Community dispatches endangered bees to guard degraded mangrove forest

With the problems fuelling climate change being blamed for the reduction in bee populations globally, a community of former loggers in Mombasa, Kenya has dispatched them to protect their largely degraded mangrove forest while at the same time earning a sustainable livelihood through honey.

When Bosco Juma’s Big Ship organization embarked on restoring and protecting the Tudor Creek, nothing prepared him for the daunting task ahead.

The creek, located in Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city, had lost 80% of her mangroves over the past 20 years and Juma began the process in 2009 after noticing large islands emerge in places that were once covered by mangrove trees.

Logging was a big challenge and it was happening at a faster rate than our restoration activities. Whenever we arrested the loggers, most of them would argue that they were cutting down trees to sustain their livelihood” Juma says from his Mikindani office which overlooks the creek.

Across the creek in Mwakirunge village, 38-year-old Caroline Nyambu was always at loggerheads with Juma’s Big ship members.

“Every time we would bump into each other, he would try to talk me into stopping my charcoal burning trade but I never saw myself venturing into anything else,” Caroline recalls.

Juma, who had gotten tired of giving verbal warnings and handing the repeat offenders to the authorities, decided to partner with some of the loggers to set up a mangrove bee farming project in 2015.

Currently, the project involves more than 30 farmers who have set up 120 hives at various strategic points along the forest, with Caroline being one of the members.

Bees are cared for by farmers in a mangrove forest in Kenya

Caroline Nyambu( second from left) and his fellow farmers stands net to their apiary in Mwakirunge village along the Tudor creek. Photo: Janet Murikira

The farmers produce approximately 300 kilograms of honey annually. The product is branded as Asali Mikoko(Mangrove honey), packaged in glass jars and distributed to local consumers and hotels.

While bees and flowers are normally in a mutually symbiotic relationship Juma says in this case, the relationship is more of friendship with mutual gains.

“Loggers are afraid of cutting down mangrove trees in areas where the hives are mounted and the community understands the value of the forest because they are now making a sustainable livelihood from it”.

While the bees have played a key role in barring the degradation of the creek and providing a livelihood for former loggers like Caroline, they have a much bigger role to play in the ecosystem.

According to a paper written by John Zawilsak, an apiculture instructor at the University of Arkansas, bees are responsible for pollinating 80% of the cultivated crops.

This means that the gradual extinction of bees would contribute to the gradual escalation of food prices.

However, increased global temperatures and reduced rainfall have exacerbated stress on vegetation, thus reducing the availability of the pollen and nectar needed for the survival of naturally occurring bees.

According to a summary report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), this coupled with certain industrial agricultural practices has severely affected wild bee populations.

“These practices include high use of agrochemicals and intensively performed tillage, grazing or mowing. Such changes in pollinator resources are known to lower the densitiy and diversity of foraging insects and alter the composition and structure of pollinator communities from local to regional scales” the report states.

Other than providing food and habitat for the bees reared by Caroline and her fellow farmers, mangroves could help address the major problem being faced by populations of pollinating insects such as bees.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates mangroves in Kenya store between 600 and 1500 tonnes of carbon per hectare. This means the 3371 hectares of mangroves in Mombasa county store an average of 3.94 million tonnes of carbon.

Carbon sequestration by mangroves is estimated to be 3-5 times higher than any productive terrestrial ecosystem,” WWF further estimates

Carbon Brief estimates that the amount of carbon stored in mangrove forests globally is equivalent to the carbon emitted by China and the US, two of the world’s largest emitters, put together.

However, mangrove deforestation releases approximately 24 million tonnes of carbon annually which is equivalent to Poland’s annual emissions.

“From the 1960s, the mangrove cover at the creek to date has diminished by 80 per cent if not more. This is very serious because we foresee a situation without mangroves in Mombasa especially within Tudor Creek. The forest is degraded through illegal harvesting, land-encroachment and pollution,” Mohamed Omar, the director of wetlands and marine conservation at the Kenya Wildlife says.

Omar said the remarks during the launch of Kenya’s National Mangrove ecosystem management plan which recommended more sustainable projects to increase community involvement in the protection of mangroves.

A farmer tends to his bees

Willfred Tsuma, another farmer who who has patnered with Bigship in honey harvesting gear. Photo: Janet Murikira

However such community projects are not without challenges.

The hives mounted by Caroline and her fellow farmers have failed to protect the forest from Chang’aa (illegal liquor) brewers who distil their beer before the high tides catch up with them.

“This has been very destructive because they cut down mangroves and use the wood to distil their liquor,” Juma says.

A day before I interviewed Juma and the farmers for this story, authorities destroyed 17 barrels of the liquor and impounded three tonnes of firewood from felled mangrove trees. Only one of the brewers was arrested after his accomplices escaped.

Kenya, which emits approximately 73 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, hopes to reduce its emissions by 30% by 2030. One of the strategies that have been fronted to help achieve the goal is the increase of forest cover to 10% from the current 6%.

However, the plan has faced criticism from policymakers over its perceived ignorance of the mangrove sector.

“The plan alienates the role of mangroves in achieving the Nationally Determined Contributions and we feel if more and more sustainable projects would be set aside to help communities appreciate the role of mangroves,” Juma says.

This story is published in collaboration with One Earth.

Header photo by Janet Murikira.