A vast mangrove forest lines the coastal shore of Guyana, a small South American nation perched between Venezuela, Brazil and the Caribbean. The forest buffers the intensity of ferocious waves from the Atlantic Ocean, preventing flooding and damage to residents living on the coast. The mangrove forest acts as Guyana’s guardian against extreme flooding and overtopping from high tides.
33,000 hectares of mangroves forest, the size of 33,000 football fields, protects the country’s dynamic 458-kilometre coastline. From this forested area, 11,000 hectares are healthy a result of restoration efforts by the Guyana Mangrove Restoration Project (GMRP) and natural regeneration.
But not everywhere in the world are mangroves so well-protected. Halfway around the planet, in the Philippines, a community lost their homes and the patches of mangroves that aided their livelihood and kept them safe for years to pave way for an airport that its proponents said would bring “trillions of dollars” in economic activity and millions of more tourists to the country.
Mangroves provide a number of critical ecosystem services. They help protect communities from waves and cyclones, filter pollution and sediment and serve as a breeding ground for marine species. In the battle against climate change, they also play an important role by sequestering carbon. Despite these, they are one of the most threatened tropical ecosystems.
But here’s good news: global rates of mangrove loss have been reduced by an order of magnitude between the late 20th and early 21st century: from around 2% to less than 0.4% annually, a 2019 study found. Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar and Malaysia, however, continue to show loss rates that are above the global average.
“The  Asian tsunami and extreme weather events woke people up. As a result, there has been a lot of interest in mangroves, a lot of scientific research and a lot more high-level discussion from the national policy point of view,” said Dominic Wodehouse, executive director of Mangrove Action Project and member of IUCN Mangrove Specialist group.
Planting has been the major strategy to replace mangroves lost to deforestation.
In 2009, with funding from the EU, work began to restore the mangrove forest in Guyana. The work done just over a decade ago has paved the way for vulnerable communities such as those on Essequibo Coast, East Coast Demerara and Berbice to benefit from the restoration efforts today. In these counties, communities that are reliant on agricultural activities have been protected from the invasion of saltwater from flooding and overtopping of high tides.
Guyana’s restoration efforts started after recognising that the mangrove forest had been significantly depleted by human activities. The UN’s FAO said mangrove forests in Guyana were heavily reclaimed due to human activities such as the logging for fuelwood, poles for the mooring of boats, charcoal, timber and production of fish traps.
“When we started in 2012 on the East Coast of Demerara we planted 18,000 seedlings between Anns Grove and Mahaicony. 90% of those seedlings survived and that is our forest today,” said Kevin Ragnauth, one of the rangers employed by the GMRP.
“We have been doing extensive restoration work since 2009. Combined with our restoration efforts and public awareness campaign we are able to say we have achieved our objective but much more work needs to be done,” Kene Moseley, Project Coordinator at the GRMP said.
In Berbice, mangroves have colonised large swathes of the sea defence. The communities used to be protected by an earthen dam but today there is luscious regrowth of the forest. This forest now serves as the primary sea defence in these communities.
On the Essequibo Coast, located approximately 50 kilometers away from the capital city of Georgetown, there have been extensive restoration efforts to protect vulnerable communities such as Anna Regina, Devonshire Castle and Lima, Columbia, Land of Plenty and Aberdeen. These communities are close to the mouth of the Essequibo River (the largest in the country) and remain vulnerable to overtopping.
In areas where there are no criteria to encourage natural growth, Moseley said they create such an environment by using engineering structures like bamboo sediment traps and geotextile tubes.
“We have seen natural regeneration take place in areas close to a mangrove forest,” she said.
Community engagement has also played a major part in the restorative work, said Dr Oudho Homenauth, CEO at the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute (NAREI), the parent agency of GMRP. He explained they have worked with women in the communities to prepare seedlings. Others from the communities also managed to gain short term employment as monitoring officers and planters.
“We have believed that if we have the community involved we will be able to make an impact. This initiative allows people to have a sense of responsibility and that means they will protect the forest or report any damages,” he said.
A farewell to a village and its mangroves
Life in Taliptip, a coastal village in the Philippines, was easy, *Linda said. During low tide, she and her neighbours would collect mud crabs and shrimps in mangroves just outside their homes to earn enough money to take care of their weekly expenses.
When the weather was bad, Linda said she never felt scared because she knew mangroves would protect their homes, which stand on bamboo stilts, from the wrath of nature.
But mangroves have been cut down. Families dismantled their houses one by one. After years of resistance, Linda and her neighbours left the dry piece of land they called home and its mangroves, which will be the site of New Manila International Airport and an adjacent airport city.
The clearing of mangroves in the area, which is part of northern Manila Bay, began in 2018. Linda claimed that in early October, people who identified themselves as San Miguel personnel cut down more mangroves in Taliptip.
“They’re almost gone,” Linda said by phone, adding that only a few patches, including those in her former village, remain. Earlier reports said that a 24.5-hectare mangrove eco-park will be spared from the project.
The authors contacted San Miguel and the environment department for comment but have not yet received a response. But groups opposing the project said the cutting of more mangroves is “inevitable” given the massive size of the airport.
Clearing of mangroves is prohibited in the Philippines.
“They stand to be criminally liable. They should also pay for damages for destroying the ecosystem,” said lawyer Gloria Estenzo-Ramos, who heads Oceana Philippines, a non-governmental organization assisting the Taliptip villagers.
But policies protecting these unique trees did not prevent the decimation of mangrove forests in Manila Bay.
A study led by University of the Philippines professor Rene Rollon projected that there are fewer than 1,000 hectares of mangroves left in Manila Bay, representing barely 1% of the bay’s original mangrove forest cover of between 75,000 and 90,000 hectares. Main reasons for this include conversion into aquaculture ponds as well as development into commercial hubs.
The bay’s remaining mangrove patches are found in the provinces of Pampanga, Zambales and Bulacan, where San Miguel will build the airport.
Aside from the destruction of mangroves, the project will also require land reclamation of a 2,500-hectare area. It is one of the 25 land reclamation projects along Manila Bay.
In July, San Miguel planted 8,000 mangrove seedlings on a 10-hectare coastal area in Hagonoy town, also in Manila Bay. It aims to cover 76 hectares of the coastal area to address environmental concerns. But mangrove expert Jurgenne Primavera said this effort means “nothing” in the grand scheme of things. Instead, the mangrove reforestation target should be between 3,100 and 5,400 hectares.
“More resources should be diverted to restoring mangroves in an ecologically meaningful way, and not the meaningless 76 hectares of SMC,” she said.
Rollon, in a forum, said that if mangrove rehabilitation efforts in Manila Bay remain a challenge, the remnant ecosystems must at least be conserved.
The franchise application of San Miguel to build the airport city is now up for President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature. Once the bill is signed into law, construction can start anytime soon after needed permits are acquired.
Linda and her family left Taliptip in October. They were offered to take livelihood courses. But they are men and women who have lived off the sea for years.
“I don’t know what will happen. They said at least your house will now be made of concrete. But we don’t have jobs. How can they say our lives will get better?” Linda said, uncertain they will have a better life outside of Taliptip.
As for the mangroves, San Miguel may plant thousands of trees but replacing decades-old mangrove forests is not easy.
“The challenge is that mangrove benefits come from old, more developed mangroves that have not been cut over before. There’s a lot of carbon stored and it builds up over time so if you remove it then all this carbon is released,” Wodehouse explained.
Meanwhile, in Guyana, there were fewer reports of people cutting mangroves—due to GMRP’s public awareness campaign—but natural erosion continues to threaten the forest and their restoration efforts, Ragnauth said.
Natural forms of erosion continue to threaten healthy forests. This phenomenon has resulted in some deforestation activities, Moseley explained. GMRP has been focused on creating the perfect environment to encourage regrowth and will be returning to areas to assess the environment.
Going forward, the GMRP is currently mapping its work plan to sustain the restoration project for the next decade.
*Name has been changed to protect the source