Sale of Carbon Curbing Mangrove Loss along Kenyan Coast

By Sharon Atieno

Mwanasha Abdalla, 42, sells sardines in Vanga, a coastal area about 563 km away from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. Sardine preparation requires a lot of heating as the fish is boiled at high temperatures before being sun dried for sale.

For her business, she would use a canoe full of mangrove wood which she would often buy from a local trader at the cost of shs. 1,000 (about USD 10).  This would serve her business for two weeks before she needed to make another purchase.

Typically, mangrove wood is preferred as it can burn for long hours as opposed to terrestrial wood which burns for a short period.

Between 1985 and 2009, Kenya lost about 20% of its mangrove cover, translating to about 450 hectares of mangroves per year. By 2017, at least 40% of mangroves across the coast have been degraded, according to the  National Mangrove Ecosystem Management Plan (2017-2027).

A Flourish chart

A lack of awareness of the true importance of the mangrove ecosystem has been cited as one of the key reasons for this loss. According to the Plan, mangroves tend to be appreciated for the value of the goods that can be extracted (e.g wood and fisheries) and not their intrinsic value such as shoreline protection, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity conservation, among others: ecosystem services which are of higher value but not easily quantifiable in terms of market prices.

However, when Abdalla joined the Vanga Blue Forest group, she became aware of other benefits of mangroves. She stopped using mangroves as a source of fuel and resorted to using terrestrial wood such as casuarina trees. “They may not stay lit for long hours like mangrove wood, but they light faster,” she says.

Previously in 2018, Abdalla had joined a local conservation group in charge of environment issues dubbed Vumilia Environmental self-help group. Vumilia, together with other groups from the neighboring areas formed the Vanga, Jimbo and Kiwegu Community Forest Association (VAJIKI-CFA). Through the Forest Act 2005, the communities were able to enter an agreement with the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the national entity in charge of public forests.

Mwanasha Abdalla taking part in monitoring activities of the Vanga Blue Forest group in Sii island, Vanga
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Under this Act, forest-adjacent communities are allowed to co-manage forests and form user groups to enable them to use the forest for socio-economic activities that are not in conflict with conservation.

It is in this light that the association was able to form the Vanga Blue Forest user group, with technical support from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI). Abdalla now serves as the Assistant Secretary of the group.

The Vanga Blue Forest user group manages 460 hectares of mangroves specifically for the sale of carbon credits – a scheme whereby individuals or companies invest in environmental projects to offset their own greenhouse gas (mostly carbon and methane) emissions produced through daily activities such as traveling, manufacturing and others.

Members of the Vanga Blue Forest group wading through the water to reach the mangroves of Sii island to collect data required for calculating the carbon credits during their monitoring activity in the island, Vanga.
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

According to Dr Olufunso Somorin, Regional Principal Officer for Climate Change and Green Growth, African Development Bank, the concept of carbon credits emerged during the Kyoto Protocol discussions in 1997, with the objective to manage or reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that occur due to industrial activities, which are responsible for climate change.

Carbon credits, Dr. Somorin said, provide a platform for high emitting countries and companies to decarbonize as they help support efforts and actions that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere around the globe.

“One carbon credit allows for the emission of one ton of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent in other greenhouse gases. Both companies and nations are allotted a certain number of credits, which they can trade to help balance total world emissions,” he explained.

Carbon credit schemes usually fall under two main categories: Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCM).  Under VCM where the activities of Vanga Blue User group falls, carbon emitters are allowed to offset their unavoidable emissions by purchasing carbon credits from projects targeted at removing or reducing GHG from the atmosphere. However, when a credit is used for this purpose, it becomes an offset and is moved to a register for retired credits, or retirements, and it is no longer tradable.

Studies have shown that without disturbance, forest ecosystems have the ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and serve as a net carbon sink thus, offsetting a portion of GHG emissions.

In the United States, for instance, data from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed that in 2016 alone, carbon storage in forest ecosystems offset approximately 9 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere and transform it to organic matter or biomass through photosynthesis. The carbon is then stored in the roots, branches, trunks, forest floor litter and in soils.

According to Anthony Mbatha, a research assistant, KMFRI, mangroves are a carbon rich ecosystem and are five to ten times more effective in capturing carbon compared to equivalently-sized terrestrial forests.

“The huge carbon captured is stored in both above and below ground carbon pools especially in sediments/ soil pools which approximately accounts for over 50% of the total mangrove ecosystem carbon stock,” Mbatha explained.

Anthony Mbatha, KMFRI Research Assistant, taking data during monitoring activities of the Vanga Blue Forest group in Sii Island, Vanga
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Similar to other forests, he noted that when mangroves are degraded or their area is converted for other land-uses, their co-benefits are lost as well as their ability to capture and store carbon. Consequently, the stored carbon risks being released back into the atmosphere.

The idea of conserving mangroves for the sale of carbon initially began in Gazi Bay, about 60 km from Vanga area. It was the brainchild of Dr. James Kairo, Principal Scientist, KMFRI. In Gazi the project is termed as Mikoko Pamoja meaning “mangroves together”.

Kairo spoke during the fifth African conference of Science Journalists which took place from 24th-27th, May where he made a presentation on the project. Established in 2013, Dr. Kairo said Mikoko Pamoja is the first mangrove payment for ecosystem service (PES) in the world whereby ecosystem stewards –  that is, local communities -are rewarded for their conservation efforts.

According to a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other partners, PES focuses on maintaining a flow of specified ecosystem “services”-such as clean water, biodiversity habitat, or carbon sequestration capabilities- in exchange for something of economic value.

Under the PES model, sellers must maintain or enhance specific ecological structures and functions beyond what would have happened in the absence of payment, and remain accountable to independent verifiers (if a buyer requires) to ensure that the “service” being paid for is indeed being delivered. The buyers often vary and could include individuals, companies, government or organizations.

Mangrove vegetation in Vanga
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno
Mangrove vegetation in Sii island, Vanga
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

A bit smaller in size compared to the Vanga Blue Forest project, Mikoko Pamoja covers 117 ha and is able to offset about 3000 tonnes of carbon (roughly the equivalent emissions of around 650 cars on the road each year), Dr. Kairo said during the fifth African conference for Science Journalists.

He noted that the activities they conduct under the project include reforestation of degraded areas, surveillance to prevent deforestation, education and awareness, as well as forest monitoring.

“We have three activity areas. In activity area one (107 ha) we are avoiding deforestation, in activity area two we planted mangrove (10 ha) while in activity area three, we are planting 0.4 ha of mangrove per year,” Dr. Kairo said.

With a tonne of carbon being sold at USD 10 to 20 depending on the volume bought, the community gets USD 20,000 to 30,000 per year depending on the market, he said.

According to Dr. Somorin, the change in carbon prices is because carbon credits are traded on both private and public markets and the price is majorly driven by supply and demand dynamics in the market. Due to the disparity in supply and demand in different countries, prices of carbon credits tend to fluctuate, he says.

Dr. Kairo notes that because of the success of the Mikoko Pamoja project, KMFRI received funding from Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (about USD 50,000) which they used to expand the project from Gazi Bay to Vanga in 2019.

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Mwanarusi Mwafrica, the Vanga Blue Forest Project coordinator, says their project is able to offset about 5,023 tonnes of carbon per year (roughly the equivalent emissions of around 1091 cars on the road each year).

Now in its second year of selling carbon credits, Mwafrica says for the year 2020/2021 the project sold credits worth shs. 6 million (about USD 52,000).

“The main focus of the project is to conserve the mangrove forests which entails prevention from further deforestation and degradation,” she says.

“We do this by creating awareness on the importance of mangroves because what people mainly know is just the direct benefits for example, firewood and wood for construction. We tell them of other services such as shoreline protection, absorption of carbon among others.”

Mwanarusi Mwafrica, the Vanga Blue Forest Project coordinator, displaying the chart used by the group to show distribution of money gotten from sale of carbon credits at group’s office in Vanga
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Additionally, Mwafrica notes that working with community members, they plant fast-growing trees like casuarina trees in schools with the intention that in five or six years they would be mature enough for harvesting so that they can be sold to the community at affordable prices, thus reducing pressure on mangroves. So far, they have grown more than 1800 trees.

Under the project, the community seeks to rehabilitate five hectares of mangrove land which were degraded by a salt extraction company which converted the area into a salt pan. Adding to the community effort, the project also started reclaiming the land through direct planting and cultivating nursery-raised seedlings of different mangrove species.

“The area hasn’t achieved 100% regrowth and the mangroves are really struggling to grow. Through the project we want to break the dykes of the salt pans so as to bring the natural flow of water in the area to flush out the salt water and bring back the previous soil and atmospheric conditions within that area,” she says.

“So far, we have recorded the baseline data which includes studying the conditions of the particular area in terms of soil condition, mangrove species and organism type such as crabs and others. Our next move is to break the dykes by digging trenches where there are lines of weakness on the walls of the dykes.”

To prevent deforestation, the project has employed two scouts from the community who patrol the project site on a daily basis. They work hand in hand with KFS and report cases of deforestation to them.

Felix Bongo, KFS Forest ranger, Vanga forest outpost, says since the project started, the rate of deforestation has decreased. This has been as a result of increased awareness and the benefits the community has derived from selling carbon credits.

Felix Bongo, KFS Forest ranger, Vanga forest outpost measuring the circumference of a tree during the Vanga Blue Forest monitoring activities in Sii Island, Vanga
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

Of the 460 hectares (ha), they have 15 permanent plots where they conduct monitoring for the calculation of carbon thrice a year. In Kiwegu, there are 250 ha which contains 11 permanent sampling plots, Sii island has 200ha and contains four permanent plots, Mwafrica says.

Some of the parameters that are monitored include the height, the number of tree species, extent of forest cover, circumference/diameter of trees and number of juvenile trees within the plots.

Regeneration is another aspect of the monitoring process, Harith Mohamed, Vanga Blue Forest member says, noting that they have two ways of classifying the trees either using indigenous knowledge or scientific methods.

When using the indigenous knowledge, he says, the trees are classified into three classes depending on their height. Class one is at knee length, class two at the waistline and class three from breast height and above, all based on observation.

When using the scientific method, we observe the leaves and the stem as well as the height. If the height reaches up to two feet it is classified under class one, about three feet is class two then class three is slightly above that, Mohamed explains.

They also keep record of deforestation activities within these plots by counting the stumps. Besides, they monitor the biodiversity which includes crabs and mollusks to inform them whether the area is regenerating or not, he says.

Mwafrica notes that after getting the data, they are assisted by the KMFRI team to calculate the carbon using a special allometric equation.  The calculations are compiled in an annual report which is presented to Plan Vivo, a carbon certification foundation, which then approves if the forest is well conserved for sale of carbon to the carbon market.

She says that the Association of Coastal Ecosystem Service (ACES), a charitable organization based in Scotland and the main coordinator of the project, then finds a buyer and sells the credit to them.

“We sell to a range of individuals, businesses, charities and other entities such as conferences, universities etc. We have strong ethical requirements of our buyers in that they must be genuinely committed to sustainability and carbon reduction, and not using carbon offsets as their sole or first route to reducing their carbon footprint,” Robyn Shilland, Coordinator Mikoko Pamoja and Vanga Blue Forest projects, ACES said.

“Many of the buyers choose their projects because they have a link to the ocean and so want “blue carbon credits” – for example we sell to marine science university departments, businesses making plastic-free products, or even just individuals with a passion for the ocean.”

Shilland adds that buyers come to them through hearing about the projects, rather than ACES having to actively find buyers.

Efforts made to reach out to the county concerning these projects and their benefits have not borne any fruit yet. Though not without limitations, including the fluctuating carbon prices which are subject to demand and supply, for residents of Vanga and Gazi, the system has been a saving grace for them.

The money earned from the carbon credits have been pumped into development projects which had stalled or had been neglected by the local government in the field of education, health, environment, sanitation and water among others.

In Gazi for instance, students were able to receive textbooks purchased by the project and water pumping stations were set up in different locations to shorten the distance residents would need to cover to fetch water from rivers and streams.

In Vanga, the project bought equipment for a secondary school laboratory, furniture of all kinds including tables, benches, pallets and cupboard for storage of medicine were purchased for a local dispensary in Kiwegu, while in Jimbo, a seawall neighbouring an early childhood education centre was constructed to prevent high tides and floods from penetrating the school.

Money from sale of carbon credits has helped in furnishing Kiwegu dispensary with tables, pallets, cupboards among others which the facility did not have, Kiwegu.
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno
A table donated by the Vanga Blue Forest group from sale of carbon credits being used at Kiwegu Dispensary to register patients as they walk in to the hospital, Kiwegu
Photo credits: Sharon Atieno

“The value of mangroves is higher than what you see, carbon [credits are]  just an incentive to protect the forest. What is most important for such an ecosystem is the fisheries support, the shoreline support, the aesthetic value and the cultural benefits. Carbon is only a trading tool because it is easier to interpret,” Dr. Kairo said, adding that such projects are a triple win for climate, community and biodiversity conservation.

Despite the success demonstrated by such projects, Dr. Somorin points out that there are still so many challenges facing the carbon credit mode.

“There has been increasing concerns that participating companies are not as active in making efforts to reduce emissions as they are aware that they can offset their emissions through projects, rather than addressing the root cause of the emissions,” he noted.

Additionally, Dr. Somorin said it is difficult to determine the true impact of carbon credits due to double counting, which refers to a situation where two or more companies or countries purchase carbon credits from the same project and then respectively report emission reduction efforts, thus giving the impression that emissions have been reduced more than they actually have.

Similarly, Chris Greenberg, an editor at Greenpeace International, notes in an article  that offsetting is a distraction from much-needed climate action as it gives the false impression that there’s a way out of the crisis without every government and business cutting their own emissions, which leads to delaying or dampening ambition to do the real work.

Additionally, he notes that nature-based offsetting projects distort economies and take land and resources away from the local communities that need it most. “Nature should remain off limits to corporate control for climate offsets,” he said.

Regardless, Abdalla says: “We have seen that mangrove conservation has a lot of benefits and that is what we want in our village.”

Apart from being replicated in Vanga, the success of Mikoko Pamoja is being replicated in Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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