FI Mangroves

On Union Island, mangrove restoration has led to increased biodiversity, better coastal protection, and more economic activity.

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Contributes to achieving the following UN Sustainable Development Goals:

Restoring Mangroves (VCT)

“That’s fast”, Floris says triumphantly as he drops the anchor in the pristine waters of Union Island. A few hours ago, we left Grenada and now we are already in the next country: Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. We jump into our kayak to get clearance in the nearby village. “What a strange lagoon,” Floris comments as we paddle to shore. Much of the Ashton Lagoon consists of rectangular basins, overgrown dams, and heavily rusted piles. Intrigued, we tie our kayak to a mangrove tree and climb ashore. What happened here?

Life-saving Ecosystem

From our landing spot we follow a trail over the dams. On one side are the basins, on the other the sea. Occasionally, the trail is interrupted by sea water flowing into the lagoon. Bridges span those passages to keep our feet dry. Wherever we look, we see birds and mangroves. Pelicans, herons, and terns forage in and around the basins, while fish and crabs scurry between the mangroves’ roots.

Information panels along the trail teach visitors about mangroves. We read that there are different types of mangroves, such as black and red mangroves. All types have in common that they thrive in shallow salt water. Mangroves grow all over the world in warm regions and are vital for the climate, biodiversity, and the coast. They store enormous amounts of CO2 and act as nurseries for marine life. In addition, mangroves protect the coast against waves caused by storms. That’s lifesaving for those dwelling in coastal areas, which includes sailors. Indeed, when strong winds threaten to wreak havoc in the tropics, sailors often seek refuge in “hurricane holes” – places for sailboats to moor that provide some protection against storm surges. Many of them are surrounded by mangroves, such as Tyrell Bay in Carriacou (Grenada), Marigot Bay (St Lucia), Denerau (Fiji), and Ensenada Honda (Puerto Rico).

Environmental Disaster in Slow Motion

On the bottom of each information panel is the logo of SusGren, or Sustainable Grenadines, a local non-profit organization. Their office turns out to be on our way to town, right next to the lagoon. Our curiosity ignited, we knock. Kristy Shortte receives us cordially. She is a programme manager and tells us what happened to the lagoon. “In the 1990s, the government approved a foreign investor’s project to build a marina in the Ashton Lagoon. It went against the advice of scientists and the wishes of residents. They pleaded in vain to protect the unique ecosystem that the lagoon was. Thanks to the mangroves, it was teeming with young fish, lobsters, and shellfish”, Kristy explains.

“But dams and roads were built and they blocked the natural ocean currents. As a result, the water in the lagoon became stagnant and, due to evaporation, increasingly salty and toxic. Mangroves need fresh seawater and thrive thanks to the tides, so when the water flow stopped, they died en masse. With the mangroves, a lot of marine life also disappeared. It was a disaster for biodiversity, fishermen, and coastal protection”, Kristy sighs.

“The project went bankrupt when half of the infrastructure was built. The investors simply left it behind, as there were no facilities or resources to dismantle the dams and restore the ecosystem. We were stuck with a stinking swamp. It was an environmental disaster in slow motion”, Kristy remembers. Ivar jumps in: “In other words, it was a typical example of how our economic model is on a collision course with nature, it seems. After all, we only calculate profit in monetary and material growth. We don’t include the loss of a liveable climate and healthy biodiversity in the spreadsheet of an investment decision.” It may come as no surprise that a third of the world’s mangrove forests have already disappeared.

A Second Chance

We ask Kristy what her organization relates to the aborted construction. She explains: “Because the project failed, the lagoon was given a second chance. Sustainable Grenadines wanted to restore the mangroves, so we offered our services. Still, it was by no means easy to get enough funding and the green light from the government. Our plans had to meet the wishes of residents, fishermen, and donors. After many years, we finally managed to come up with a model that pleased all stakeholders and received financial backing”, Kristy smiles. “After we obtained government approval, Sustainable Grenadines took on the task of restoring the natural environment while also stimulating sustainable economic activities.”

Naturally, we want to know how they achieved that. “Come outside and I’ll show you”, Kristy proposes. Her colleague Kisha McFarlene, Project and Community Officer, joins us.

Breaching Dams and Planting Trees

Close to their office is a wooden bridge where Kristy stops. “The most important thing we needed to do was to restore the flow of seawater. That is why we have breached the dams in various places, such as here.” Indeed, we can observe water flowing from the sea, under the bridge, to the lagoon and the mangroves there. “Fresh water comes in at high tide and goes out again at low tide”, Kristy explains.

She next takes us to a kind of greenhouse full of mini trees. It is Kisha’s domain, it turns out. “This is our nursery, where we raise young mangroves until they are strong enough to be moved to the lagoon. In fact, we just had a bunch of students help us plant hundreds of them. Those activities significantly accelerate the recovery of the mangroves”, Kisha explains.

Towards a Sustainable Economy

Our next stop is one of two observation towers. We climb the ladder to get a magnificent view over the mangroves and the many birds that call this sanctuary their home. Gulls, plovers, terns and sandpipers are all around us. Various types of herons wait patiently for a meal to swim by. “The birds are attracted by the rich feeding grounds. Some move on, others are here permanently. They feast on insects and small fish, crabs and young lobsters. In turn, their droppings contain nutrients for the trees and plants”, Kristy explains.

The bridges, observation towers, and information panels are all part of an education trail. It was designed to attract locals and tourists. They can enjoy the beautiful surroundings, learn something about the local flora and fauna, and have a picknick at various sites around the lagoon. Indeed, we come across many locals frequenting the nature reserve.

Kristy tells us that Sustainable Grenadines has facilitated several sustainable economic initiatives, too. “A beekeeper keeps bee colonies here and makes delicious honey from mangrove blossoms. In the lagoon itself, space has been set aside for growing sea moss. It’s a local delicacy and superfood that can be used for making smoothies, for example. Visitors can go on a kayaking trip with a local guide”, Kristy summarizes. “And let’s not forget the fishermen! The catch more fish and conches thanks to the recovery of the entire ecosystem”, she adds.

The Power of the Law

We are impressed by Sustainable Grenadines’ efforts and results. At the same time, we wonder how they will prevent the next dollar-hungry foreign investor from coming in and destroying it all again. “We are lobbying to obtain the status of national park for Ashton Lagoon. The successes we have booked in restoring the mangroves, increasing biodiversity, and creating economic opportunities for the local population give us hope that our request will be honoured. The legal protection that comes with being a national park is indispensable to preserve the area for future generations”, Kristy says.

We agree. The law must and can play an important role in shaping a sustainable future. It has the power to prevent the destruction of nature by one-dimensional economic decision-making. In Sweden we saw how national parks are effective in enabling people to enjoy nature and preserve it for future generations.

The next day, we follow a hiking trail to the top of the highest mountain on Union Island. The uphill climb is challenging; the path is steep and it’s oppressively hot. Our progress is slow and we are often forced to stop for a water break. But once at the summit, the reward makes is all worthwhile. We overlook the entire lagoon and gaze breathlessly at the bright green mangroves and the azure blue water below, arranged in rectangular patterns. The remarkable story of Ashton Lagoon symbolizes both the resilience of nature and the human ability to learn from mistakes. It’s a restoration example that underscores the importance of mangroves for biodiversity, coastal protection, and economic activity. It deserves to be replicated all over the world, we are convinced. Which area is next?

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