every year on average, with 35% having been lost in the last 20 years alone. Worldwide, there are only 150,000 km2 of mangrove forests left. As a point of comparison, that’s more or less the size of the American state of Illinois, or slightly bigger than Greece. Not a lot for such a vital element of our planet. That’s like learning that we can soon expect the Arctic to be completely ice-free for a good part of the year. Oh, wait.
Found at the junction between terrestrial and marine ecosystems, mangrove forests are home to up to 80 different species of mangrove trees. Easily recognizable once you know what you’re looking for, these grow in numerous tropical and subtropical countries, with 19% of the world’s mangroves being found in Indonesia, 10% in Australia, and 7% in Brazil and Nigeria. You might have seen some before without realizing what you were looking at.
With such a small coverage being split between so many countries, it’s hard to get people interested in mangroves. When the Amazon gets burnt down to make room for plantations, it makes the news because of the large and impressive scale of it. By comparison, when a small mangrove forest gets cut to make room for shrimp farming, it seems almost inconsequential. After all, the Brazilian portion of the Amazon alone has seen more deforestation recently than all the mangrove forests combined.
Although small in comparison with other forests, mangroves provide essential services that many people don’t realize they depend on. For one, they are an important filter for pollution and contaminants. Able to act as sinks, they are very efficient at containing and filtering out pollutants like heavy metals. In some places, they are even used for cheap waste disposal. Equally important, they are a vital means of carbon capture. Despite constituting only 0.7% of all tropical forest areas worldwide, the fact that they are up to 50 times more efficient than typical tropical forests means that mangrove deforestation accounts for up to 10% of all emissions globally. We should definitely stop burning the Amazon, but maybe it’s time to start paying attention to other forests too.
In addition to being one of the most efficient ecosystems to capture pollution, mangrove forests also happen to be one of the most important ecosystems for wildlife. Mangrove ecosystems provide an extremely important shelter and breeding ground for a vast number of species, including endangered ones like the Bengal tiger, the green turtle, and the milky stork. The Australian mangroves alone are home to over 200 species of birds. With thousands of species having an essential need for these forests, it’s hard to imagine the global impact of the deforestation of this ecosystem. The commercial fishing worldwide is almost entirely dependent on the presence of mangroves to replenish fish stocks. Yet, we are cutting it away to make room for shrimp farms powered by slave labour.
Of course, we cannot talk about mangroves without mentioning the protective effect they have on coastal communities. Proven to be an incredible way of mitigating the impact of hurricanes and tropical storms, they have even been found to be able to completely mitigate the impact of hurricanes in areas where they were wider than one kilometer deep. With up to 1.4 billion people being in risk areas, and with many living in poverty, the protective potential of mangrove forests is going to continue increasing in importance as climate change continues to happen. Countries are starting to realize the importance of green barriers against climate, but whereas wealthy areas can afford to rebuild what was destroyed in the name of profit, many communities lack the resources to do so.
There are so many reasons mangroves should be more protected, many of which weren’t mentioned in this article, and some we probably don’t fully understand yet. What we should begin to understand, however, is that the trend of mangrove deforestation needs to be reversed. If anything we should ensure that mangrove forests grow, owing to how essential they are. Do we need trees to start growing golden nuggets before we acknowledge their value?
Unlike some other ecosystems, we know we can rehabilitate mangrove forests and undo most of the damage that was done relatively easily. From economic benefits to environmental necessities, mangroves constitute one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth. Maybe we should start treating them as such.