On Dec 26, 2004, a massive tsunami hit Indonesia’s Aceh province, killing 167,000 people. The wave forged 2km inland in some places, and wiped out towns, crops and lives.

Could anything have reduced its devastating impact? In the tsunami’s wake, global attention fell on the potential of mangroves.

Many of Indonesia’s mangrove forests were cleared before 2004 for shrimp farms (aquaculture) – subsequent research showed that mangroves and other forests could help protect coastlines and people from the force of tsunamis, hurricanes, and rising sea levels.

The indigenous people of Pahawang Island – a speck in a bay at the eastern end of Sumatra – already knew that. In the 1980s and 1990s, the mangrove forests fringing their island were over-exploited. They were turned into charcoal by Korean companies, cut down for timber, and converted to fish ponds by migrants from East Java.

By the early 2000s, coastal erosion had become a huge problem for the islanders. Houses, agricultural land and fish ponds were swept away in storms, fish no longer bred among the looping mangrove roots, and malaria and dengue outbreaks became more common.

So village leaders got together and pioneered their own innovative governance system for their mangroves. They divided the mangrove area into three territories – a strict “protection zone” and a “utilisation zone” where limited timber harvesting was allowed. They also identified areas for reforesting, and secured seedlings and funding.

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Looking for fishing sites near tree roots. Photo: Cifor/Yayan Indriatmoko

There’s much to be learned from local experiences like these, say scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor), who released a new global study earlier this year on mangrove governance, involving both a review of international literature and case studies in Indonesia and Tanzania.

Two key lessons to better protect our mangrove forests were: 1) the local community must be involved and 2) women’s rights should be respected.

Involve the people

“In Indonesia, they were very clear: they managed their mangroves to protect their lives, livelihoods and assets from storm surges from the sea,” says Esther Mwangi, who helped lead the overarching study. “The mangroves are an important buffer against the energy and strength of the ocean.”

Mani Ram Banjade led the on-the-ground research in Indonesia, focusing on three villages in Lampung province, Sumatra. In Pahawang especially, mangrove protection was a very bottom-up affair.

“The local community leaders took the initiative and developed their own rules, regulations and governance mechanisms,” says Banjade.

“Then they got the approval from the local government as well, and from their personal and political connections they also got some resources from outside.”

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A luscious mangrove canopy. Photo: Cifor/SIgit Deni Sasmito

It worked so well in Pahawang, he says, because the local government recognised the islanders’ rights over the land and supported their efforts – and because strong leaders harnessed community awareness of the role of mangroves in coastal protection.

“Even if they’re not getting a direct economic benefit from the mangrove, they still value its conservation,” says Banjade.

“It’s a good model,” says Steven Lawry, Cifor’s director of forests and governance research, who also worked on the report.

“This is an example of how strong leadership and persistence have led to good outcomes for local mangrove conservation. People are out there up to their waist in water, planting mangroves, because they see the importance to their livelihoods.”

According to the study, various government institutions are the main managers of mangrove forests. However, the various ministries involved, ranging from forestry to fishery, cause some confusion when it comes to who is responsible for what.

Officials often find themselves lacking resources to effectively protect mangroves.

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A budding mangrove flower. Photo: Cifor/Daniel Murdiyarso

Women’s rights

To add to the problem, local communities who use these fragile ecosystems “lack clear or documented rights and incentives to sustainably use or protect them in the long term”.

“Despite government intentions to manage them sustainably…they are generally ineffective at conserving mangroves because they generally fail to involve communities,” says Lawry.

“Our findings show that mangroves tend to deteriorate where community rights are not respected or recognised,” he adds.

The Cifor study forms part of a broader study that includes national-level assessments in Indonesia and Tanzania. It was carried out under USAID, the United States Agency for International Development-funded Tenure and Global Climate Change Programme.

Equality between men and women is also often lacking in mangrove conservation notes Mwangi, a principal scientist at Cifor.

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Mangroves are a nursery for marine life, as this shrimp found in the waters show. Photo: Cifor/Kate Evans

Management committees, such as in Tanzania and Indonesia, are rarely represented by women and various factors hamper their participation in decision-making.

In Tanzania, researchers found that meetings were often held in the late afternoons when most women were out fetching firewood and water to prepare dinner. Even when women made it to the meetings, they have to adhere to social customs like sitting behind the men and are not at liberty to oppose or state their own viewpoints.

“Not only as a matter of right, but also in terms of being effective, it makes sense to have women on governance committees,” says Mwangi. “They too have knowledge and use the resource, so their presence and input in decision-making is important.”

The study also aims to highlight the “social aspects of the conservation challenge” and boost more coastal communities activities in mangrove management.

Breaking barriers

In many places worldwide, these kinds of bottom up approaches to governance are necessary, because mangroves often fall through the cracks at the national level, says Mwangi.

Washed by the tides, simultaneously part of the land and the sea, mangroves don’t fit neatly into government structures.

Globally, it’s rare for countries to have specific rules for mangroves. They’re either governed under a hodgepodge of two or three ministries, or they fall under the forestry department.

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A worker walking through mangroves at low tide. Photo: Cifor/SIgit Deni Sasmito

That isn’t a perfect match, says Mwangi. “In mangrove forests, the timber is not the biggest thing – the value is in coastal protection, fisheries, carbon sequestration – things that are not forestry. And yet this resource has been placed in the hands of forestry departments. So there is a bit of tension.”

Where governance is spread among multiple ministries, coordination is a problem. And many efforts to improve it have failed. Indonesia put together a mangrove management and coordination plan in 2012 – but it hasn’t yet been fully implemented.

Even more telling is the case of Tanzania. In 1991 it was one of the first countries to create an “integrated management plan” for mangroves – and yet to date, 25 years on, it too has not been implemented.

The reasons behind these failures is a prime area for future research, says Mwangi – but perhaps a better approach, she suggests, would be to bring in new legislation that is specific to mangroves, like the rules pioneered on Pahawang.

“One could easily say the village regulations are substituting for a national, mangrove-specific regulation that is missing,” says Mwangi.

The study found that a transition is underway in a few countries towards increased community participation in mangrove management.

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Measuring trees to estimate carbon stock. Mangrove and peat swamp forests are one of the largest stores of carbon. Photo: Cifor/Daniel Murdiyarso

Though Latin America has been most enthusiastic, Tanzania’s government is also starting to experiment with community-based approaches in some mangrove areas, says Lawry.

That is encouraging, he says, because the traditional model of mangrove governance – strict top-down regimes that try to protect mangroves by locking local people out – hasn’t worked very well, in Tanzania, Indonesia and elsewhere.

“Despite government intentions to manage them sustainably, governance regimes are generally ineffective at conserving mangroves. They generally fail to involve communities, and at the some time they don’t effectively regulate large-scale commercial users of mangroves, with a result that mangrove loss is accelerating,” he says.

“Where we do see progress towards sustainable mangrove management, it’s in places where communities have clear rights, and they enjoy clear benefits.”