Mangrove forests line much of Sierra Leone's coastline. But these fragile ecosystems are under threat from increased human activity in coastal areas. Sierra Leone has recently signed up to a regional charter to protect their mangrove resources.
The bare ground surrounding the fishing village of Fobo twinkles in the sunlight with tiny crystals of salt. This area used to be covered with the swampy mud and tangled roots of mangrove trees. But during the past 10 years, people have cleared the area to plant rice and to extract salt from the rich soil.
For generations, people here have scraped the ground for 'salt dust'. The collected dust is filtered with saltwater and the resulting solution boiled to produce salt for sale in Sierra Leone's inland provinces.
Marie Kano is chairwoman of the local salt producer's association. She says with fewer mangrove trees to burn as fuel, business has become almost impossible.
Kano says now there is no wood left here, and the salt business is not worth it. My children, my sister and my father lived with me, she says, and we all used to cook salt. But now there is no wood, they have left and gone to town.
Kano says the trees are so far away now, it is only those with boats who can access them. But the loss of the trees is having more than an economic impact on those who who exploit them as natural resources.
As part of the West African Mangrove Initiative, Sierra Leone will soon endorse its version of a regional charter to protect vulnerable mangrove forests that involves seven coastal countries from Mauritania to Sierra Leone.
Richard Dacosta is program officer of the Wetlands International, one of the conservation organizations supporting the initiative.
Dacosta says if we allow the mangroves to disappear, then fishing will be in crisis and the ecological balance disrupted. Also, he says, saltwater tides will invade river estuaries and coastal areas. And local communities that live on the coast will have to move.
Experts point out that the trees and their roots play a critical ecological role in the coastal areas, preventing erosion, providing protection from storm surges, filtering toxins from soil and providing a habitat for a host of organisms.
Dacosta says the situation is urgent. Of an original three million hectares of mangrove forest across the seven countries involved, barely 800,000 hectares remain.
The man responsible for mangroves in Sierra Leone's Forestry Department, Mohamed Mansaray, says he believes the regional charter will help countries share experiences on how to best preserve mangrove forests across West Africa.
"The specific objective is to get our national input into this charter which has a regional framework, so that our national interests and concerns are reflected into this charter so that we may join other partner countries, especially for trans-boundary arrangement so that mangrove resources could not only be protected within the borders of Sierra Leone, but could also be offered to other neighboring countries so that we could have a regional management framework," said Mohamed Mansaray.
Mangrove forests are rich in biodiversity and provide numerous valuable resources to their human inhabitants. These saltwater trees also serve as nurseries for fish, shrimp and crabs. Oysters cling to mangrove roots and migratory birds shelter in their branches.
But saving mangroves is about more than just conservation. As mangrove resources dwindle and coastal populations increase, preserving mangrove areas will also be crucial for maintaining coastal stability and averting cross-border disputes over resources.