Mangroves, a Line of Defense Against Climate Change

Julio Montes de Oca, director of Coastal Resilience for the Americas, shares how Audubon is advancing in Latin America and the Caribbean one of the priority hemispheric strategies.

The Americas are home to 46,284 square kilometers of unparalleled natural wealth that for years has been overlooked and often an underestimated treasure: the mangroves. 

Panama, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica, Surinam, Dominican Republic, and Guatemala are some of the countries where this vital ecosystem exists, a favorite landscape for thousands of migratory and endemic birds, and a privileged habitat for biodiversity.

But the benefits of mangroves go beyond: they are the first line of coastal defense in the fight against climate change, which brings sea level rise, more extreme weather, all of which imposes pressure on many coastal communities in the Americas, forcing them to adapt to maintain their livelihoods. Given the situation, it is essential to protect mangroves, as well as other vital coastal ecosystems: estuaries, mudflats, seagrass beds, and coral reefs, to face and recover from the effects of climate change.

Efforts to safeguard these habitats and their values in their actual dimension is an urgent task for governments, public, private, and multilateral organizations. For this purpose, environmental organizations invest time and state-of-the-art science to understand the contributions of these coastal ecosystems and deepen the strategies to restore and conserve them.

Julio Montes de Oca, Audubon Americas Coastal Resilience director, knows by heart the profound link between mangroves and coastal resilience strategies. Today, the relationship between mangroves and coastal resilience is more evident than ever: these biodiversity-rich habitats are also the foundation of community livelihoods and, in turn, critical connectors of the terrestrial landscape and oceans, vital planetary supports for the cycle of life.

On July 26, International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem, we spoke with Julio Montes de Oca to learn more about how climate change impacts the region and the organization's proposals to address its challenges in coastal-marine zones through the coastal resilience approach.

"To understand climate dynamics, we must start precisely from the oceans," he explains. "As huge bodies of water, they function as the planet's lungs, responsible for generating much of the oxygen we breathe. They also significantly influence weather patterns by constantly exchanging heat, moisture, and carbon with the atmosphere. This natural dynamic, altered by greenhouse gases resulting from the consumption of fossil fuels, changes weather patterns, generating more extreme conditions and more intense and frequent natural phenomena such as tropical storms and drought."

These conditions and events have a significant impact on marine-coastal zones, not only because of the exposure factor but also because in most of the countries of the region, from a development standpoint, they are historical areas with less access to health, education, and other public services” concludes Montes de Oca.

But the good news is that we can mitigate these impacts with strategic actions, improving the recovery capacity of marine-coastal ecosystems, where mangroves play a key role. That is precisely the focus of the coastal resilience strategy.

With this approach, at Audubon Americas seeks to conserve and restore these marine-coastal ecosystems to sustainably provide the services that ensure the livelihoods and development of populations bordering the coast, such as:

  • Food, drinking water retention, and storage. Genetic and biochemical material (provisioning services).
  • Climate regulation (including as a carbon sink), water regulation (recharge and discharge), erosion control, storm protection, pollination, and sediment retention (regulating services).
  • Recreation, spiritual value, education (cultural services).
  • Soil formation, nutrient cycling (supporting services).

These services help ecosystems to withstand and recover more quickly from human-induced threats. "And it allows us to turn to nature-based solutions, i.e., actions that use environmental services to address climate change and other societal challenges," says Montes de Oca.

It is important to note that coastal zone biodiversity is both a provider of benefits and a beneficiary of these areas' protection and rational use. For example:

  • A well-preserved mangrove forest acts as a natural barrier that reduces direct exposure to humans and their activities. It can absorb the impact of a tidal wave or even a tsunami, thus protecting lives, infrastructure, and productive activities.
  • Mangroves also serve as nurseries for numerous species of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks on which coastal communities and commercial fishing species depend.
  • Mangroves store significantly more carbon per area than tropical forests, so they become a crucial ecosystem for climate change mitigation.
  • Due to the natural beauty and biological diversity of coastal areas, organized communities develop bird watching ecotourism with local guides, thus diversifying their economy.

 "It is important to have coastal resilience as part of our action plans, which incorporate government authorities, productive sectors, and organized civil society under the same umbrella. With this approach, we can address the different and complex development and conservation issues present in coastal areas in an integrated and coordinated manner," points out the Costa Rican Chemical Engineer with a master's degree in Human Ecology.

Coastal resilience for people and birds

When asked why Audubon Americas has defined coastal resilience as a priority within its strategy, Julio Montes de Oca explains that the starting point is to recognize that coastal areas have an intrinsic vulnerability due to their exposure to water masses as well as the socioeconomic conditions of their population.

Added to this condition are the climatic impacts on different time scales: those of "slow onset/start," such as sea-level rise, greater aridity, or average rainfall (trends that we see over time); and variability, which are the specific events that deviate from these averages, with increasing intensity and frequency.

"Also, poor production practices such as excessive use of agrochemicals, lack of solid waste and wastewater  treatment, and deforestation affect the ability of ecosystems to provide services. Most significantly, coastal protection, water retention, and filtration; precisely the ones that help us adapt to these impacts of climate change,” comments Montes de Oca.

“All these aspects added to the lack of land-use planning that respects the natural vocation of the territory in the marine-coastal zone becomes a severe risk trigger,” points out Julio.

Consequently, a coastal resilience strategy is vital for the Americas. It recognizes coastal zones as a critical environment, and a significant store of natural and human capital, which can help us adapt to climate change and contribute to its mitigation if well supported and enhanced.

The primary mission of the National Audubon Society in its more than 100-year history has been to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, their habitats, and the benefits to humanity and biodiversity. These multiple benefits become more visible to decision-makers at different levels and communities through coastal resilience.

Informing and communicating on a technical and scientific basis enables the construction of appropriate policies and programs and the development of concrete actions that, thanks to their comprehensiveness, generate tangible and sustainable benefits over time.

Julio's extensive experience and technical knowledge of coastal resilience will foster science-based decision-making. And it will help the promotion of regional exchange where countries adapt experiences to their environment, generate learning, and develop participatory initiatives in response to the most severe threats to communities and nature.