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Behind the mangrove restoration movement in the Niger Delta

June 05, 2024
topic:Climate action
tags:#Africa, #Nigeria, #climate change, ##mangrove, #floods, ##coastal erosion, ##nipa palm
by:Ekpali Saint
As Nigeria’s vulnerability to climate change continues to increase, restoring the degraded mangrove ecosystem in the oil-rich Niger Delta is now a mission for two local nonprofits.

The instructions Collins Barineka, 40, received during a mangrove restoration training facilitated by the Center for Environment, Human Rights, and Development (CEHRD) in 2005 still guide his planting activities.

“CEHRD taught me how to nurse and plant mangrove,” he recalled in conversation with FairPlanet, explaining that the training exposed him to the importance of mangroves in helping marine resources thrive, which in turn could increase fish population and support the livelihood of fishermen like him.

The training exposed Barineka to practical experience, which involved gathering mangrove seedlings and raising a nursery for six months before moving them to designated sites for planting.

He typically spends four hours planting mangroves daily and has grown over 800 mangrove seedlings in his community in Kono, Nigeria’s oil-rich Rivers State.

Fighting the global climate crisis

Mangroves are a group of trees that thrive in intertidal zones. They support the livelihoods of coastal residents, primarily fishers, given that mangroves are breeding and nursery grounds for fish. Archibong Akpan, a climate policy expert at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told FairPlanet that mangrove ecosystems improve water quality and play a critical role in protecting coastal communities.

He added that mangroves “guide communities by reducing flood impact. They are like flood breakers [and act as] sea walls around the coastal zones […] mangroves don’t allow upsurge [flood] to penetrate inland.”

Additionally, mangroves are viewed as an essential nature-based solution to the global climate crisis because, as a major carbon sink, they sequester five times more carbon per equivalent area than tropical rainforests.

Yet, this unique ecosystem faces threats mostly from human activities such as deforestation, which is responsible for the massive depletion of the ecosystem.

Between 1996 and 2020, the extent of mangroves decreased by over 5,000 square kilometres worldwide, and the online monitoring platform Global Mangrove Watch recorded over 500,000 mangrove disturbance alerts between January 2019 and May 2023.

Mangrove depletion isn’t new in Nigeria, which hosts the largest mangrove ecosystem in Africa. The country had the most significant loss of mangroves – about 432 square kilometres – in West Africa between 1975 and 2013. In the Niger Delta, a combination of recurrent oil spills, deforestation resulting mainly from the increasing demand for wood for domestic use and construction and invasive nipa palm (Nypa frutican) – a type of plant introduced in Nigeria as foreign species in the early 1900s to curb coastal erosion – is putting pressure on the ecosystem.

These interconnected problems are aggravating the global climate crisis even more as carbon stored by mangroves is released back into the atmosphere when they are deforested. The absence of mangroves also exposes coastal communities to climate change impacts, often manifesting in devastating events like flooding.

Nigeria experienced the worst flooding in a decade in 2022, which affected 34 out of the country’s 36 states and impacted over 2.8 million people, with 1.3 million displaced and over 600 lives lost. Although factors such as poor waste management can contribute to the flood crisis, researchers at the World Weather Attribution group say devastating floods in the country are 80 times more likely due to the climate crisis.

CEHRD is working to address this through its community-led mangrove restoration project, initiated in oil-rich Ogoniland, Rivers State, two years after an oil spill in Bodo Creek destroyed the mangrove ecosystem in 2003.

Funding from the PADI foundation, Global Greengrants Fund, Agroecology Fund, Global Environment Facility, and the Dutch embassy in Abuja has helped CEHRD restore 3,500 hectares of mangroves in Ogoniland in Niger Delta.

“You can’t talk about the Niger Delta without talking about mangroves. They are quite important,” Tammy Cookey, CEHRD’s head of environment and conservation, told FairPlanet. The loss of mangroves in the region has affected the livelihoods of locals, predominantly fishers. This is because fish migrate to safer places as mangroves continue to disappear.

“We want the people to bounce back to their source of livelihood,” Cookey says of the nonprofit’s goal.

Same process, same goal

Just like CEHRD, the African Centre for Environment, Agriculture and Rural Development (ACEARD) introduced mangrove restoration projects to shoreline communities in Akwa Ibom, another state in the Niger Delta. It trains locals to raise nurseries and plant mangrove seedlings in these community-based projects.

“To us, it’s time to restore mangrove forests back because of its benefits to mankind,” said Robinson Unyime, ACEARD’s chief executive officer, who explained to FairPlanet that his nonprofit launched the restoration project in 2019 after noticing that mangrove losses were increasing, fish populations were dropping and the climate crisis was intensifying.

Unyime explained that before planting, ACEARD first engaged the community leaders and explained the dangers of depleting mangroves and the importance of the mangrove ecosystem. Once the locals showed interest, the nonprofit trained them to raise nurseries and plant mangroves.

“The community must accept the project. We can’t just go into the community and begin to plant,” Unyime said, adding that the involvement of the people contributes significantly to the sustenance of the project.

Although there is no external funding, Unyime said ACEARD has planted over 500,000 mangrove seedlings since the project began. He added that to encourage the locals, ACEARD trained them in using invasive nipa palms to produce items like baskets and mats.

Establishing monitoring mechanisms

Akpan acknowledged the efforts of both nonprofits in restoring degraded mangroves but noted that a lack of monitoring mechanisms might force the people to resume the cutting down of mangroves for domestic use.

Planting mangroves is not the only solution, Akpan said. “It comes back to monitoring policies because the livelihood of many Indigenous people depends on mangroves, and most times, they are the ones that deforest the mangrove. So there needs to be a mechanism to monitor the mangroves and to ensure the mangroves are sustainable.”

These nonprofits consider monitoring mechanisms in their overall mangrove restoration strategy. While Cookey said CEHRD has a focal person in each community who provides feedback, Unyime explained that ACEARD trains community guards who monitor the mangroves and provide updates.

CEHRD has created environmental clubs in various schools in Rivers State, mainly to teach and guide them in raising mangrove nurseries and planting mangrove seedlings. To guide individuals and groups in mangrove planting in the Niger Delta, CEHRD also developed a mangrove restoration training manual.

Increasing threats

Cookey and Unyime agree that one major threat to the ongoing mangrove restoration projects in the Niger Delta is oil spills – a recurring problem the nonprofits can’t control. Another challenge is the locals’ initial indifference to the project, mainly because it does not come with a financial package for them.

“There’s no way you can teach them when they are hungry,” Cookey said, blaming their inability to provide stipends on lean financial resources. “[But] we [often] convince the stakeholders [community leaders] who have a better understanding of the ecosystem to speak with the locals.”

Meanwhile, Barineka remains committed to the project and continues to train others. Recently, the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) invited Barineka to share his experience and teach community members in neighbouring Akwa Ibom State how to manage mangrove seedlings.

“I will not stop learning and teaching others because some don’t know what mangrove is,” he said.

Image by Timothy K.

Article written by:
Ekpali Saint
Embed from Getty Images
Mangroves are a group of trees that thrive in intertidal zones, playing a crucial role in supporting the livelihoods of coastal residents, particularly fishers.
Embed from Getty Images
Between 1996 and 2020, the global extent of mangroves decreased by 5,245.24 square kilometres. Additionally, 537,397 mangrove disturbance alerts were recorded between January 2019 and May 2023, according to the online monitoring platform Global Mangrove Watch.
Embed from Getty Images
“The community must accept the project. We can’t just go into the community and begin to plant,” Robinson Unyime, ACEARD’s chief executive officer.