Mangroves play an important part in maintaining Africa’s coastlines and human livelihoods.
The tropical shrubs and trees thrive in warm humid climates and can reach 60m in height depending on the species. They and their abundant roots grow naturally around coastlines near the earth’s equator.
Hele Pierre is Cameroon’s Minister for the Environment and Nature Protection. He says they play a crucial role in sustaining the life of the planet and its occupants.
They're a place where fish lay eggs and reproduce. They provide food and shelter for people and for fish and other sea life. And, they’re also a source of wood for kitchen fuel and smoking fish, and for timber for housing construction and canoe-building.
The plants also curb coastal erosion by reducing the power of tidal waves, while their intertwining roots and branches block pollutants including plastic waste that can choke fish.
Dr Gordon Ajojina is a longtime mangrove conservationist and chair of the Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society. He says today the degradation rate stands at 2,500ha annually, and is resulting in wildlife habitat loss and rising coastal erosion. It’s also threatening the livelihoods of some five million coastline dwellers.
"Yes, really, this ecosystem is in danger," says Ajojina. In Cameroon, the mangrove surface area has reduced by about 30 percent in the last 20 years to less than 200,000ha. So we see that with the rate of disappearance even within the sub-region and Africa, there’s a problem."
Mangrove conservation advocates blame climate change, the clearing of mangrove forests for oil and gas exploration, and for building ports and plantations.
Despite their strategic importance, mangrove forests worldwide are being chopped down to near-extinction. Forty years ago, mangroves covered some 600,000ha along Cameroon’s 590km Atlantic coast. But continuing depletion has reduced the area to less than a third.
Other activities that contribute to the erosion of mangrove forests include oil spills, pollution, and overharvesting of wood for household uses.
It’s against this backdrop that the government of Cameroon has teamed up with the FAO and local NGOs to safeguard the country’s surviving mangroves and restore depleted zones. The over six million dollar venture, dubbed Sustainable Community Management and Conservation of Mangrove Ecosystems in Cameroon
, will last five years. It was launched in February.
Julius Niba Fon is a conservation expert in the Cameroon Ministry of the Environment. He says the project will involve communities residing within and around mangrove forests.
"We understand that the local areas have local development plans which don’t take into consideration this special ecosystem," says Fon. "We also have the creation of protected areas for mangroves."
Elsewhere, the effort will help build legal and institutional frameworks for the protection of mangroves, compile inventories of remaining areas and teach local populations how to use and maintain mangrove forests. It will also propose alternatives to using the trees for cooking and for smoking fish. And, it will propose new livelihoods, like snail breeding, for those who use the valuable coastal habitats.
Dr Ajonina says though belated, the initiative is highly welcome.
"It is quite a minute amount, but it’s a start," says Ajojina. "A journey of several kilometers starts with a step. This is a step in the right direction – a step to bring all the stakeholders together to safe what remains from the lot that has gone over the years."
In the meantime, FAO officials say the Cameroon mangrove conservation initiative could serve as a viable example for other places in West Africa, where claims of untapped oil and gas reserves attract investors, but threaten mangroves.
Listen to report on preserving Cameroon's mangroves