Community engagement in mangrove restoration: a balancing act

Twenty-two degrees Celsius. That is the difference in temperature between the day I left Thailand (42 ̊C) and the morning I arrived back to Australia (20 ̊C). After almost three months of research with the Mangrove Action Project (MAP) organization on my topic “Mangrove restoration in Southern Thailand: challenges, opportunities and best practices”, what have I discovered so far? Here is an update on my progress.

MAP restoration sites map
Map of  the Mangrove Action Project restoration sites in Southern Thailand (Source: http://www.mangroveactionproject.org/cbemr/blog/)

A two-sided learning process

The Mangrove Action Project (MAP) follows a restoration method called Community-Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration (CBEMR). This process emphasizes on engaging local communities in the restoration projects. One aspect of my research is to analyse the social aspects of mangrove restoration hence studying the collaboration between MAP and the communities involved and the relationship between these communities and the mangrove ecosystem.

An interesting aspect I have observed is the two-sided learning process that takes place in the restoration projects.

MAP’s priority is to establish and maintain good relations with the communities it engages with. These efforts enable a better understanding and adoption of MAP’s practices by the communities. This is reflected during the CBEMR training workshops that take place at the beginning of each project as the local villagers show real interest and involvement. In return communities appear to be confident to speak up and share their own knowledge with MAP.

The project in Nai Nang village which is situated in Krabi Province, in Southern Thailand is an example of knowledge transfer from the community to MAP. The mangrove restoration site is an abandoned shrimp pond located in a high-energy environment. The current, in the transition period between high and low tides, is too strong which is an issue for natural seedling to occur. Seeds that reach the site, either with the tide or by dropping from surrounding trees, are not able to lodge in the soil and root as they are washed away by the rapid flow of water.

The community acknowledged this issue and came up with a solution which consists in building traps with brush rows of branches that are held in place by wooden stakes. These structures trap the seeds which are then protected from the current and hence able to root and grow. These traps are now disposed all over the pond and are showing some positive results but more time is required to determine if this experiment is successful in the long-term.

Seed trap Nai Nang
Seed trap at the mangrove restoration site in Nai Nang, in Krabi Province, Southern Thailand (Source: Manon Whittaker, 2016)

This exchange of knowledge is essential for the long-term success of mangrove restoration. Even though MAP takes into account the necessities and priorities of local communities some practices are not compatible with the final CBEMR goals.

How do you reach compromise?

The main challenge I have observed is balancing out the demands of local communities and the objectives of CBEMR. Diverging priorities generally involve two aspects: planting of seedlings and combination of activities in the restoration site.

On one hand, MAP’s main concern is to restore the mangrove area by following the Community-Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration Method in order to bring the environment back to a functioning and self-sustaining ecosystem. The CBEMR method follows six steps and aims to restore the appropriate hydrology and soil conditions of the site in order to enable the mangrove species to regenerate naturally. This process takes time and this is the main issue raised by local communities.

Villagers would like to see faster results to be able to benefit from the mangrove ecosystem. In that sense they often want to prioritize planting. This claim contrasts slightly with MAP’s approach which resorts to planting only after determining that “natural recruitment will not provide the quantity of successfully established seedlings, rate of stabilization, or rate of growth as required for project success” (Mangrove Action Project, 2016).

Ban Lang Da restoration site 2
MAP’s first mangrove restoration site in Ban Lang Da, in Krabi Province, Southern Thailand (Source: Manon Whittaker, 2016)

On the other hand, communities sometimes see the opportunity to combine the mangrove restoration site with fisheries as an additional activity which would provide them with an extra source of food. Even though MAP supports community livelihoods, some practices are not compatible with restoration. This is the case for fisheries as the level of water necessary on-site during low tide is very different for mangrove species and fisheries. Both activities may be able to be combined as suggested by Lewis and Gilmore (2007) however it would require precise control of water levels during both high and low tide which is beyond the capacity of my host organization and the villagers involved.

Even though rapidity of results appears to be an essential criterion for local communities, culture and values also play an important role.

Cultural understanding

Culture is another essential aspect that must be taken into account in mangrove restoration projects in Southern Thailand. Community engagement is key to successful restoration, however the process requires understanding of values and cultures. In regards to planting, it appears that individuals express a feeling of pride and concern when they see a tree grow after they personally planted it. They view planting as a positive contribution to the environment which enables them to establish a stronger connection with nature. It is important to understand this perspective in order to reach compromises and establish solutions that will be successful in the long term.

IMG_0537
Rhizophora Apiculata (mangrove specie) at MAP’s restoration site in Leam Ma Kham, Trang Province, Southern Thailand (Source: Manon Whittaker, 2016)

Don’t miss out on my final blog post which will summarize the key findings of my research!

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