For the first time since scientists recognized the carbon-sequestration power of mangroves, known as blue carbon, the carbon value of a mangrove ecosystem – a 11,000-hectare mangrove forest in Cispata, Colombia – has been fully calculated. The new measurement accounts for not just the roots, trunk and foliage of the tree, as was previously done, but the even greater amounts of carbon stored in the sediment as well.
Two years ago, scientists began pulling up soil samples one to three meters deep in the Bay of Cispata on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, then analyzed them in a lab to determine their carbon content. Verra, a Washington-based non-profit that administers the Verified Carbon Standard, then approved those results and green-lit the issuing of Verified Carbon Units. With funding in part from tech giant Apple, Conservation International and various local partners broke new ground in this new accurate measurement of Cispata’s mangrove forest.
“We all feel, because this is teamwork, very proud of having had this project approved,” says María Claudia Díazgranados, a marine biologist and blue carbon director of Oceans and Community Incentive Programs at Conservation International – Colombia. “We have been thinking about creating something like this for many years.”
While the exact financial benefit of the sale of those units is yet to be known, Diazgranados expects the amount of carbon credits would at least double, “because depending on the forest, you will have more carbon, as much as 10 times more, stored in the sediments.”
That extra funding will have a big impact on both the health of the mangrove ecosystem in the bay and along the Gulf of Morosquillo, as well as the lives of the local people working to preserve it.
Regional environmental authorities had already designated the estuary as a marine protected area two years ago, as the mangroves play a crucial role in capturing and storing carbon as well as protecting coasts from storm surges.
However, says Diazgranados, there has never been enough funding to meet the regional authority’s conservation goals. “That’s why we created this project,” she says, “to help the environmental authority and stakeholders achieve the final conservation goal. We created these mechanisms that include blue carbon credits as part of the financial model.” Conservation International hopes the additional income will be able to cover at least half of the project’s funding needs, she says, “depending on how much money it receives from the selling of these credits.”
Local Indigenous communities rely on their mangrove forests for their livelihoods. “Cispata is one of the only areas where authorities allow for the sustainable use of mangrove wood,” she explains. As a nursery to fish and invertebrates, “it is also a very important habitat for commercially valuable fish species.”
“The mangroves give us emotion and defend us from winds and hurricanes,” says Duvis Morales, who leads the local mangrove restoration organization Cooprocaño. “They provide food for many species – animals and people – and they strengthen the economy and cultural identity of communities while decreasing pollution.”
Beekeeping is another activity that supports local peoples’ incomes, but eco-tourism is probably the community’s biggest earner. As one of the most well-preserved mangrove forests in the Caribbean, birdwatchers from all over Colombia and even from abroad visit Cispata’s unique environment.
So it’s not surprising that community members have worked hard to keep the mangroves healthy. They regularly clear out channels to make sure water keeps flowing into the mangroves, helping maintain the right balance of freshwater and saltwater they need to flourish. They also promote biodiversity by monitoring forest patches as well as the many different species that call this ecosystem home.
“One of the components of the project is monitoring three key species,” says Diazgranados, “otters, manatees, and needle crocodiles, which are endangered in Colombia. By monitoring them, you will conserve the entire ecosystem, and community leaders have been trained and are helping us to do that.”
Diazgranados is pleased about the project’s success, but she also recognizes the challenges. “It’s a starting point for us, not the end point,” she stresses. Other communities are bombarding her with requests to carry out the same soil analysis as was done in Cispata.
“Yesterday alone I received three letters from certain regions saying, ‘we want to be part of your project,’ ” she says. What’s more, the national Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development wants to see the project expanded. Two nearby patches of mangrove forest in the Gulf of Morrosquillo, one under threat from cattle ranching, are already slated for study.
In the next two years, she says, the project will be enlarged to include all the mangroves in the entire Gulf of Morrosquillo, and discussions are also underway to replicate the project in at least three new locations in Colombia.
In addition to support from Apple, local organizations were key in the effort’s development, including the government of Colombia, CVS Coorporation, Invemar Institute, Fundación Omacha, Southpole and AENOR.