Coastal ecosystems are some of the most productive on Earth. They provide us with essential ecosystem services, such as coastal protection from storms and nursery grounds for fish. They also help sequestering and storing so called “blue carbon” from the atmosphere and oceans. A study done by Siikamäki in 2012 estimated that coastal ecosystems were storing 42 billion tons of CO2. When degraded or destroyed, these ecosystems emit the carbon they have stored for centuries into the atmosphere and oceans and become sources of greenhouse gases. Experts estimate that currently as much as 1.02 billion tons of carbon dioxide are being released annually from degraded coastal ecosystems, which is equivalent to 19% of emissions from tropical deforestation globally.
Efforts to slow the rate of global deforestation using carbon markets (i.e. REDD) are now being applied to these marine ecosystems. Projects that conserve coastal ecosystems (instead of converting them to other uses) can generate carbon credits (carbon offsets) for the greenhouse gas emissions they prevent, which can be sold in carbon markets or to individuals, thus providing a financial incentive for conservation. With the highest rate of carbon stored per hectare, and the largest global geographic coverage (as compared with sea grasses and salt marshes), mangroves represent the greatest opportunity for blue carbon projects, particularly in Asia and Oceania (Siikamäki et al., 2012).
The International Blue Carbon Initiative is a coordinated, global program focused on mitigating climate change through the conservation and restoration of coastal and marine ecosystems. Dozens of “blue carbon” projects are currently underway around the world. But whether or not these projects live up to their potential as significant carbon sinks depends on both their ability to deliver real carbon reductions over a sustained period of time and, equally important, their capacity to deliver real value to the local communities that own them. This case study provides an overview of an early blue carbon project in Mikoko Pamoja, Kenya, which has achieved both of these goals.
In 2010, after losing about 20 per cent of their mangrove forests to timber harvesting, residents of Gazi Bay, Kenya partnered with the Scottish charity Plan Vivo and the UK based Association for Coastal Ecosystem Services (ACES) to launch a mangrove conservation and restoration project, which involves both the prevention of further mangrove deforestation and new reforestation efforts. As a result of the project, mangroves covering 117 ha of land in Gazi Bay are now protected from illegal deforestation by full-time guards. In addition, nearly 500 members of the community participate in the regular planting of new mangroves.
The Mikoko Pamoja project generates income for the Gazi and Makongeni communities through the sale of carbon credits, which are created from the CO2 emissions avoided by the project. These credits are generated through a Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) agreement between Plan Vivo and the community. The value of the carbon credits is based on their carbon offsets value, in other words how much CO2 is prevented from entering the atmosphere and/ or sequestered from the atmosphere. From 2014 to 2018, the project generated 9,880 credits, representing 9,880 tons of CO2 avoided from circulating in the air. Payments to the community resulting from the sale of these credits reached more than $58,591 (Mwamba et al., 2018).
Not all blue carbon projects are successful. Participants in other blue carbon projects have subsequently expressed dissatisfaction with both their loss of access to the mangrove resources and the resulting payments from the project. “Compared to what we got, they got a lot… I don’t know what this carbon thing is about, but this is our environment and these are our trees. We planted them and we’re going to use them no matter what it costs us,” one participant of a blue carbon project in Senegal said (Wylie et al., 2016).
One of the keys to the success of the Mikoko Pamoja project is the high level of participation, ownership and support from Gazi and Makongeni residents. Plans for the use of the land and the revenues generated were agreed and are implemented in a transparent way. In addition, the Mikoko Pamoja project also took the time to understand and address some of the negative impacts the project could have on the local community. For example, project partners planted pine trees outside of the mangrove project site to provide the community with an alternative source of building materials. Unless blue carbon projects take these additional steps to ensure that the communities’ needs are met, they may be unable to sustain the project and to prevent project “leakage” (i.e. the movement of deforestation activity from one location to another).
The knock-on effects of the projects have included a reduction in environmental crimes such as illegal logging and poaching. “Joblessness is the reason the youth usually engage in poaching and illegal logging in Kenya,” says Samuel Mutisya, a reformed poacher from Kibwezi, a settlement just to the north of Tsavo National Park. “If carbon projects can create jobs for people in the villages, then society will start seeing forests and wildlife as their banks.”
In the 1980s, there were only three rhinos in Tsavo National Park, which fans through south-eastern Kenya and connects the coast region to the country’s hinterland. In the wider region illegal poaching of iconic wildlife like rhino and elephant has fallen by 90% in six years, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service. Recently they’re counted 120 rhinos in the Tsavo National Park. At the same time, the Kenya Forestry Services says the country’s forest cover has grown from below 5% to 7%, progress that the service has attributed to conservation efforts such as those taking place in Gazi. Alongside carbon credit schemes, increased law enforcement, engaging with local communities and sustainable tourism projects has helped bring environmental crimes down.
Changare John, a local from Gazi village, knows the comforts of such successes. In a region that hardly receives enough rainfall for crops, John struggled to provide for her family by selling flatbreads and cooked beans at the roadside. During the low season, when there are few visitors in the village, she could hardly break even. Since she joined the Mikoko Pamoja project as a member, her fortunes have changed for the better. “My three children are in school thanks to the bursary they get from the project,” she says. “When they get sick, I do not have to worry about medical fees because our health center is also supported by the project.”
Even local fisherman Abdallah Mohamed, who is not involved in the project, has noticed its benefits. “The fish returned after the community stopped taking firewood from the mangroves. Our indigenous trees are also thriving because there are fewer disturbances,” he says. “This project is really a game changer.”
It is a small start, but the success of Gazi’s blue carbon scheme has inspired a similar 460-hectare (1.8 sq miles) blue carbon project in Vanga, a village located about 60 km to the south of Gazi. Another project in Lamu to the north is also in its early stages, says Rahma Rashid, project coordinator of Mikoko Pamoja. Overall, about 660,000 hectares (2,548 sq miles) of land are under carbon trading schemes in Kenya, of which blue carbon is still a small, if powerful fraction. “The success of these carbon projects is changing how people perceive climate change by assuring them there are growth opportunities,” says Alfred Gichu, Kenya’s national coordinator of REDD+, the UN-backed forest conservation scheme.