Can Suriname's mangrove reintroduction project make the country money?p>CORONIE DISTRICT, Suriname (Alertnet) -- The seawall that is supposed to protect the muddy coastline of coconut district Coronie, in the country's north, is almost complete.
Standing some 10 meters above sea level, the wide dam provides a scenic drive, with virginal land on both sides and fish-filled channels cutting through it - a dream habitat for wildlife.
But this idyllic situation may not last long. According to University of Suriname professor Sieuwnath Naipal, much of the land on the ocean side of the 15-km-long dam will disappear in 20 years, abandoned as unsalvageable as the country focuses on forming a barrier against the waves that are eroding Coronie District’s coastline.
The dam, which contractors started building two years ago, sits about 100 meters inland; everything between it and the sea is sacrificed to the waves. Already, about 50 meters of the road to the dyke has disappeared, chewed away by the constant barrage of salt water.
“That’s a part of our country we already lost,” Naipal says, shaking his head.
The solution to preventing similar losses, Naipal says, is his mangrove reintroduction project, which he believes will save the land that others have given up on.
As it does so, the project could also turn out to be a groundbreaking money-earner for Suriname, potentially making the country tens of millions of dollars from the carbon-compliance market.
A few kilometres beyond the end of the seawall, black mangrove seedlings Naipal planted on a mudbank a year ago are thriving. Where there was bare muck, mangrove plants now stand up to two meters tall. Red ibises and other birds frolic among the plants.
“This project has exceeded my expectations,” says Naipal, a Russian-trained hydrologist.
He started planting the cloned mangrove seedlings as part of a university project supported by the Suriname Conservation Foundation (SCF), a government-funded NGO. The project was supposed to prove that, under the right circumstances, mangroves could be introduced to protect the country's heavily eroding coastline from moving further inland.
That has proved the case. Naipal discovered that the mud banks that shift along Suriname’s coastline at a pace of 1-to-5 kilometres per year manage the flow of inland freshwater as it meets sea water, creating the perfect level of salinity for mangroves, which used to be plentiful along the coast.
For centuries, coastal mangrove forests worked as a natural protection against erosion, their stilt-like air roots locking in the shifting mud spit out by Brazil's Amazon River and causing Suriname’s coastline to expand.
Naipal believes the construction in the 1960s of the East-West link, the road from the capital Paramaribo to the western border district of Nickerie, disturbed the natural flow of freshwater out to sea, causing a slow but mass demise of the country's mangroves.
With the plants gone, the sea has free rein and Suriname's coastline has been retreating. Over the past ten years, coastal district Coronie has been getting smaller by about 100 meters per year, and residents now fear for their fields and livelihoods.
ADAPTING TO NATURE
Naipal agreed that a seawall was necessary to save Suriname's coast - but he also was convinced it wouldn't be enough and that mangrove reintroduction could play a key role.
With his tentative proof that reintroduction works, the professor now wants to convince MNO Vervat, the Dutch company building the dyke, to consider investing in freshwater channels to the sea and to allow him to plant alongside a longer stretch of coast.
“They are shipping thousands of kilograms of boulders down here, to reinforce the foot of the dam,” he said. But "if they would fix the (freshwater channels) and allow me to plant the mangroves, the waves would never reach the dam.
“I'm saying: let's see if I’m right. If I’m wrong they can always spend all that money on the boulders two years from now,” he said.
Along with the environmental benefits, Naipal sees in his project an opportunity to boost tourism and employment in Suriname's coastal areas – and make the sea wall sustainable.
“With mangroves alongside the coastline we will continue to have forests on both sides of the seawall, which can then serve as a boulevard with a tourism industry surrounded by wildlife," he says. "But without the mangroves, the sea will slowly eat away the dam [and] after this dam is gone, more money will have to be spent on building a new one."
"The erosion of the coastline will continue if we don’t do anything," he says. "Building a dam is us expecting that nature will adapt to us. But we need to adapt to nature and assist it where we can."
If successful, Naipal's project could not only stop Suriname from shrinking, but could boost the country's coffers. His efforts have caught the attention of the government's newly established Climate Compatible Development Agency (CCDA), which wants to use the mangrove project to trade in blue carbon credits - credits earned from carbon stored in wetlands like mangrove forests and which can be sold on a carbon market.
"Mangroves store up to 25 times more carbon than tropical forests," says CCDA director John Goedschalk, "So the professor may have unwittingly started a project that can be turned into millions of dollars of income for Suriname."
Low-lying and heavily forested, Suriname counts itself among the five nations most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and aims to seek funding from international agencies to arm it against the effects of climate change.
Goedschalk, a U.S.-trained economist tasked with helping Suriname acquire the funding it's entitled to, says the country should focus on climate-change adaptation and mitigation measures that also have economic benefits.
“We should move toward climate resilience and low-carbon development, but at the same time take advantage of our access to international climate-change rewards,” he says.
Naipal’s plan to reintroduce Suriname's mangroves, especially since it has an emissions-trading element, “is definitely the kind of project that falls within our scope," says Goedschalk.
“The climate-change funding agencies look for projects that have poverty eradication, employment creation and sustainable tourism elements. Naipal has all of those covered in his."
Marvin Hokstam is a freelance writer based in Suriname.
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