This is the area where in January 2018 APFNet, together with The University of Queensland and the Watershed Division of the Forest Department of Myanmar, stated a three-year project aiming to not only improve local livelihoods, but also to restore the valuable mangrove forests in Amar sub-township, where the project villages are located. Half-way through the project it was time to take stock. Thus, a mid-year review team, headed by evaluator Mr Jim Enright (from the Mangrove Action Project) and supported by APFNet staff and the project team, set out to visit the project sites in October 2019.
A tragedy and its only opponent
Mangroves, a group of various tree species that are all able to withstand saltwater to varying degrees, cover the entire Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) Delta. Unlike virtually all other trees in the world, they have evolved a complex salt filtration system and complex root system to cope with saltwater and the low oxygen conditions of waterlogged mud. Mangroves are uniquely adapted to tidal areas, such as river deltas and marine shorelines. Importantly, they also present critical natural barriers against flood and storm surges, such as Cyclone Nargis, as they not only physically provide protection, but also produce soil, raising the elevation of the shore. Recent research has shown that a two-metre-wide strip of mangroves along the shore can reduce wave height by 90 percent; furthermore other research has indicated that mangrove barriers can reduce the economic impact of intense storms, which also leads to more rapid recovery of communities.
Yet, the area of mangrove forests in the Delta keeps declining and the remaining forests are becoming increasingly degraded. Virtually the only thing between the people in the Delta and the next storm is disappearing. But why?
A wicked problem
Mangroves are cut in the Delta and used as fuel.
But this is far from the only reason the mangroves are threatened. Historical incentives by the previous government accelerated conversion of mangroves to rice paddies, which was exacerbated by a lack of tenure protection of community-owned mangrove forests. Shrimp and fishponds used in aquaculture often exclude mangroves. It seems that it's either one or the other – mangroves or humankind.
Mangrove or humankind – searching for the third path
Understanding this problem, researchers at The University of Queensland, supported by APFNet and the Watershed Division of the Myanmar Forest Department, set out to find a third solution. Professor Catherine Lovelock, one of the world's leading researchers on mangroves and Director of the project, supported by Dr Sang Phan, the project coordinator at The University of Queensland, aimed to develop a mangrove-friendly aquaculture model.
While spending some time assessing the best combination of mangroves and aquaculture that suits local conditions – mangroves and shrimp, mangroves and fish or mangroves and crab aquaculture, the choice finally fell on combining mangroves and mud crabs. In this model small mud crabs are kept in small ponds in the mangroves and are fattened, before being finally sold for local and international consumption. The model itself worked well aside from one problem: the availability of juvenile crabs is declining due to the increasing pressure on their population.
To solve this problem the project team is working to establish a mini-crab hatchery – one of the first in the entire delta – to produce juvenile crabs without negatively affecting the natural crab population. Given that one female crab can produce 1 to 1.5 million eggs, a crab hatchery could eventually provide an alternative to juveniles caught in the wild.
Dr Sang Phan discusses different options to combine mangrove restoration and aquaculture with evaluator Mr Jim Enright.
Burn it, plant it, weed it – figuring out the best ways to restore mangroves
All being said, during the Mid-Term Review Workshop participants agreed that this project stands to become a successful demonstration of how to sustainably combine mangrove restoration with aquaculture – a practice that will hopefully spread throughout the course of the project and beyond.