Why Rotary is committed to mangroves

by Kate Silver Photography by Alyce Henson

When Lindy Knowles thinks back to his childhood in the Bahamas, a particular tree is the backdrop of the best memories: the mangrove. Spindly, with twisted roots, mangroves thrive in tidal areas around the islands, including a creek near his grandmother’s house. Knowles learned to fish among the forests, which are home to conch, lobsters, and a variety of fish; he learned to swim in the calm waters around the trees, with those roots buffering him from ocean waves.

For a kid like Knowles, mangroves meant adventure. But for coastal communities like those in the Bahamas, mangroves mean stability and protection. They’re a safe harbor for hundreds of creatures. And they help protect communities from threats associated with climate change, including worsening storms, rising sea levels, and erosion.

They’re important for those living far from a coastline, too: Mangrove forests are an important tool in combating climate change. The mangrove ecosystem has a superior ability compared with other forests when it comes to storing carbon, and that can help slow the warming of the planet.

But mangroves are disappearing. When Knowles, now 37, looks around the islands, he can see beach houses, condos, hotels, and parking lots where mangroves used to be. “We do like marinas,” he says. The island of New Providence, for example, has lost an estimated 57 percent of its mangroves since the 1940s, mainly to development. Mangroves have also been devastated by hurricanes. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian damaged an estimated 73 percent of the mangroves on Grand Bahama and 40 percent on the Abaco Islands. And the Bahamas is in no way unique: Studies indicate that between 1980 and 2000, at least 35 percent of the world’s mangroves were destroyed.

  1. Working with Bahamas National Trust, Rotarians and Rotaractors planted mangrove trees at Bonefish Pond National Park in Nassau in 2017. Pictured: Rechea Delancy of the Rotaract Club of East Nassau, Jackie Longley of the Rotary Club of Nassau Sunrise, and Mario Smith of the Rotary Club of Nassau Sunrise.

  2. Working with Bahamas National Trust, Rotarians and Rotaractors planted mangrove trees at Bonefish Pond National Park in Nassau in 2017. Pictured: Rechea Delancy of the Rotaract Club of East Nassau, Jackie Longley of the Rotary Club of Nassau Sunrise, and Mario Smith of the Rotary Club of Nassau Sunrise.

  3. Working with Bahamas National Trust, Rotarians and Rotaractors planted mangrove trees at Bonefish Pond National Park in Nassau in 2017. Pictured: Rechea Delancy of the Rotaract Club of East Nassau, Jackie Longley of the Rotary Club of Nassau Sunrise, and Mario Smith of the Rotary Club of Nassau Sunrise.

  4. Working with Bahamas National Trust, Rotarians and Rotaractors planted mangrove trees at Bonefish Pond National Park in Nassau in 2017. Pictured: Rechea Delancy of the Rotaract Club of East Nassau, Jackie Longley of the Rotary Club of Nassau Sunrise, and Mario Smith of the Rotary Club of Nassau Sunrise.

Knowles is trying to change that, one seedling at a time. His love of mangroves led to his career as the senior science officer with Bahamas National Trust, a nonprofit organization that manages the national park system and oversees conservation and restoration efforts. In his role, he works to protect and rebuild marine systems, and his success depends on the help of community members to care for the land and to educate others.

Fortunately, Knowles is not alone. At COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021, Rotary International President Shekhar Mehta announced that mangrove restoration will be a focus of Rotary’s environmental work. “The impact of climate change is rising sea levels, tornadoes, and cyclones,” he said. “And the best and first defenders in tropical coastal communities are the mangroves. There is the money and there is the hard work from Rotary to make this happen.”

In June 2020, Rotary made protecting the environment its newest area of focus. Rotary’s goal is to help link interested clubs with nongovernmental organizations already focused on mangroves so that they can collaborate. The Environmental Sustainability Rotary Action Group (ESRAG) is coordinating grant applications from a number of clubs to participate in global grant mangrove projects. “I know this is something which Rotarians would want to do,” Mehta said at COP26. “We will be hands-on.”

Christopher Puttock is a botanist with a deep appreciation for mangroves. Puttock, a member of the Rotary Club of College Park, Maryland, who was the 2019-21 chair of ESRAG and now leads ESRAG’s projects division, began researching this type of flora early in his career, while working at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Mangroves, of which there are about 70 species, grow in tropical and subtropical areas like Africa, South Asia, Australia, and South America; the largest mangrove system in the world is the Sundarbans of the Ganges Delta in India and Bangladesh. In the United States, the greatest concentrations of mangroves are in southern Florida, where kayakers can paddle through mangrove tunnels that dot the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

Puttock says the global threats to mangroves have been many: Often, mangrove forests are gutted and turned into shrimp farms. They’re lost to agricultural and industrial development, cut down for firewood or construction materials. And that development is also crowding them out as humans strive to live and vacation ever closer to the coast.

Mangroves are unique not just for their stilt root appearance, as seen with a common species called Rhizophora mangle, or red mangrove, but also for their hardiness and their ability to survive in hot, salty, muddy conditions. Puttock says that if mangroves look as if they’re trying to climb out of the water, it’s because they are. “They’re trying to get away from the salt water as much as they can,” he says. That’s how their roots protect against erosion: by essentially locking in sand, loam, silt, and mud beneath them.

Knowles has seen the power of those roots. The Bahamas is a vulnerable chain of islands, so the roots of plants and trees play a crucial role in its survival. In 2016, when Hurricane Matthew swept through the Caribbean, Knowles saw the impact of a storm surge that powered through Bonefish Pond National Park. The surge was nearly 6 feet high and strong enough to lift a schoolroom-sized pavilion off its pilings and move the entire structure. Thanks to a grove of mangroves, the farmland behind the park remained unscathed.

And then there’s the mangrove’s superpower: its ability to store carbon within its own ecosystem. Mangroves live on top of peat swamps — think mud mounds — that have been accumulating for centuries. The creatures that live in the surrounding water and mud, such as worms, shrimp, lobsters, and fish, take the mangrove leaves and detritus, which absorb carbon, down into the mud and sand. There, that matter gets locked in place under the mangrove in a kind of natural storage vault.

Martin Zimmer is a professor who leads the mangrove ecology working group at the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research in Bremen, Germany. As someone who has been working in coastal ecology for decades, Zimmer is excited to share his mangrove enchantment with ever more people. “They are probably the most beautiful, most fascinating, and at the same time mystic and even mythical, ecosystem that I know of,” he says.

He reflects poetically about the mornings he has spent among the mangroves. “There’s still some mist, some fog around this very entangled environment,” says Zimmer. “These dense trees with these aerial roots are all over the place, and you have to climb through or over them.” He says there’s a very specific, peaceful sound that you hear in the mangroves — like lip-smacking, or a gentle popping — as waves roll over crab burrows and sediment. It’s the soundtrack of an ecosystem that’s quietly working to stabilize the coast.

When you consider all the benefits, perhaps it’s no surprise that there is now a rallying cry for mangrove restoration. But as ESRAG’s Puttock cautions, these efforts must be coordinated and based in science to be sustainable. In other words, this isn’t a situation where everyone, everywhere should step in and plant mangroves in their communities. “When we’re just going around and collecting seedlings and thinking they can be put into any sort of mud anywhere, we’re almost doomed to failure,” he says. “The mangrove knows where it needs to be; we don’t.”

Zimmer explains that the right species of mangrove must be planted in the proper location, within a community where people support the work. Otherwise, the efforts are wasted. “There are many examples that we know from mangrove replanting activities that were high up in the media, in local or regional press, hundreds of people planting, sticking little mangrove seedlings into the mud of a mud flat,” says Zimmer. “And that looks very good, but then after a couple of weeks, a month, if you went there again you would not find them anymore, because they would be lost, they would be washed away, and if they were not washed away they would probably die very soon because this was just not the right environment.”

Zimmer is quick to point out that his aim isn’t to discourage planting, but rather to encourage proper planting designed around long-term goals and community buy-in. As more people realize the importance of mangroves, protections increase, helping to foster old and new growth.

  1. Visitors enjoy the restored wetland.

    Elijah Sands/courtesy of Bahamas National Trust

  2. Mangroves are a safe harbor for hundreds of creatures, including blue crab

  3. Beneath the water is a thriving ecosystem.

    Takara Lowe/courtesy of Bahamas National Trust

Rotary roots around the world

Even before RI President Shekhar Mehta committed to new mangrove initiatives at COP26, Rotary clubs around the globe had embarked on community-driven mangrove projects. Here’s a look at a few of them.

In Kenya, mangroves are harvested for timber. The Rotaract Club of Malindi has worked with the community to plant more than 130,000 mangrove propagules and seedlings, while also educating residents about the importance of mangroves and how to sustain them. The Rotary Clubs of Mombasa Nyali and Mombasa Central have worked on mangrove restoration projects along the region’s shoreline.

In the Philippines, the Rotary Club of Bacolod-Marapara has participated in a number of plantings to protect and restore mangroves along shorelines as part of its Project Green environmental initiative. The Rotary Club of Victorias and the Rotaract Club of Marapara have also participated in plantings.

In American Samoa, the Rotary Club of Pago Pago has participated in a mangrove planting and coastal cleanup project in the Lions Park and Pala Lagoon areas.

In the British Virgin Islands, the Rotary Club of Central Tortola partnered with local agencies to replant hundreds of mangroves that were wiped out by hurricanes in 2017.

In Mauritius, the Rotaract Club of Phoenix has partnered with the local nonprofit Reef Conservation and is growing mangrove seedlings that can be planted around the island.

Are you mangrove motivated?

Register your mangrove project through ESRAG’s iRotree app or Project Impact Reporting. Support environmental projects through The Rotary Foundation. Make your gift at rotary.org/donate.

One of the many struggles that mangrove advocates face is convincing others that wetlands are not wastelands. Lindy Knowles says that, for decades, locals saw the wetland area now known as Bonefish Pond National Park, located in the southern part of New Providence Island, as a wasteland. At 1,235 acres, it is the largest intact marine ecosystem in the region, but it was covered in garbage: abandoned cars, an old roof, cement blocks, you name it. In 2002, the Bahamian government took over, establishing it as a national park. Bahamas National Trust drew up a 30-year plan for the area, which would involve cleaning it up, digging ditches to improve water flow, and planting thousands of mangrove plants. In time, the hope is that the new plantings will be indistinguishable from the old growth.

Knowles remembers the cleanup days well: All told, he estimates they removed 30 tons of trash. “You know the saying you get everything but the kitchen sink?” he says. “I’ve removed everything from that area, including a kitchen sink.”

His team depends on the physical and financial assistance of nonprofits and volunteers in the community to help with projects like this. That’s how the Rotary Club of East Nassau, which has a long-standing relationship with Bahamas National Trust, learned that volunteers were needed for the Bonefish Pond project. In 2017, a representative with Bahamas National Trust spoke to the club about its ongoing restoration. Eager to help in environmental projects, the club participated in two planting events with other Rotary clubs in the Bahamas, one of which also included Rotarians visiting from the United States.

Corinne Laville, who was incoming president of the Rotary Club of East Nassau at the time, remembers being dirty — and happy — all day long as she dug holes in the mud and then stuck in mangrove propagules (germinated seeds). Laville, 61, is a native Bahamian, and she has seen too many mangroves destroyed to make way for homes and resorts. She says she’s saddened to see swaths of beach near her home narrow more and more because of development and erosion. But you also can hear the determination and strength in her smooth voice. “If we don’t do something now,” she says, “there will be nothing left.”

Area businesses, like the Atlantis Resort on nearby Paradise Island, are also playing an important role in the restoration story. The lavish resort is home to an open-air marine habitat, where sharks, rays, and barracudas swim in naturalistic settings lined with mangroves. Some of the exhibits include mangrove nurseries, and Atlantis donates seedlings to area conservation organizations.

Since about 2008, the resort has donated nearly 3,000 mangrove plants to area restoration projects, including at Bonefish Pond National Park. “Mangroves are really essential for protecting the Bahamas from storms and damage. They’re an extremely important part of the ecosystem,” says Dave Wert, who is aquarium director at Atlantis. “This is a great way for us to give back and help support different areas of the Bahamas that might have had damage to their mangrove habitats.”

Knowles is grateful for any and all support of Bahamas National Trust conservation projects. For him, the newfound interest in mangroves has meant more plantings: In years past, he led one mangrove planting a year; since last summer, he has already led five. It also gives him hope. “No matter how much we try to differentiate the global north or the global south, it’s still one planet,” he says. “We all really have to work together to achieve some semblance of success.”

As more people discover the power of mangroves, there is some room for cautious optimism. Destruction in most parts of the world has slowed in recent years. While more rebuilding is needed, there’s hope that the tide may be turning for mangroves, as the knotted superhero of a plant gets its due.

Today, visitors to Bonefish Pond National Park find a wasteland-turned-wetland that residents cherish. Families walk along a raised boardwalk above the flora, to a calm creek that’s protected by mangroves. Smiling and laughing, they snorkel, kayak, and take in the beauty, so recently restored.

That’s the kind of scene Laville reflects on when she considers the work she and others have done. She knows it’s not just about putting seeds in the mud. “It’s about saving the planet so other kids can enjoy what I enjoyed.”

And it’s the kind of backdrop that Knowles grew up with, now protected for future generations to enjoy. “Lo and behold,” he jokes. “Mangroves are sexy.”