Restoring Thailand’s mangroves: can it be done right?

The number of mangrove restoration projects in Thailand has significantly augmented since the beginning of the century due to an increase in awareness of the benefits of mangrove ecosystems for a multitude of purposes such as protection of coastal environments, barriers to coastal erosion, habitats for a very diverse range of wildlife and livelihoods for traditional and indigenous communities. Governments, private institutions and Non-Government Organizations are all taking initiatives. But are they doing it right?

Ellison (2000) determined that the current state of ecological knowledge is sufficient to adequately restore mangrove areas and extensive literature has been published about the methodology. However, most restoration work has failed to reach its goals which poses the following questions: How well can the scientific and engineering theory be applied in practice? Can restoration projects simply follow pre-determined guidelines? What are the main challenges when implementing mangrove restoration projects in Southern Thailand?

Mangrove restoration techniques: planting vs natural regeneration

The Mangrove Restoration Project (MAP) is an NGO that leads projects in Southern Thailand with the aim of restoring mangrove areas by involving the local communities who benefit directly from these ecosystems. MAP follows a method called Community-Based Mangrove Ecological Restoration (CBEMR) method  which follows six steps and focuses on correcting the hydrology and soil conditions of the site in order to enable the mangrove species to regenerate naturally. To do so, it is important to understand the causes of degradation and why mangrove species are no longer regenerating.

Community-Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration principles (Source: GNF, 2015)

In contrast other mangrove restoration technics rely simply on planting. Authors such as Ellison (2000), Lewis (2005), Ferreira et al. (2015), argue that this technic does not allow the whole ecosystem to recover and results in project failures. Even though planting appears to be an inadequate technic when implemented alone, I believe that it could be combined to the CBEMR method in order to accelerate the regeneration process. In fact, for local communities, the main issue with the CBEMR method is that results and progress are not rapid. It is estimated  that the regeneration of mangrove ecosystems by relying on natural regeneration alone takes between 25 and 50 years.

Hence, despite the benefits in terms of restoration of biodiversity and important success rates, ecological mangrove restoration methods must understand the communities’ priorities and values to ensure their full collaboration.

Community engagement

The case study of MAP’s mangrove restoration projects in Southern Thailand has highlighted the necessity to engage with communities. It allows knowledge exchange especially as regards indigenous and traditional technics. On the other hand, by empowering communities and creating a sense of concern towards the ecosystem it has the potential to ensure the sustainability of the restoration work and limits the risk of environmental degradation in the future.

MAP also develops alternative livelihoods within these communities to ensure participation and link mangrove restoration to a form of supplementary income. This approach has proven to be efficient in communities with strong organizational skills and pre-existing conservation knowledge as these groups are able to develop and maintain their alternative livelihood without continuous support from MAP.

Community-Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration principles (Source: GNF, 2015)

However, community involvement is time consuming and divergence in priorities do occur, that is why it is important to set clear goals and define priorities before implementation of projects.

Setting goals and balancing priorities

The goals and priorities of mangrove restoration projects must be defined in collaboration with the local communities. Understanding of communities’ values, priorities, pre-existing knowledge on conservation aspects and learning capacity will allow to set objectives that are both in line with the mangrove restoration goals and communities’ expectations. In addition, it will permit the definition of realistic monitoring methods which is an essential part of the process and often disregarded in mangrove restoration projects.

BTN Monitoring 05-12 078
Signs for time-lapse photo monitoring in the restoration site in Bang Lang Da (Southern Thailand) (Source: Mangrove Restoration Project)

Holistic, flexible and site specific approaches

The analysis of twelve of MAP’s mangrove restoration projects show some similar challenges and opportunities. However, it appears that the restoration work and the way to deal with these challenges are site specific. Indeed, each site is unique where its hydrology and elevation are concerned, in part due to the previous activities undertaken in the area. Therefore, even though guidelines to mangrove restoration are important, it is essential to ensure their flexibility. Project implementers must also be aware that an in-depth analysis of the site must be undertaken to determine the ecological and social context as well as the political and institutional context with emphasis on land ownership.

Thailand suffers from the lack of policies which support conservation and restoration efforts and land tenure is a major issue. Both of these aspects must be considered in mangrove restoration in order to understand the potential threats to the projects and develop management plans which are more likely to succeed in the future.


Ellison A.M., 2000, Mangrove restoration: Do we know enough?, Restoration Ecology, Vol. 8, Issue 3, pp. 219-229.

Ferreira A.C., Ganade G., and De Attayde J.L., 2015, Restoration versus natural regeneration in a neo-tropical mangrove: Effects on plant biomass and crab communities, Ocean & Coastal Management, Vol. 110, pp. 38-45.

Global Nature Fund, 2015, Mangrove restoration guide: Best practices and lessons learned from a community-based conservation project, GNF, Germany.

Lewis R.R., 2005, Ecological engineering for successful management and restoration of mangrove forests, Ecological Engineering, Vol. 24, pp. 403-418.

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