BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — Because they absorb carbon at up to 10 times the rate of rainforests, mangroves are a powerful, and sometimes lucrative, tool in international efforts to mitigate climate change.
In Senegal, severe droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as increasing urbanization, devastated thousands of acres of trees. Mangroves — one of the richest ecosystems in the world — were especially affected.
Mangrove refers both to the range of trees and shrubs that grow in tidal, coastal swamps, and to the wider ecosystem where such vegetation dominates.
Approximately 133,000 acres (54,000 hectares) of coastal forests disappeared in Senegal between 1980 and 2005, according to a study by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
As of 2005, about 284,000 acres were left, mostly in the West African country’s lush and tropical southern Casamance region.
Many of the ways people make a living from Senegal’s mangroves — some 2,000 species of fish, molluscs, and crustaceans live among the roots and mud of the coastal forest- also caused damage. Some methods of collecting oysters and other molluscs involve cutting the underwater roots they cling to, while the mangrove trees’ branches are chopped down for heating fuel, cooking, and fish-smoking, as well as for building houses, agricultural tools and boats.
Mangrove depletion leads freshwater courses to become salty, contaminating soil and preventing anything from growing. The resulting loss of agricultural productivity – that of rice in particular – undermines food security. The reduction of mangrove cover also leaves inland areas more exposed to erosion and Atlantic storms.
When the mangrove forests go, they release centuries of stored carbon back into the atmosphere.
Replanting mangroves was, therefore, imperative for the survival of Senegal’s coastal population.
In 2006, Senegalese association Océanium began the arduous task of mangrove reforestation in the Saloum Delta region. Led by Haidar El Ali, a Senegal-born environmentalist of Lebanese parentage, the grassroots effort drew the attention of Danone, a French multinational corporation looking to offset its greenhouse gas emissions.
The food company began investing in 2008 and continued through 2012, during which time it opened its carbon investment fund to other companies and renamed it Livelihoods Funds, a Paris-based “social business” bankrolled by 10 major companies including Crédit Agricole, Mars Corp., Michelin and Hermès.
Billed as the largest such initiative in the world, Saloum Delta’s mangrove program has seen 79 million trees planted and 7,920 hectares of forest restored over the past decade.
By funding the planting of mangrove shoots, which is conducted in partnership with the Océanium, “investors receive carbon credits with high social value, which they can use to offset part of the emissions they cannot avoid,” according to the Livelihoods Funds website.
Investors expect the 30-year carbon-crediting program to generate half a million tonnes of carbon offsets over its lifetime. As well as counting against investors’ own emissions, they can be traded and sold to other companies or governments seeking to comply with emissions’ caps.
According to a 2017 article in Yale Environment 360, the project in Senegal generated nearly 142,000 independently verified credits for Livelihoods (one credit represents one ton of carbon dioxide reductions). As the trees mature and absorb more carbon dioxide, Livelihoods will gain more credits — a projected 1.5 million over three decades, equivalent to removing around 300,000 cars from U.S. roads for one year.
The more prominent aims of this massive project in Senegal, in which some 300,000, mostly female, residents of 350 communities have taken part, is to protect arable land from salt contamination, restore rice paddies, and replenish fish stocks by up to 18,000 additional tonnes a year.
You can’t argue with success. Or can you?
Groups like the World Forum of Fisher Peoples worry that if rich countries start focusing on the “blue carbon” in the developing world’s coastal ecosystems, the people who live there could end up losing access to crucial resources.
For example, once the new mangrove trees are planted, shellfish cannot be dug from the mud flats and fish cannot be harvested from the shallow water, since those activities would disturb the young trees.
That has led to protests from some local residents of Saloum Delta, according to Marie-Christine Cormier-Salem, a French academic who has spent more than three decades studying mangrove ecosystems across the world and whose field research on the Saloum Delta was published in 2017.
“The charter signed between the external operators and the rural communities stipulates that for 30 years the replanted mangrove is controlled by the donors (i.e. Danone) and henceforth forbidden for any use,” she wrote.
Local “harvesters no longer have the right to exploit the reforested areas and are [dispossessed] of their land.” Instead, residents are offered the “mere hope — promise that the densification and extension of the mangrove forest might allow their grandchildren to have access to it in an uncertain future.”
Cormier-Salem’s findings are in line with broader critiques of so-called “blue-carbon” offset schemes (“blue” because they focus on CO2 stored in coastal ecosystems).
But Livelihoods Funds disputes the criticism. In response to questions from Landscape News, the French organization stated:
“The carbon project is registered by the VCS, an international carbon standard, for a 30-year period. For the project to generate carbon credits, it needs to be monitored by the Livelihoods Carbon Fund/ Oceanium and VCS (through an independent auditor): measuring the tree density on the replanted areas and the health of the trees (height, diameter, canopy…). This absolutely doesn’t mean that we “control” the forest but we only make sure that the project is delivering the expected results for carbon sequestration.”
Livelihoods added: “There may be a confusion here between the monitoring/verification process required for the carbon project and any kind of ‘control’ of the forest.
The lands on which the mangroves have been replanted belong to the Senegalese State and this situation has absolutely not changed. The replanted mangrove forests are therefore protected by the Forestry code of Senegal. Only the Senegalese government and the rural communities are legitimate to ‘control’ the forests.
The 47 communities living in the project area have been involved in the project. And the 47 Presidents of these communities have supported the project after discussions with the inhabitants.”
Rural communities get all the direct benefits of the replanted mangrove forest, says Livelihoods Funds.
“For example, fishermen have reported the mangroves are harboring more fish and shrimps and farmers have restarted cultivating rice on plots which had been degraded by sea water. La Tour du Valat, a research institute on wetlands, is currently evaluating the social and economic impact of this mangrove restoration project for local communities.”
What is perfectly clear is that in our pursuit of ways to mitigate climate change, the interests of all stakeholders—governments, non-governmental organizations, carbon traders and local populations alike—will have to strike a delicate balance.