The world’s mangroves have been disappearing at an alarming rate. China has been working hard to reverse that trend. Over 75 per cent of its natural mangroves now fall within protected areas, compared to the global average of 42 per cent. And in the first two decades of the millennium, large-scale planting saw China’s mangrove area increase by 23 per cent. Despite these successes, questions have been asked for some years. Are expensive afforestation efforts sustainable? Might they involve unacceptable ecological risks?
As the shortcomings of large-scale afforestation have become apparent, many Chinese nature reserves are looking to community participation to help protect and restore mangroves in the long term. Local people can contribute to the design, implementation and evaluation of such programmes. They may also help manage them in such a way as to sustainably use the mangrove ecosystem, for example through eco-friendly aquaculture or ecotourism.
Can community participation provide a solution for restoring mangrove ecosystems? China’s mangrove conservation experts and NGOs are trying to find out.
A change in direction
Between the early 1950s and 2000, the area of mangrove in China fell by more than half, from 50,000 hectares to 22,000 hectares, mainly due to the expansion of coastal aquaculture. Since 2000, however, strict conservation measures and large-scale planting led to a net increase in mangrove area of 5,000 hectares.
Forestry authorities used to designate mangroves as a “forestry resource” rather than an “ocean ecosystem”. Restoration therefore meant planting trees, and success was measured by area planted. The consequences are plain to see: few of China’s coastal shoals are suitable for planting mangrove trees, but in order to hit targets many trees were planted near the low-tide mark and did not survive. In some cases, shoals were even artificially raised to improve success rates. That’s expensive, and dangerous for local ecosystems. The areas affected were already home to diverse species and were a feeding ground for seabirds. Raising the level of the shoals meant those birds went hungry.
This unfortunate approach lasted for almost 20 years. A 2017 national plan for coastal barrier forests included a target of afforesting over 48,000 hectares — a far greater area than is suitable for mangroves. The same year, China’s president, Xi Jinping, called for “respect for science” during a visit to mangroves in Beihai, Guangxi province. A 2020—2025 action plan for restoring mangroves shrunk the target to over 9,000 hectares. It also stressed the need for “comprehensive protection of mangrove ecosystems”.
“It took only three years to revise a national plan — that’s very rare,” Wang Wenqing told China Dialogue. Wang is secretary-general of the Ecological Society of China’s committee on mangrove ecology, and a professor at Xiamen University’s College of Environment and Ecology. “That means,” he continued, “at the national level at least, China’s management of mangroves is shifting from planting areas of trees to restoration and protection of ecosystems.”
That is easier said than done. It’s generally accepted that the best place to grow mangroves is on land where they once stood, but most of those areas are now fish and shrimp aquaculture ponds. Globally, over 50 per cent of mangrove loss is due to the creation of aquaculture ponds. In China, 13,000 hectares of mangrove were taken over between 1980 and 2000, with 97.6 per cent of that being used for aquaculture.
In 2021, Wang Wenqing and others published a book reviewing the pros and cons of China’s mangrove conservation efforts. They found that future mangrove restoration would rely mainly on returning aquaculture ponds to forest and wetland. The government’s mangrove action plan, meanwhile, called for an orderly removal of ponds within protected areas. Incomplete figures put the area of aquaculture ponds within nature reserves and wetland parks at almost 10,000 hectares in 2018, an area equivalent to more than one-third of China’s existing mangroves.
Converting ponds to forest or wetland requires huge compensation, which local governments can’t afford, so progress has been slow. Even if the ponds can be handed to the reserves, managing them is costly, and the reserves don’t have the funds or staff needed. Meanwhile, the government’s strict rules on conserving mangroves, which discourage utilisation, aren’t popular with many local people.
How to ensure livelihoods while protecting mangroves? Communities once excluded have become important stakeholders in the new approach. How they participate in managing mangroves will determine how successfully those ecosystems can be restored in the long term.
Community involvement: the Zhanjiang experiment
Involving the community is not a new idea. The final line of the 2020—2025 action plan calls for mobilising the public to participate in mangrove conservation, with the necessary mechanisms in place. Training materials produced eight years ago by the Zhangjiangkou Mangrove Reserve, in Fujian province, presented the advantages of community involvement, calling it “the most effective way” to ensure both conservation and sustainability.
Again, it’s easier said than done. According to Wang Wenqing’s book, of eight provincial-level and six national-level mangrove reserves, only one — the Zhanjiang Mangrove National Reserve in Guangdong province — has community involvement on its day-to-day agenda.
That the exception is Zhanjiang is no surprise. This is China’s largest mangrove reserve, incorporating 39 villages and townships, and 2.44 million people. The reserve’s biggest headache is the 4,800 hectares of aquaculture ponds located within its area.
Between 2001 and 2006, the Chinese and Dutch governments worked together on a mangrove conservation and restoration project on the Leizhou peninsula, where Zhanjiang lies. To date, this is still China’s biggest foreign-funded mangrove project. One of its aims was to set up community management systems. But as a number of experts recall, this was limited to educating the local people about the importance of mangroves, and providing village infrastructure.
But it at least created some awareness about community involvement, which the reserve has since integrated more closely into its management. Some environmental organisations have also been running trials of the approach on the peninsula. In 2021, the reserve managers joined forces with two other Chinese organisations, the Society of Entrepreneurs & Ecology (SEE) Foundation and the Mangrove Conservation Foundation (MCF) to run a community conservation project in the villages of Hebei and Beijia. An officer involved in the design of the project told China Dialogue they are hoping to get more local people involved in conservation and restoration work.
“The reserve would struggle to manage all of its land with only its own staff. It would be better if the locals, who already live on the reserve, helped,” the project officer said. For example, as invasive species such as salt-water cordgrass can sprout again after being cleared, it could be more efficient and cost effective if local people swiftly removed those seedlings, rather than the reserve sending staff out again when the plant has re-spread.
Ideally, they would be willing to do even more: villagers would be involved in deciding on conservation and restoration plans, with clear rights and responsibilities, allowing for sustainable use of the mangroves.
At root, Wang Wenqing thinks, the problem is that China has not yet developed practical routes to such sustainable use, which takes two main forms: ecological aquaculture and ecotourism. As yet, neither are anywhere near as profitable as destructive approaches such as intensive aquaculture. There are hopes that ecological aquaculture, which preserves and enhances the ecosystem in which the activity is integrated, could help replace intensive aquaculture ponds. However, there are currently no suitable methods for its wide-scale application.
“There are lots of issues to resolve,” Wang says. “We can’t answer basic questions, like what role will the farmed species play in the mangrove ecosystem?” He offers an example: “What about shellfish or snails: what would they eat? Where would the effluent go?”
A number of research bodies and charities are investigating. The mangrove conservation project in the villages of Hebei and Beijia will last four years and will explore a conservation model combining aquaculture with ecological benefits. The thinking is to continue to use ponds for aquaculture, but also to create habitats for migratory birds, so the sandpipers and plovers that winter here will have somewhere to eat and rest.
One existing example that could be followed is Hong Kong’s Mai Po Wetlands, where birds feed in winter, and people practice aquaculture during the rest of the year. The aforementioned project officer believes the priority at Mai Po is conservation, so its aquaculture operations are smaller and less intense, which won’t work in Zhanjiang: “We hope to do our best to maintain profits for aquaculture farmers.” They add that output at Beijia may drop a bit, and farmers there may receive subsidies. But even so, the costs will be far lower than the compensation necessary to bring aquaculture farms back into the control of the reserve.
Zhao Peng, associate researcher at Hainan University’s State Key Laboratory of South China Sea Marine Resource Utilisation, has been carrying out studies in Beihai, Guangxi province, over the last two years, trying to restore mangrove ecosystems in abandoned shrimp ponds, then seeding them with fish, shrimp, crabs and shellfish. “It’s not as productive as intensive aquaculture, but the prices of eco-friendly products are going to go up, and it’s better than leaving people with nothing,” he said.
“There’s a trend towards allowing people to make sustainable use of mangrove resources.” Zhao thinks there’s a consensus on strict protections for natural mangroves, but that conservation and utilisation rights for artificial mangrove plantings should be entrusted to local communities. That will ensure their cooperation in conservation. “Otherwise, it won’t be sustainable.”
There are many practical issues to tackle before aquaculture can coexist with mangrove ecosystems. How can restoration be sped up? How can other species be introduced to get an acceptable harvest? How to stop farmed species being swept away by the tides?
Wang Wenqing says that although the action plan does mention community involvement, “there’s a lack of effective approaches and case studies”.
China and Southeast Asia: learning from neighbours
China is at the upper limit of the distribution of mangroves in the northern hemisphere. Its cooler temperatures mean only 0.2 per cent of the world’s mangroves are found in the country. In mangrove-rich tropical areas around the world, many examples of sustainable use can be found. The action plan calls for more international cooperation. In October last year, at a China—ASEAN summit, Premier Li Keqiang spoke of the need for more cooperation and knowledge sharing on mangroves.
On the eve of the first session of the COP15 biodiversity conference, also held in October last year, the China—ASEAN Mangrove Conservation Initiative was announced. It called for the foundation of a China—ASEAN Mangrove Conservation Network, made up of local NGOs from China and Southeast Asian nations. The network will aim to use regional cooperation to aid in restoring and managing mangroves, to prevent further damage to those ecosystems.
Cooperation between China and Southeast Asia is significant. The region is home to one-third of the world’s mangrove trees — Indonesia alone has one-fifth — and the greatest diversity of mangrove species. But it has also seen the greatest net loss of mangroves.
In 2018, the Global Mangrove Alliance was founded by Conservation International, the IUCN, The Nature Conservancy, Wetlands International and WWF. The alliance aims to use fair and effective measures to expand the global area of restored mangroves. In 2021, it published a report, The State of the World’s Mangroves, which found that 80 per cent of human-driven mangrove loss is concentrated in six countries: Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
The biggest driver in Southeast Asia is the conversion of land for food production, such as rice, fish and shrimp farming. The report estimates that 50–65 per cent of mangrove loss in Thailand since 1975 is attributable to shrimp farming alone. Expansion of oil palm planations has also had a significant impact across the region in recent years.
The report also covers examples of sustainable mangrove use in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Wang Wenqing has visited restoration projects in Vietnam and Indonesia. Local people there are even more reliant on mangroves than in China, he says, and there is more community-based sustainable use of the forests, which China could learn from. But the project officer mentioned above warns that those models can’t just be relocated to China. For a start, China’s coastal regions have a far smaller mangrove area per capita, and cannot rely solely on natural resources to provide livelihoods. Second, for decades intensive aquaculture operations have been making significant profits — there are greater opportunity costs to giving that up than in other tropical nations.
But it is still worth looking at community-involvement systems and practices in Southeast Asia. In 1997, Thailand gave traditional communities a constitutional right to manage natural resources. Research has found that community forests there are more biodiverse than state-owned forests. Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam all have well-established community forest management systems. In 2012, Indonesia’s national mangrove strategy mandated that all mangrove management go through a national coordinating body, or through regional multi-stakeholder groups made up of government, NGOs, coastal communities and business leaders.
It is not enough to just put the systems in place. Economic and governance limitations mean relying on communities to protect mangroves is still challenging. Alternative livelihoods, which do not rely on unsustainable mangrove use, are needed, as are good participatory management frameworks.
Chinese NGOs have done some work on this. Since 2017, the Global Environment Institute (GEI) has been working with local partners in Myanmar, under a China–Myanmar climate assistance framework, to encourage communities to participate in conservation. This includes setting up funds to provide low-interest loans to improve livelihoods, popularise the use of cleaner stoves, and reduce the felling of mangrove trees for firewood. Fan Min, marine programmes manager for GEI, says next the organisation will push for mangroves in some of their project areas to be given Myanmar’s designation of “public protected forest”. Communities can apply for forests to be designated as “community forests”, obtaining sustainable use rights for 30 years and perks such as tax breaks on their products. The government also provides mangrove saplings for planting and restoration.
GEI applies the community-led “community-agreed protection” model in Myanmar. The NGO originally adopted the practice in Peru and applied it in China’s mountainous southwest. Once successfully localised, it was again exported to projects in Southeast Asia.
Wang Wenqing says China has acquired a great deal of practical and theoretical knowledge about planting mangrove trees and produced over a dozen applicable standards. He notes also some mistakes that China has made — such as tree planting on shoals and large-scale planting of only a few species — which are still being made in Southeast Asia. China’s mangrove planting experiences could therefore be useful in the region, says Wang Wenqing. Also of value will be China’s experience in returning aquaculture ponds to mangroves, as a challenge that Southeast Asian nations will face in the future.
This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.
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