Farid DAHDOUH-GUEBAS / Professor

ULB / Mangrove ecology and socio-ecology

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MANGROVES are (sub)tropical forests located at the interface between sea and land and they host a UNIQUE biodiversity adapted to aquatic and terrestrial life, including ability to cope with salt water. These forests offer a wide range of ecosystem functions, and offer goods and services to the human populations that depend on mangroves in the >120 countries where mangroves can be found. To give just a few examples, the above-ground mangrove roots offer refuge to fish and shellfish species (important for fisheries), mangrove forests store massive amounts of carbon (3 times that of tropical rainforests) and they protect the coast by acting as a buffer against ocean surges.
Mangroves are increasingly THREATENED by human pressure and by climate change. Sea-level rise, conversion to tourist resorts, shrimp ponds and other infrastructure, among others, jeopardize the existence of small and large mangrove patches world-wide, of plant and animal species constituting the mangrove ecosystem and of the ECOSYSTEM FUNCTIONS, GOODS and SERVICES.
To protect mangroves many stakeholders can contribute. As scientists we study the dynamics of mangrove landscapes through remote sensing, fieldwork, socio-economic surveys involving all stakeholders from local people to politicians, etc., we assess the health status and the resilience of the mangroves, and we investigate how mangrove restoration and management can be done for the benefit of the society. As a person we can stop eating shrimps from the numerous Asian countries that destroy mangrove forests to convert the land to unsustainable shrimp farming. The main difficulty in achieving a protection of mangrove forests at the local scale is lack of political will or the fragmentation of political responsibilities. At the global level, protection of mangrove biodiversity is hindered by an overall sense of having enough mangroves world-wide. Whereas the distribution of mangroves is indeed wide, the reality is that their area has massively decreased over the last decades. An estimated 35-86% of mangroves have been lost globally and annual loss is between 1 and 2% per year.
Despite many properties and lives lost in tsunamis where mangroves could have offered protection if they would not have been cleared, the world is still reminded of such ecosystem services when disasters strike. Change in the society and at the political level happens in the aftermath of such disasters, but I wonder: do we really need a disaster every 10 years to protect mangroves ?