Saving Mangroves in Costa Rica

Locals team with conservationists, securing a future for this vital ecosystem.

Aug 23, 2020

With twisted, barnacle-covered roots creeping above brackish water, mangroves look like they belong in some distant, prehistoric time. However, these arching bushes that thrive in saline water are actually one of the most important ecosystems in our modern world according to the  World Wildlife Fund (WFF).

Mangroves are now under threat due to deforestation and to rising sea levels, but Costa Ricans are working diligently to rescue these fragile wetlands, along with creating sustainable jobs for local communities. 

Mangroves thrive in tropical and semi-tropical climates near the sea and can tolerate living in salty water. One of our most important fighters against climate change, they slow sea water and protect communities from flooding and tsunamis and are carbon scrubbers because they remove more Co2 than any other forest.

They take up just 0.1 percent of the Earth’s land surface, according to WWF, yet over 50 percent have been destroyed in the past five decades. Environmentalists in Costa Rica are concerned that if mangroves, located on both coasts, are not protected, these forests may simply vanish.

According to Mongabay, Costa Rica has lost some 40 percent due to deforestation. But, as a result of this damaging loss, the Terraba-Sierpe National Wetlands was established in 1994 on the south Pacific coast, protecting over a third of the remaining mangroves in the country. 

The Osa Conservation Project then came on board. The vision of this nonprofit is to restore the mangroves, raise environmental awareness in local communities, and promote research. Working with experts, they observed that invasive ferns had taken over the areas where the mangroves once proliferated. They understood that removing the ferns was the first step to restoring the ecosystem.

Forestry expert Javier Rodriguez-Gonzalez told Mongabay, “Over 2,000 hectares of this huge, 20,000-hectare wetland is dominated by the fern — areas that were cleared for firewood, posts, and tannins. Our goal — if we can develop the right techniques — is to see the rich carbon stores of mangrove trees restored and brimming with biodiversity.”

The same local residents of the park who had helped clear out the mangroves are now working side-by-side with environmentalists to replant them according to Mongabay. Standing knee-deep in the muddy water, they are using machetes to clear the ferns, cutting a 6-foot path in order to plant the mangrove saplings.

It is labor intensive work but it helps them earn a living. In just two years since the planting began, the mangrove forests are back. They are already 6-feet tall and are flowering, germinating more shrubs. Today 28,000 mangroves have been planted in 75 acres. If they can restore the entire area, it will make work for at least three local communities over the next three decades.

The locals are working hard in their new nature-based employment. They are dedicated to resuscitating this ecosystem and can now foresee the return of the precious mud cockles. They have already invested their money in a processing and storage plant for the mollusks, ensuring an even higher return for their communities.

The plan is to restore 5,000 acres and then take this technique to other areas in Central America that have been depleted of mangroves. As these carbon scrubbers regain footing in the brackish waters of Costa Rica, Terraba-Sierpe will see a sustainable future for the people and animals who live there, and a cleaner environment.

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NICOLE NATHAN BEM, CONTRIBUTOR
Nicole is an editor, blogger and author who has recently left her urban life in order to be more connected with nature. In her spare time, she’s outdoors hiking in the forest, mountain biking or tending to her new permaculture garden.