The majority of the world's mangroves are managed by government agencies that are too poorly equipped to protect them, according to a global review of the forests known for their effectiveness in absorbing carbon.
Four of the five countries with the largest mangrove areas are middle income nations - Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria - which lack the capacity to protect their millions of hectares of mangrove forest, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) said on Thursday.
Mangroves' management often falls under the jurisdiction of multiple ministries, from forestry to fisheries, creating a maze of vague responsibilities that deliver little protection on the ground, the report said.
Global attention on mangroves has grown due to their effectiveness in absorbing atmospheric carbon, one of the main drivers of climate change, as well as sheltering fisheries and protecting against coastal erosion.
Compounding the mangrove management problem is a lack of clear or documented rights and incentives for the communities living in the forests to use them sustainably, CIFOR said.
"Despite government intentions to manage them sustainably, governance regimes are generally ineffective at conserving mangroves because they generally fail to involve communities," said Steven Lawry, CIFOR's director of forests and governance research.
Instead, the study recommends that governments support existing community-based mangrove management programmes, which allow locals to sustainably fish and harvest timber in forests.
Since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, Thailand and Indonesia have had the most successful mangrove rehabilitation programs.
The tsunami marked the moment when many governments realized the importance of mangroves as a "bioshield" that buffers coastal communities from damage, said Mani Ram Banjade, a researcher at CIFOR.
In Indonesia, home to more than one-fifth of the world's mangrove forests, the government has been supporting community projects, Banjade, who wrote the Indonesian section of the report, said.
"People have a positive attitude to mangrove conservation, so with a little bit of support from external agencies - in the form of technical input or funding support - they're really willing to contribute to mangrove rehabilitation efforts," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Although Indonesia is in favor of an approach that puts communities in partnership with charities and government, the situation remains mostly disjointed, said Banjade.
In protected coastal areas, where local communities are banned form harvesting mangrove timber, the government must understand that sustained conservation can only be achieved with added financial incentives, he added.
As in Indonesia, most countries lack a coherent and sustained policy on mangroves.
Only one country among those covered in the report, Mexico, has passed laws specifically designed for the management of mangrove forests.
Too often mangroves are caught in a middle-ground between territorial forest and seas, leaving no government agency with direct responsibility.
Government's can improve the situation by creating a dedicated "mangrove agency," the report recommended, but it should work to support local communities.