Making science work for development

Essential coastal ecosystems

Conserving mangrove trees in Africa to protect local livelihoods 

Mangrove trees are responsible for providing a number of vital ecosystem services. Yet they are being destroyed at an alarming rate: threatening the livelihoods of some of the poor communities that rely on them. Researchers from Edinburgh Napier University have been working to support mangrove conservation and restoration in coastal parts of Kenya. Their research has helped design national conservation plans and pioneered community projects that protect mangroves while simultaneously generating funding to help support local people.

Mangrove trees provide important ecosystem goods and services to the tropical and subtropical coastal regions in which they grow. They protect coastlines from erosion and storm damage, filter sediments and pollutants from seawater, and form nursery grounds for fish. Mangrove forests are also amongst the most efficient natural carbon sinks – helping to slow the global increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, a key driver of climate change.

Despite playing such important roles on both a local and global scale, mangrove forests are being destroyed at alarming rates because of coastal development, aquaculture and logging. This is especially damaging in coastal regions in Kenya, where poor communities rely heavily on the natural resources and services that the mangroves provide.

Local communities rely on mangroves for their wood and the fish that use the mangroves as their home (Image CIFOR)

Through funding from the Department for International Development, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council, researchers from Edinburgh Napier University have been working with the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute and colleagues from Bangor, Edinburgh and Birmingham Universities to conduct novel research into mangrove ecological value and ecosystem recovery. As part of their work they tracked juvenile fish to prove the key role of mangrove roots as fish habitats, and measured carbon flows in forests to calculate the significance of mangroves in absorbing atmospheric carbon. The researchers also investigated methods of ecosystem recovery, planting 5,872 trees in previously devastated land to reveal the barriers and opportunities for mangrove regeneration. This work was complemented by research into the market value of mangrove ecosystem services and how payments for these services could be adopted into conservation policy.

In 2008 the Mikoko Pamoja project was set up by the Edinburgh Napier team in the Gazi Bay area of Kenya. This project uses the UK research’s findings to conserve local mangroves: earning carbon credits which are then sold to fund further forest conservation work and community development schemes. The project has led to the planting of more than 10,000 mangrove trees and the training of 46 African scientists. It has also provided the 3,000 people living in the local area with funding for a new school building, water pumps and sponsorships to support local children through education.

Major conservation efforts are now underway to protect and regenerate mangrove ecosystems (Image Muzaffar Bukhari)

On a national level, the UK researchers played an important role in informing the Kenyan government’s conservation policies. They provided data to inform a National Mangrove Plan as well as facilitate the creation of a Community Forest Association, which used new legal instruments to put control of the mangroves into the hands of the local communities.

Through their research activities, the UK academics have also helped to set up a charity dedicated to coastal ecosystem services in tropical regions, as well as the East African Forum for Payments for Ecosystem Services. The East African Forum acts as a networking body and information source, helping to coordinate ecosystem projects across East Africa to extend the reach and impact of UK research throughout the region.

Read more about this research in the original impact case study submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. 

Department for International Development | Economic and Social Research Council | Natural Environment Research Council