Mangrove Maniacs: local commitment to mangrove restoration in the Dutch Caribbean

The lagoon of Lac on Bonaire, on the southeastern side of the island, is a non-estuarine lagoon bordered by the largest and some of the wealthiest mangrove areas of the Dutch Caribbean. Despite their crucial role in providing coastal protection, supporting local livelihoods and storing vast amounts of carbon, the mangroves of Bonaire are under growing threat due to, among other things, overdevelopment and increased pressures of climate change.

Photo credit: Cristina Romero

The local volunteer foundation Mangrove Maniacs is dedicated to protecting this species in this shallow domain, which has been designated as a protected RAMSAR site and is managed by the Bonaire National Marine Park. This organisation continues the work initiated in 2015 by the project “Ecological Restoration of Lac Bay and South Bonaire” to remove the causes of erosion and improve the area’s environmental conditions.

Mangrove Maniacs’ Sabine Engel and Jessica Johnson spoke to BEST 2.0+ on its recent visit to the island about “Mangrove Restoration Bonaire”, a project receiving funding from this programme that revolves around four axes: 1. improving water circulation within the Lac Bay mangroves forest by way of maintaining and clearing existing channels 2. establishing nurseries from mangrove propagules. 3. expanding mangrove forests by planting new plants in degraded areas and along the coast, and 4. increasing youth and community awareness and involvement.

The following are some of the questions the conversation revolved around.

Photo credit: Cristina Romero

BEST 2.0+: What are the main coastal challenges faced by Bonaire, and what role does mangrove restoration play in this context?

Mangrove Maniacs: “Coastal challenges by Bonaire are future flooding hazards due to the effects of climate change. Mangroves are natural engineers, i.e. a robust mangrove forest will function as a first coastal defence. Mangroves on Bonaire face several threats, but the most pressing concern is sedimentation due to land erosion. Wild donkeys and goats roam free around the catchment area of the mangroves, and overgrazing leads to an overall loss of vegetation, which eventually means increased erosion of land sediments in the backwaters and causes hypersaline conditions. Combined with the excessive silt, these will cause stunted growth of mangroves and eventually a die-off. Good hydrological connectivity may help reduce the salinity in the backwaters, so the water channels must be kept open, as excessive mangrove root growth can hinder water flow”.

BEST 2.0+: How do the threats and pressures on the mangroves affect the day-to-day of the island’s local communities?

Mangrove Maniacs: “It is hard to assess the direct effect of a degraded mangrove forest on the local communities, but the loss of biodiversity and nursery function can affect the fishery. Mangroves also have a filtering function for land sediments and keep the open water of the bay clear and attractive for tourism. The healthy forest and clear bay form an attraction for tourists and, as such, contributes to Bonaire’s economy. The effect of carbon sequestration contributes to the global uptake of carbon and is a global benefit. As such, the future coastal defence can benefit residents living in low-lying areas”.

BEST 2.0+: How is “Mangrove restoration Bonaire” responding to this reality?

Mangrove Maniacs: “By focusing on the threats to mitigate or remove them. Erosion is a significant threat; in the catchment area of the Lagoon of Lac, already two areas have been fenced off – one is private property owned by an NGO, and the other is on public land. The local government supports our efforts and has facilitated fencing this area off to protect against overgrazing. Reforestation and, shortly, the creation of dams will reduce erosion. In the mangrove forest, the network of channels is being rebuilt and improved to increase hydrological connectivity”.

Photo credit: Cristina Romero

BEST 2.0+: A notable merit of your project has been involving an engaged and invested local community in your work. How have you been able to instil the concept of biodiversity in the local Bonairians?

Mangrove Maniacs: “We reach out as much as possible to the people on Bonaire by working with kids, the local media, organising events where we teach them to appreciate this environment and show them the different facets. We target different audiences, from kids to the general public, from policymakers to scientists on the island and abroad. Most people on Bonaire know about us and the mangroves and are learning more and more about the natural values of the mangroves. We don’t know if people on the island can explain the term ‘biodiversity’, but we keep repeating this and the other ecosystems’ values”. 

Photo credit: Julie Morgan

BEST 2.0+: You mentioned earlier the importance of tourism for the island’s economy; “Mangrove restoration Bonaire” is also pinning its work on the involvement of tourists. Can you please elaborate on this?

Mangrove Maniacs: “Every Tuesday, we hold an open volunteer day for anyone on the island to help dig new channels.  We have a core group of island residents who come out with us every week, but tourists often visit us, also.  In addition, we hold several public outplanting events along the southern coast, which are popular among residents and visitors alike. The tourists that mostly come into contact with the mangrove environment are the ones that book a guided kayak tour. We invite the kayak operators to our presentation evenings to increase their knowledge about mangroves and make them aware of our work”.

BEST 2.0+:Mangrove Restoration Bonaire” has been endorsed by stakeholders like Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire, Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, the park authority STINAPA and the local government. Would its implementation have been different without the local support?

Mangrove Maniacs: “Our work realises the goals of the Nature Plan Bonaire and Nature and Environment Policy Plan Caribbean Netherlands, compiled by nature organisations (including these stakeholders) and local government representatives. In a way, we had their support from the beginning, as our work benefits areas that fall under their responsibility”.

BEST 2.0+: Your project follows a very hands-on approach and pursues a focalised objective. However, Mangrove Maniacs also contribute to research projects on Bonaire following an area-based management approach. What do you seek with such collaborations?

Mangrove Maniacs: “Collaborations and synergies strengthen nature management efforts for all parties involved. Mangroves, as such, can’t be considered an isolated habitat but are an integral part of the land seascape. Collaboration helps also build capacity and strengthen local relationships. An area-based management approach based on spatial planning ensures all sectors work together towards a common goal.”

BEST 2.0+: What have been the most tangible results of the project to date?

Mangrove Maniacs: “We regularly maintain over 3.6km of mangrove channels, which includes over 1000 square meters of new channel development.  In 2021 we planted over 1,250 red mangroves along the southern wetlands and more than doubled this number in 2022 by planting over 2,650 red and black mangroves in the same area. The conditions in all areas have been improved by improving hydrological connectivity. Water quality indicators, like salinity and dissolved oxygen, have shown clear improvements since the beginning of the project. Furthermore, according to local fishermen, other indicators have diminished, such as previously documented seasonal fish die-offs.  This is likely the result of improved connectivity within the mangroves allowing fish to move to deeper channels when water levels drop quickly. Lastly, we have gained good exposure through our events and social media, and people often reach out to us proactively”.

Photo credit: Cristina Romero

BEST 2.0+: What would be good indicators of the project’s long-term sustainability for you?

Mangrove Maniacs: “The mangrove area forms an integral part of the Bonaire National Marine Park, and the government has mandated its management to STINAPA, a non-governmental organisation responsible for managing the national parks on Bonaire in the Caribbean Netherlands. Since 2010 they have dedicated efforts to addressing the mangroves. The fact that mangrove management is mentioned in management and policy plans indicates the intent to continue doing so”.

BEST 2.0+: Mangrove Maniacs’ work under BEST 2.0+ funding will soon come to an end after nearly a year and a half of its inception. How has BEST contributed to your organisation’s objectives?

Mangrove Maniacs: “Applying for funds helped us formulate a proposal and organise our actions and activities.  The structured requirements for reporting have aided in our ability to track and communicate our performance. The capitalisation workshop that BEST 2.0+ organised during its visit to the island gave us a peek at the other regional projects, with valuable lessons that can be incorporated into our project’s strategic approach”.

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