Since I draw so much inspiration for my work from the natural world, I’ve come to realize I owe this glorious planet of ours not only a debt of gratitude, but something more tangible. And I want to reciprocate in a way that helps protect the environment, but that also supports communities of women in environmentally fragile places–women who are often working in the trenches to preserve their surroundings while raising families and trying to earn an income.
I’ve landed on mangrove restoration. Specifically, we’ve decided to work with Conservation International on a mangrove restoration project run entirely by women on Chira Island, which lies just off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica in the Gulf of Nicoya. For every Italian silk scarf sale the studio makes, we will contribute one mangrove to the program.
Why mangroves? For the longest time most people dismissed mangrove forests as tropical, swampy wastelands. We’ve come to know they’re anything but. Straddling the interface of land and sea in 118 countries, mangrove forests provide ideal breeding grounds and act as nurseries for much of the world’s fish, shrimp, crabs, and other shellfish. In fact, an estimated 75 percent of commercially caught fish spend some time in the mangroves or depend on food webs that only exist in mangroves.
Mangrove forests provide habitat for thousands of species around the world, from bacteria to barnacles to Bengal tigers. Their dense branches offer prime nesting and resting sites for hundreds of shorebirds and migratory bird species, including kingfishers, herons, and egrets. Crab-eating macaque monkeys, fishing cats, and giant monitor lizards hunt among the mangroves, along with endangered species such as olive Ridley turtles, white breasted sea eagles, tree climbing fish, proboscis monkeys, and dugongs.
The tons of leaves that fall from each acre of mangrove forest every year launch an incredibly productive food system. As the leaves decay, they provide nutrients for invertebrates and algae. These in turn feed countless other organisms, and tides circulate the nutrients among mudflats, estuaries, and coral reefs.
Photo Credit: Maria Wassum with Conservation International. These sapling mangroves are ready to be planted.
Mangroves also act as storm barriers, protecting inland areas from flooding and erosion by absorbing the energy of big waves. They help filter river water of pollutants and trap excess sediment before it reaches the ocean.
But the biggest benefit of mangroves for all of us is their astounding ability to sequester carbon and fight climate change. Although they’re only found in tropical areas and cover about 85,000 square miles globally (an area about the size of Arkansas and less than 3 percent of the area of the Amazon rainforest), mangroves punch way above their weight when it comes to carbon storage. Pound for pound, mangroves can sequester four times more carbon than rainforests, most of it stored in the soil beneath the trees.
Despite everything they do for us, humans have destroyed at least 35% of the world’s mangrove forests since 1980. Mangroves get ripped out for many reasons: to clear the way for shrimp farms and other forms of aquaculture and coastal development, to allow construction of marinas, as well as for their wood. They need freshwater and can die when dams and other upstream impediments stem the flow of rivers. And now rising seawaters pose another threat to mangroves.
Mangrove forests provide many of the resources upon which coastal people depend for their survival and livelihood. At low tide, people can walk across the tidal flats to collect clams, shellfish, and shrimp–and much of this work is done by women. At high tide, fish move in to feed among the protection of mangrove roots, turning the marshy land into rich fishing grounds. The mangrove trees themselves, when harvested sustainably, provide fuel, medicines, tannins, and wood for building houses and boats. Mangroves also are eerily beautiful–a wild tangle of roots giving way to a lush canopy of green.
Mangrove restoration helps impoverished communities and the whole world in so many ways: it helps mitigate climate change and enhance the environment at large, it promotes economic growth and well-being and, because women are willing to work in the mangroves while many men are not, contributes to gender and income equality in places where life is challenging for women. In other words, the bang-for-buck factor of mangrove restoration is huge. We hope you’ll join us in spreading the word about the vital contributions of mangroves to our planet–and on the importance of restoration projects like the one on Chira Island.