Finding Hope in a Degraded Mangrove

© Lucas Bustamante

Editor's note: Last month, Marco Quesada blogged about a women’s collective that is improving livelihoods in Palito, a community on Costa Rica’s Chira Island. Fortunately, this female-led initiative is not an anomaly on Chira and is being adopted in other areas. Marco recently joined another group of women — this time in Montero — at a mangrove planting that culminated many months of work.

“This is the island of Chira, where women work and men cry.”

It was the third time the joke was told, and it still caused a good laugh among this group dominated by women from Chira Island, in Costa Rica’s Gulf of Nicoya. I was standing at the beginning of a “human chain” that was moving, one by one, more than 200 mangrove plants through a degraded mangrove forest.

With me were CI consultants Maguil, Annette and Alejandro, as well as Ana, our CI marine program manager. This was their fourth day of work that week — my first — and we had all been up since 4:30 a.m., trying to evade the sun and high temperatures.

At 8 a.m. it was already very humid and hot in the mangroves in the small community of Montero. But nothing seemed to dampen the spirits of the group — not mosquitoes, thirst, mud or the fact that each bag carrying dirt and a 12-inch mangrove plant weighed over 5 pounds [2.3 kilograms]. Nor the fact that once our chain of hands moved all the plants 100 feet [30 meters] or so, we would have to line up four more times to move the plants further into the more degraded areas of the forest.

These trees had been cut four decades ago, and sediment was still eroding between the roots of the plants that had naturally grown since then. After moving all the plants, we would begin digging and planting in selected sites inside the recovering mangrove forest.

I was happy to be back amid the beauty of a mangrove forest, which I had first known as a biology student years ago. Here on Chira, six species of mangrove trees intertwine around meandering channels that fill and empty according to the tides. Their complex roots slow water flow, allow sediment to build up and form the salty muddy substrate these plants use to grow. This fine sediment stores huge amounts of carbon (often called blue carbon) — more than terrestrial forests do.

Above the ground, the roots provide refuge for fish larvae and juveniles and habitat for numerous invertebrate species, such as the clams and cockles these women rely on for their daily living. Their husbands, mostly small-scale fishers, rely on these mangroves as well; the fish they seek with their handlines live within these mangroves when young and depend on them for food when adults. Sea turtles, eagle rays, birds and mammals also rely on these rich coastal habitats.

CI has been working with small-scale fishers in the Gulf of Nicoya and on Chira for over five years. When we decided to start a pilot project on mangrove reforestation, this group of women — led by a strong woman named Aparicia — were the first to say yes.

For five months they cleaned a mangrove area near their community of entangled nets and plastic. Next they began planting mangrove seeds in bags that they filled by hand with sand and sediment, watering these plants twice a day under Aparicia’s supervision and exemplary work.

The women have done all this work on a voluntary basis while still taking care of their daily family duties. In Chira, women play a heavy role in raising children, looking after the house and searching for other sources of income. On an island where opportunities for work are few, they have recognized that if successful, their project could perhaps attract tourists and even the attention of government agencies that could eventually pay for their time and energy.

Two days before I arrived on the island, more than 40 students and teachers from Chira’s only high school had spent two mornings volunteering with these amazing women. Their work was key in transporting the plants through a deforested mangrove area that had recently served as a salt and shrimp pond — absolutely exhausting work.

The women told me they had felt very apprehensive about the students not caring enough for the plants; after all, they had been under the women’s care for five months now. In the end, all plants made it safely into the forest — and my team was lucky enough to help them complete their journey.

The work was difficult, but also extremely humbling to me and our team. I heard many jokes, stories of the mangrove, laughter and dreams. The only thing we did not hear: complaints. None of the women complained even once during the week my team spent with their project.

This was more than a chain of women, or hands — this was a chain of hope, of compromise, of human spirit. Perhaps these amazing women don’t realize it fully, but they are pioneers in this country. Not only because they are volunteering their time, but because they are 23 women taking control of their livelihood. On an island where opportunities are scarce, they are building, by hand, their own opportunity.

For those of us at CI-Costa Rica, it has been a fantastic experience to develop this project with the support of the Swedish Postcode Foundation. Aside from supporting mangrove restoration, we have been teaching schoolchildren about the value of mangroves, as well as working with a group of soon-to-become micro-entrepreneurs, who are receiving training on marine tourism management.

This is the island of Chira, where women work, and the whole community is starting to follow them.

Marco Quesada is the country director for CI-Costa Rica.