TGCC Assessment: Central America Mangroves, Tenure, and REDD+

Mangrove forests are among the world’s most diverse and productive ecosystems, providing multiple ecological and economic services to both terrestrial and marine habitats (Spalding, Kainuma, & Collins, 2010). They are located at the fertile intersection between oceans, freshwater, and land realms. Growing in the inter-tidal zone of tropical and subtropical latitudes, they stabilize the coastline, reduce erosion from extreme weather events, and improve coastal waters quality by filtering land-based pollutants before runoff reaches shallow marine habitats. Ecologically, they provide a food-rich and protected haven for many species (particularly as a nursery habitat) within their complex root systems. Mangroves provide nursery habitat for economically important fisheries as well as migrating birds and other wildlife. Mangrove forests are particularly important in Central America because the region is highly vulnerable to extreme weather events such as storms, floods, and landslides (UNEP, 2010b). In addition, mangrove management is an important component of both climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

There has been a considerable loss of mangrove areas globally since the 1980s, with recent studies indicating that the remaining area may be less than originally thought (FAO, 2007; Giri et al., 2011). Mangroves are under considerable deforestation and degradation pressures because they not only meet the household needs of local communities for fuelwood and timber, but also compete with other high value activities such as tourism development, agricultural production, aquaculture, and transportation infrastructure.

In addition to the detrimental effects the loss of mangroves has on livelihoods, protection against disasters, and biodiversity, deforestation in mangrove forests has a disproportionate role in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions: although they only compose 0.7 percent of tropical forest, they contribute to 10 percent of global deforestation emissions (Donato et al., 2011; Siiikamãki, Sanchirico, & Jardine, 2012). The role of “blue carbon” habitats (mangroves, salt marshes, seagrasses, and seaweed) in capturing carbon has largely been overlooked in climate change mitigation programs.

In recent years, however, it has become clear that mangroves hold enormous pools of carbon, not only in their woody biomass but particularly in the soils composed of leaf litter. Moreover, they sequester carbon at significantly higher rates per unit area than terrestrial forests (Mcleod et al., 2011). Much of this carbon is sequestered in the soil below ground (unlike terrestrial ecosystems), remaining there for very long periods of time (Pendleton et al., 2012). There is growing recognition that carbon sequestration in mangrove and other coastal habitats may be particularly important in efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions (Alongi, 2012). Therefore, the move to slow down the loss of blue carbon habitats has garnered considerable global interest within international discussions on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+).

There is limited knowledge about the ecosystem services that mangroves provide within Central America (Scodanibbio, 2013). This leads to insufficient understanding of the root causes behind land use planning processes and destruction of mangroves. The fact that the loss of mangroves takes place in areas with high poverty levels and few options for establishing sustainable livelihoods, or in protected areas with insufficient resources for their protection, has made it difficult to improve mangrove conditions. Reversing the trend of degradation of coastal habitats requires understanding the marine and terrestrial tenure and governance practices at work within mangrove forests. Because mangroves are a crucial part of the intertidal zone that bridges terrestrial and marine ecologies, tenure systems that govern access and use of mangrove forests tend to be relatively unique and complex in any given national context. For example, though they are forests, mangroves can come under the jurisdiction of other ministries (such as fisheries) outside of the national forest department. It is not unusual to find that an overlapping set of tenure rights exist on the ground: mangrove forests can be under the formal management of the state with customary use rights held by local communities; at times, large concessions can be given to tourism or aquaculture interests. Managing mangroves, therefore, requires clarifying and strengthening tenure and its governance to establish an enabling framework for sustainable forest management in mangrove habitats. Identifying effective types of tenure and governance arrangements, such as community-based or co-management, will be an important step in sustainable mangrove management. Coupled with the development of appropriate carbon accounting methods in blue carbon habitats, it will be possible to build REDD+ initiatives in coastal zones.

This report examines the land and resource tenure regimes within the mangrove systems of three countries in Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama) which fall under the coastal marine systems of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. This assessment, based on a desk review, is designed to inform interventions that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) developed through the Regional Climate Change Program. It aims to complement the findings of country-specific reports on land tenure and REDD+ for Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama that cover issues related to land and resource rights, incentive programs, rights to participate in decision making, as well as rights to own and transfer carbon.

In recent years, there has been growing regional interest in understanding the current challenges for sustainably managing mangrove forests in Central America after the devastating impact of Hurricane Mitch in late 1998. The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, together with the relevant Ministries of the Environment, developed a project titled the Integrated Coastal Management with Special Emphasis on Sustainable Management of Mangrove Forests in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua Project (known as the Mangrove Project) over the period December 2010 – May 2013. It sought to carry out a limited number of diagnostic studies to support spatial and land use planning within mangrove and coastal ecosystems in these three countries (UNEP, 2010a).

In the following three chapters, each country is discussed in terms of the current status of mangroves; the legal, policy, and institutional frameworks governing resource tenure and management; its relevance to REDD+ initiatives; and, a set of recommendations for improving mangrove management. This is followed by a concluding chapter that draws together the key lessons from this assessment. More detailed analysis of the national legal frameworks around land and forest resource tenure can be found in the complementary national assessments noted above.