By Lucy Calderón, founder, reporter, photographer, and editor of EcocienciaGT.
"When I am among the mangroves, I feel happy because I am taking care of my future and that of my children and grandchildren," says the fisherman Norberto Tróchez, smiling, as he tries to place his feet on a small patch of soil where the roots of the black mangroves that he, along with neighbors from his community, planted in a previously degraded area.
However, this experienced fisherman from the village of San Juan, located in the municipality of Livingston, department of Izabal, Guatemala, did not always think this way. "Until recently, we were destroying the mangroves to obtain firewood and produce charcoal or to make fish nurseries that would attract larger ones to catch them," he recounts.
It was after participating in the training that the non-governmental environmental organization EcoLogic Development Fund (EcoLogic) organized in this community and in Barra Sarstún —as part of the project Mangrove Ecosystem Conservation, Restoration and Monitoring with Community Leadership in the Multiple Use Area of the Sarstún river (AUMURS)— that his perspective changed.
"We met with the elders of the village, and we decided that the best thing to do is take care of the mangrove, protect what God gave us, because, although we may not see the results, our children and grandchildren will, and this makes me happy," he emphasizes.
One Ecosystem, Multiple Benefits
Mangroves —trees that grow in the transition zones between the freshwater of rivers and the salt water of the sea— offer multiple benefits to those living in marine-coastal zones and the world.
They contribute to the quality of the water because they purify sediments. They are home to different species of plants, birds, mammals, and reptiles, as well as fish, mollusks, and crustaceans on which many fishermen depend. They also mitigate climate change since they serve as carbon reservoirs.
Mangroves are essential players in addressing some of the significant environmental challenges facing humanity, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). For example, they protect against floods and buffer against storms and hurricanes, to which the Mesoamerican Reef System (MAR) region in Central America and the Greater Caribbean is highly vulnerable.
Due to their close relationship with other ecosystems —such as coral reefs and sea grass—they are crucial for conserving coastal areas.
However, mangrove coverage continues to decrease each year due to climate change's impact, the advance of the agricultural frontier, and its overexploitation. Only in the American continent (including the Caribbean), there has been a 24% reduction of mangroves in the last 25 years. In the MAR region (where the villages of San Juan and Barra Sarstún are located) there has been an estimated decrease of 30% between 1990 and 2010, which means an economic loss of approximately 602.15 million dollars per year, reveals the Manual for the Ecological Restoration of Mangroves of the Mesoamerican Reef System and the Greater Caribbean.
Given the benefits that mangroves provide in terms of biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, and economic and social well-being for communities, the declaration of the Restoration Decade —launched in June 2021 by the United Nations General Assembly—considers ecological restoration (ER) as a Nature-Based Solution that, in turn, contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
ER consists in helping to recover a degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystem so that it develops its own characteristics and provides the goods and services that people value.
A necessary action to achieve success in the recovery of ecosystems is to involve indigenous peoples and local communities in the development and implementation of environmental projects
The recovery that ER favors takes place in the short, medium, and long term. However, in any place where one plans to carry out ER activities, the social and economic aspects of the surrounding communities must be taken into account so that it is socially acceptable and economically viable.
For this reason, a necessary action to achieve success in the recovery of ecosystems is to involve indigenous peoples and local communities in the development and implementation of environmental projects, says coastal marine adviser Carlos Rodríguez Olivet.
The Belief in Restoration
Don Norberto continues participating in mangrove restoration and reforestation workshops as well as monitoring and surveillance patrols in the recovered areas. And he's not the only one.
Rebeca Gisela Tróchez López, a woman of recognized leadership in San Juan, who, among other community positions, holds the position of President of the fishermen's committee, agrees with Don Norberto when she indicates that, after being trained on the care and conservation of the surrounding forests, mangroves and a tropical floodplain forests, the fishermen decided to protect them.
"As fishermen, we knew that mangroves provide an abundance of fish, crabs, shrimp, birds, and oxygen, but at the same time, we cut them down; we didn't think we could deplete them. Now, by recognizing their benefits and knowing that by taking care of them, we can obtain more (forestry incentives), we are motivated to protect them," says Rebeca.
"We also worked hard until we obtained the legal status of the fishermen's committee because only in this way we could oversee the support from other institutions for the benefit of the community," adds Rebeca.
Regarding the participation of women in nature conservation, this entrepreneur and community leader points out that, in San Juan, women believe that their contribution is limited to preparing food for their husbands so that —with a full stomach — they can attend the restoration and reforestation workshops.
However, Rebeca would like them to be directly involved in both activities, as they did when —in exchange for obtaining a fuel-efficient stove— they participated in creating and caring for a tree nursery that produced the 360 plants that each family then planted in degraded areas. EcoLogic promoted this exchange of stoves for reforestation as part of a pilot project. The leader says it was an excellent way to involve entire families in nature conservation.
As a woman, I know I have an important role towards my community and nature. And I plan to continue in this process and try to ensure that the women, girls, and young people of San Juan continue conserving our land and nature.
"It was a very nice experience because, apart from what we managed to sow, it left me with pleasant experiences as a person. And, as a woman, I know I have an important role towards my community and nature. And I plan to continue in this process and try to ensure that the women, girls, and young people of San Juan continue conserving our land and nature," she says.
The members of the Committee of Artisanal Fishermen Barra Sarstún, a village near San Juan, are also not far behind with their leadership in the conservation and restoration of the mangrove ecosystem. "The mangrove gives life and is a barrier against disasters," says Marco Antonio Milián, President of the fishermen's committee of the town.
Meanwhile, Félix Vega, a committee member, adds: "The mangrove swamp has generated economic well-being for us because it is an anchor of life. For this reason, we also involve young people in their care and the recovery of deforested areas".
Jessica Cutz Leiva and Andy Castro Hernández, both 15 years old and third-grade students at the National Institute of Basic Education of Telesecundaria de Barra Sarstún, represent the adolescents who helped create a tree nursery in their community like the one in San Juan.
They also participated in mangrove planting and visits to reforested areas to see the growth of the four mangrove species present in the region: red (Rhizophora mangle), white (Laguncularia racemosa), buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus), and black or mother salt (Avicennia germinans).
"I liked the field visits and learning how many mangrove species we have near where we live," Jessica said. Andy also indicated that he liked learning about the mangrove species in Guatemala and participating in the propagule planting sessions.
Professor Rubén Urizar Reyes pointed out that the fieldwork gave them ideas for the images they drew on a mural representing the mangrove ecosystem. The students of the three grades of the primary cycle, together with an artist from the region, created the mural at the headquarters of the fishermen's committee of the community.
Restoring Hand-in-Hand with Communities
What is happening in Barra Sarstún and San Juan is a successful example of community involvement in restoration initiatives, according to Rodríguez. And he adds that EcoLogic implemented the project in both AUMURS villages based on the manual's content for the ecological restoration of mangroves. Furthermore, it had the technical support of the Maya Probienestar Rural Association of the Sarstún Area (APROSARSTÚN) and financing from the Mesoamerican Reef Fund (MAR Fund) and the project Integrated Management of the Basin to the Reef of the Mesoamerican Reef Ecoregion (MAR2R), which is executed by the Central American Commission for Environment and Development in coordination with the ministries of the environment of the four countries covered by the MAR: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, and with financing from Global Environmental Facility, through the World Wide Fund for Nature as the implementing agency.
The AUMURS, a Ramsar site located northwest of Guatemala, constitutes the physical border with Belize and was declared a protected area in 2005 through Decree 12-2005.
This region is where the natural area of the village of San Juan is located. Behind the mangrove ecosystem, there is a tropical floodplain forest in which there are impressive trees of precious woods such as San Juan (Vochysia guatemalensis), Santa María (Calophyllum brasiliense), cedro (Cedrela odorata), zapotón (Pachira aquatica) and cahué (Pterocarpus officinalis). This is a protected forest because it serves as a barrier to reduce soil erosion and prevent its particles from reaching the mangroves and affecting them, explains agronomist Mario De León, EcoLogic Program Officer.
The project's duration in the two coastal communities was 15 months between 2019 and 2021. In addition to focusing on the mangrove, it benefited the men, women, children, and adolescents who inhabit them, whose total population is 334 people.
Through this initiative, it was also possible to mitigate the main threats that mangroves face in both localities: felling for the construction of aquatic nurseries, firewood, and charcoal production, as well as contamination by chemicals used in agriculture and by debris and solid waste. Added to this is the lack of knowledge about the importance of mangroves, particularly among the new generations, and their degradation due to coastal erosion and strong currents, says engineer De León.
To recover degraded areas in Sarstún and San Juan, two techniques suggested by César Zacarías-Coxic, a mangrove manager at the National Forest Institute (INAB), were used.
The first was the management of the natural regeneration of white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa C.F. Gaertn), transferring seedlings one meter high from the surrounding forest to the site of interest, establishing 11 plants per position at a distance of four meters between each group. This technique is carried out whenever there is abundant regeneration in the forest not to jeopardize the ecosystem's balance.
The voluntary and informed participation of the communities in the conservation of natural resources is imperative because when talking about forest governance and ecosystem recovery actions, the first ones that have to be involved in the subject and convinced are the communities.
The second technique was a direct seeding of red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle L.) propagules (popularly known as candelilla) to the ground, done when the site has not been drastically disrupted, facilitating its recovery.
"The success of the restoration work carried out in these villages in the Guatemalan Caribbean was achieved by training people to learn how to sustainably use the mangrove and forest species present in their territories. It also helped to have included their ancestral knowledge to encourage restoration and discourage logging," says De León.
"The voluntary and informed participation of the communities in the conservation of natural resources is imperative because when talking about forest governance and ecosystem recovery actions, the first ones that have to be involved in the subject and convinced are the communities," says Zacarias-Coxic.
According to the INAB official, as representatives of institutions, they can identify areas and work on them. Still, success will depend on how much the communities get involved. "When they are empowered on the subject and have collaborated with specific actions for community benefit, they help to prevent logging or overfishing. Hence the importance of taking them into account to carry out the processes".
De León adds that with the involvement of the community in the recovery, restoration, and reforestation of ecosystems, short-term results are achieved. And the alliances that its members make with local environmental organizations help them keep obtaining financing to protect their natural resources.
Through the project carried out in the AUMURS, 16 workshops on mangrove conservation and forest greenhouses were held, in which 248 people (147 women and 101 men) participated.
It was also possible to restore five hectares of mangroves in San Juan and 2.09 in Barra Sarstún, while the total number of hectares destined exclusively for conservation was 30.77 in San Juan and 18.23 in Barra Sarstún, for a total of 49 hectares between both communities.
To guarantee the sustainability of these restored areas and those destined for conservation, the project-based the management of their lease on the Office of Control of State Reserve Areas (OCRET), an essential requirement to be able to register the areas in the Incentive Program PROBOSQUE of INAB.
On August 9, 2022, EcoLogic received a favorable resolution from the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP). And on the 11th of the same month, they registered said hectares with the INAB. Therefore, as of the first quarter of 2023, they are waiting for each community's first payment of forestry incentives, which would amount to US$350/ha/year for ten years.
"These are the first lease contracts for lands mainly used for conserving and restoring tropical forest and mangrove ecosystems that will receive forestry incentives in 2023. With this achievement, San Juan and Barra Sarstún confirmed the importance of working together and in alliance with the institutions that support them by facilitating alternative and sustainable livelihoods that, in turn, allow them to get ahead without affecting the natural resources of their environment. Proof of the importance of these leases is that the President of the Republic of Guatemala himself, Alejandro Giammattei, came in October 2022 to deliver the guarantees of land ownership to the representatives of both communities," De León comments with an air of satisfaction for the work done.
Eliazar Bo Ché, an environmental engineer and EcoLogic field technician, who trained both communities on the protection of the mangrove ecosystem, adds that, by having the certainty of ownership of the lands that they are restoring and conserving, they can plan and organize control and surveillance patrols to prevent illegal activities that harm these lands.
And with the payments they will receive from PROBOSQUE, the communities will be able to invest in other community benefit initiatives, such as the savings and microcredit project that they have already defined in San Juan and that will contribute to their food security, health, and education, because, concludes Bo Ché, "in addition to conserving nature, people must also improve their quality of life."
Lucy Calderón is the founder, reporter, photographer, and editor of EcocienciaGT.
This story is part of COMUNIDAD PLANETA, a journalistic project led by Journalists for the Planet (PxP) in Latin America and authored by Lucy Calderón. It was originally published in Spanish by Ojo al Clima on March 8, 2023. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity." Original story at: