"Reflections on The Mangrove Experience".
As our three small boats motored up the Ria Celestún, we watched the distant shoreline emerge in a riotous shade of coral. American flamingos, thousands of them, waded in the shallow waters of the estuary, feeding, preening and communicating with one another in croaking calls. Others flew by, stretched out with long necks extended and feet straight back. Splendid in reddish-pink with black-tipped wings, the birds were graceful, despite looking aerodynamically unstable, until the point of landing when they tucked their legs and plopped into the water among the others. We were captivated watching the continuous motion of the vast flocks as individuals and groups moved from one part of the broad estuary to another.
The observers in our three boats were all members and supporters of Ducks Unlimited (DU), North America’s premier wetlands conservation group whose mission is to conserve wetlands and associated habitats throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. We were in Celestún on the Yucatan Peninsula at the Mangrove Experience to learn about the vital work of Ducks Unlimited de Mexico (DUMAC). For over 40 years, DUMAC has been conserving habitat for migrating waterfowl, shorebirds and other species like the American Flamingo that are dependent on mangroves and other sensitive wetland habitats in Mexico during some part of their life cycle. Our journey up the Ria Celestun was a field trip associated with the inaugural Mangrove Experience, a three-day immersion into the challenges and opportunities associated with conserving mangrove wetlands in Mexico.
The Mangrove Experience is the brainchild of Eduardo Carrera González, the Chief Executive Officer of DUMAC. The idea was fairly simple: engage committed conservationists in an experiential dialogue about the vital work of protecting the mangrove ecosystems. Stimulate their interest and enhance their understanding of DUMAC’s work and its outstanding results, and in turn generate increased support for DUMAC’s mission. A fairly simple proposition, with the potential for a big impact. Engage the mind first, and the heart will follow. Engage the heart and passion will evolve into action.
Our small group of 15, accompanied by DUMAC staff, traveled from throughout the United States and Canada to meet at the John E. Walker Natural Resources Research and Training Center adjacent to the 150,000-acre Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve, a large coastal wetland reserve and wildlife refuge. The Walker facility serves as headquarters for much of the fieldwork and natural resource management training supported by DUMAC, and was the site of the Mangrove Experience. Our group included individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, and our interest in mangrove wetlands prompted us to attend the Mangrove Experience a part of the Yucatan not typically visited by tourists.
My husband, Mikk Anderson, and I decided to attend the Mangrove Experience because we were curious about how DUMAC restores mangrove habitats. We were already familiar with the work of Ducks Unlimited in the United States and Canada, having seen restoration work in progress and successfully completed in our home state of Colorado and in the Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada. But we had never seen a mangrove wetland, and we were only somewhat familiar with the conservation challenges of preserving and restoring these wetlands for future generations. So we flew to Mérida, joined up with our fellow conservationists, and traveled to Celestún to get an insider’s perspective of both the mangrove ecosystems and DUMAC’s restoration work.
Our focus for the weekend was learning about the value of mangrove wetlands and their contribution to the unique ecology and biodiversity of Mexico. In highly interactive classroom discussions, we learned that Mexico accounts for about 6% of the world’s remaining wetlands, or some 8.2 million acres. Much of the world’s wetlands—more than 60%—has been lost over the past 100 years, primarily through economic development and other human activities. In Mexico, the intertidal flats that comprise a sizable portion of the country’s wetlands provide habitat for more than 70% of North America’s wintering waterfowl species, including 84% of the continent’s Blue-winged Teal, 35% of all Redheads, and a significant percentage of all Northern Pintails and American Wigeon, along with six species of ducks that breed in Mexico, such as the Black-bellied Whistling duck. More than half of Mexico’s mangrove wetlands, including those that comprise the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve, can be found along the Gulf Coast. These wetlands are so important that the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands named the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve a “wetland of international significance,” meaning the wetland has “significant value not only for the country, but for humanity as a whole.”
So what is it about mangrove wetlands that make them so important? As we learned during the Mangrove Experience, wetlands in general are vital for flood control, clean water, and habitat for a multitude of species. In most areas they are also important for recreation. Mangrove wetlands, in particular, play a unique role in maintaining coastal ecosystem integrity and species diversity. Mangroves are adapted to tolerate salinity and low oxygen levels, and can withstand strong forces of nature such as hurricanes and floods, protecting dry land beyond.
As Jorge Cerón, a young biologist and project supervisor with DUMAC, told us, the threats to mangrove wetlands in Mexico come from both natural and manmade forces. Tropical storms and hurricanes take their toll. But the more insidious and preventable threats to mangrove wetlands are those that are human-caused. Perhaps the most impactful force acting on the mangrove wetlands is economic development. About 60% of people in Mexico live in or adjacent to wetland habitats and, in a country with huge socioeconomic challenges, most kinds of economic development are welcome. Urban expansion, road construction, and the explosion of shrimp aquaculture in Mexico all take a toll on the wetlands.
During our first field trip of the Mangrove Experience we saw firsthand the impact of road construction on mangrove ecosystems. Improperly constructed roads cut off the natural interchange of water between the estuary and the sea. The Yucatan peninsula has no natural freshwater rivers or lakes. Rainfall flows across the gently sloping topography through subterranean channels to the coasts. This fresh water nourishes lush inland and coastal vegetation, and, importantly, sustains the brackish coastal wetlands which are characterized by three species of mangroves—red, white and black—each less tolerant of saltwater than the next.
When the flow of fresh water is disrupted by manmade activities such as construction of a road to a fishing village or a dike to support a shrimp farm, the wetlands can be cut off from their supply of fresh water. Rain alone cannot replace the natural flow of fresh water necessary to sustain the coastal wetlands, and high salinity saltwater encroaches farther into the wetlands. Exposed to higher salinities, mangroves first attempt to physiologically adapt, but eventually begin to suffer and eventually die. As the mangroves die so too do the other plants in the system. As the ecosystem is degraded, it can then no longer support the fish and wildlife species that depend on the habitat.
A seemingly simple solution would be to construct roads with sufficient culverts and other water management structures to allow for the continued interchange of water. But in a country short on funding for economic development and basic necessities in many areas, such a straight-forward solution is often compromised by the shortage of resources and the need for expediency. After all, what’s more important? Building a road to improve economic opportunities for a small fishing village, or maintaining the integrity of the mangrove ecosystems? Constructing a new seaside resort which brings much needed jobs to an area, or ensuring wintering grounds for migrating waterfowl?
The answer, of course, is that both economic development and habitat preservation are necessary and desirable. Expediency may be cheaper than sustainability in the short term, but it is far more costly over time. We have been exposed to this lesson throughout North America as the benefits of development have been weighed against the costs to the environment. But nowhere is this issue more critical than in Mexico.
As we learned from Eduardo and DUMAC Assistant Director Gabriela de la Fuente, about 45% of the mangrove wetlands in Mexico are threatened by development. The short term impact is loss of habitat. The longer term impacts include reduction of species diversity and biomass critical to carbon sequestration and mitigation of climate change, for example. Moreover, destruction of the mangroves has a significant impact on commercial and sport fishing. Nearly 80% of the commercial catch is taken just off shore, and the intertwined and ropy prop roots of the mangrove forests are ideal nursery habitat for many species of fish and shellfish caught both commercially and for sport. On the average, each acre of mangroves is ultimately responsible for producing over 700 pounds of seafood each year.
As members of our group discussed over cocktails under the palapa of the Walker Center, the irony is that the very types of development that are so desperately needed in Mexico to boost quality of life and economic opportunity can damage the fragile habitats upon which other economic endeavors depend. The question is how to balance economic necessity with habitat conservation. Our discussion that evening focused on the ongoing challenge faced by organizations like DUMAC: how to conserve habitat in a country with more pressing social and economic challenges like poverty, unemployment, corruption and drug cartels. Is it possible for an organization like DUMAC to make a significant difference?
The answer is yes, as evinced by the success DUMAC has had promoting environmental education, building professional capacity in habitat management, increasing environmental research capabilities within the country, and influencing public policy. A fundamental principle of DUMAC is to involve local officials and communities in executing its conservation mission. DUMAC’s educational programs are a case in point. For 25 years the RESERVA Training Course on Natural Resources Conservation has been training professionals from throughout Mexico, Latin and South America, and the Caribbean in strategies that improve natural resource conservation throughout the region. Environmental Education Workshops teach teachers about wetlands conservation so that they can pass such knowledge along to young people through school programs. Waterfowl and Wetlands Workshops engage professionals from federal, state and municipal agencies in dialogue and problem solving around wetland and waterfowl management strategies.
Importantly, on our field trip to the Dzinitun wetlands area within the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve, we viewed for ourselves in a distinctly hands-on fashion the impact of DUMAC’s habitat restoration work. More than 300 acres of mangrove wetlands are recovering as a result of restoring a more natural hydrology. Restoration work included construction of more than 5 miles of canals, hand-dug by local workmen, that bring fresh water into the wetlands, installation of water control structures to prevent the flow of saltwater into the wetlands, and development of artesian wells to bring fresh water to the surface from subterranean channels. The results of this work are immediately apparent—previously devastated areas are now flourishing again.
During our field trip we took salinity readings that clearly showed the difference fresh water brought by canals has made in areas previously decimated by saltwater incursion. The “before and after” pictures are striking. A previously denuded area with dead mangrove snags has been restored to a lush, reemerging landscape. We observed scores of mangrove saplings scattered throughout the restored areas, those closest to the sources of fresh water already as tall as seven feet.
This dramatic example of a healing habitat became more apparent as we compared areas restored at different points in time. Areas closest to the fresh water canals and wells were carpeted with first generation plants like Salicornia and salt grass; areas further from the freshwater were less verdant. However, compared to areas not yet restored, the transformation was astonishing. Such a simple solution, but a solution made more challenging by the cultural and economic complexities of conservation efforts in Mexico.
The natural landscape in this part of the world is undeniably beautiful. In addition to the American Flamingos, our trip up Ria Celestún revealed scores of Brown Pelicans, rails, Black-necked Stilts, egrets and herons. Flocks of Blue-winged Teal circled overhead and small fish circled and splashed in the shallow warm water. Over 300 species of birds have been identified within the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve. We even saw a crocodile under the shade of the mangroves but kept a respectful distance. This ecosystem and others like it in Mexico support an amazing variety of plants and animals, and it became very clear why preserving habitat is such a vital goal.
At the same time, during the Mangrove Experience we saw evidence of poverty that is all too familiar in this part of the world. According to the Mexican government’s social development agency CONEVAL, in 2012 nearly half of all people in Mexico lived in poverty and about 10% were considered to live in extreme poverty. Poverty was defined as living on no more than 2,329 pesos a month (about $183) in cities, and 1,490 pesos a month (about $117) in rural areas. The benchmark for extreme poverty was 1,125 pesos a month (about $88) in cities and 800 pesos a month (about $63) in the countryside. Moreover, only about 35% of Mexican adults aged 25 to 64 have completed high school and access to education is a major concern for the government.
Given these significant socioeconomic challenges, we contemplated the future of habitat restoration in the Yucatan and other areas of threatened wetlands in Mexico as we dined on locally caught seafood. Is it reasonable to expect such work to continue and expand in meaningful ways? Our conclusion was that such work is vital and must continue for the health of the planet and the legacy of our children.
With generous financial support from groups like Bisbee’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Fund plus contributions from hundreds of individual donors such as my husband and me, DUMAC is proving that economic development and mangrove ecosystems can coexist. More education is needed about the consequences of not preserving wetlands, along with thoughtful planning and construction, and consideration of long term objectives as they relate to the intersection of human activities and natural landscapes. Mexican mangrove ecosystems are threatened, but savable. All it takes is the time, the money and the will to do right by our natural resources. As the DUMAC message spreads, turning more passion into action, the vibrant mangrove wetlands can continue to promote the well-being of hundreds of species as well as the economic livelihood of the Mexican people.