In this issue:

In our web site:

Wetlands and Coastal Zones Bulletin
Volume 1, No. 1

Main Article
Sustainable Use of Mangroves in Central America
Néstor Windevoxhel Lora*

I. The Importance of Mangrove Forests and Management 
    Experience in Central America

Central America is a region of vast bio-geographical importance because it serves as a bridge between the northern and southern zones of the American continent, and is located between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. It contains innumerable coastal ecosystems and wetlands, especially mangroves and coral reef. These ecosystems are among the most productive in the world (Day, et. al., 1989), meaning that they contribute significantly to regional economies as well as having great ecological value.

Only 7% of Central America's surviving forests are mangroves, even though they are one of the most representative ecosystems found in protected areas on the region's coasts. Due to the rapid reduction of tropical forests in Central America, particularly dry forests, mangroves have now become an important resource in satisfying the basic needs of families living in or near coastal zones. In some of the coastal areas along the Pacific, firewood obtained from mangroves provides for 40 to 90% of the energy needs of local communities.

Mangroves supply food (fish, flora and fauna and shellfish), forest resources (firewood, lumber, posts and charcoal) and abundant wildlife for both direct and indirect use (tourism and recreation.) The mangroves of Central America also perform essential ecological functions and provide services of importance to the local and national economies, such as drinking water, irrigation and support for external activities.

Understanding of mangroves and their importance is poor, however. Only a limited number of institutional efforts have taken place to gain field experience in the area of sustainable mangrove management. In 1995, CATIE, the University of Miami and IUCN organized a workshop entitled "Productive Management of Mangroves in Central America," in which participants discussed major regional experiences in sustainable mangrove use.

These experiences have been compiled for publication in a book that also contains an analysis of sustainable mangrove use in our region. The analysis is based on activities promoted by the IUCN, particularly the Sustainable Use Initiative of the IUCN World Commission on Species Survival. Biological, social, institutional and economic aspects of sustainable use in Central American mangroves were analyzed within this framework.


A. Ecological Aspects

Knowledge in this area has been extracted from projects in other regions, certain descriptive works and the limited efforts of various researchers, but little is known about the productivity and structure of mangroves in Central America. Without this information it is extremely difficult to chart the right course for using these ecosystems sustainably.

While information is still insufficient in certain countries, a great deal more is available for Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, and existing evidence indicates that sustainable mangrove use will be difficult to achieve through the use of species. The complexity of these productive systems and their variability over time and space indicate that the best option for ecosystem use would be through complex and improved systems of production.

Regional mangroves have been disappearing at rates between 20 and 65%, depending on the country. Historical studies on mangrove use using remote sensing should be encouraged to obtain objective, first-hand information on the principal factors leading to their destruction in Central America.

B. Socioeconomic Aspects

1. Market Forces
Information on markets varies depending on the product analyzed. An empirical understanding exists of markets for the main products of direct consumption. Cases such as charcoal, in Costa Rica, and tannin and honey production, in Nicaragua, are especially developed and could serve as models for future studies. In general, however, information is scattered and the situation varies throughout the region.

2. Dependency of Rural Populations on Renewable Sources
Venta de productos de humedalesRather than a commercial activity, extractive use of the mangrove is related to family consumption, and in many cases, to survival. Most consumption of mangrove production is by communities that are highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihood. This does not necessarily preclude possibilities for small-scale commercial production.

When the national economy offers other types of employment (industry, services, etc.) people tend to abandon the mangroves in favor of these occupations, as has occurred in projects carried out in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Another type of mangrove user are those who convert these ecosystems for purposes of shrimp cultivation, farming and urbanization. While such users are not directly dependent on the resources, in some cases mangrove destruction has led to a reduction in fish catch, lower water quality and saline build-up in soils. Very often this relation is not perceived, however, since distortions in the economic system promote a privatization of profits and a socialization of the associated environmental impacts.

3. Costs and Benefits Related to Investment in Maintaining
     Renewable Resources
No information is available on this issue and no data exists to facilitate assessment. It is expected that projects being carried out by CATIE ("OLAFO" and "Mangroves," both in Nicaragua) will include elements to perform these estimates toward the end of 1997.

At the level of economic assessment of ecosystems, there are studies made by Windevoxhel (1992) in mangroves near León, Nicaragua, and guidelines produced by a team under the support of Barbier, Constanza and Twiley during 1991, with the participation of CATIE and IUCN. Existing research shows that sustainable mangrove management is of greater economic benefit, particularly given the ecological services they provide.

4. Land Ownership
In general, by law all mangroves in Central America are the property of the state. Consequently, ownership is not necessarily an instrument for sustainable use under the current legal framework.

The only example in the region of sustainable mangrove use through right of property under concession is in Costa Rica (Coopemangle, in Térraba-Sierpe.) Guatemala has experienced progress in co-management and under its new forest law and accompanying regulations, a formal assessment is currently being made of concession systems in mangroves. In early 1996 Nicaragua will complete a management strategy for Estero Real (the country's largest extension of mangrove forest), which will lead to a general management plan in the future. Currently steps are being taken to revise legislation and regulate sustainable mangrove use. This activity is coordinated by the CATIE Mangroves Project, with technical support from IUCN.

C. Institutional Aspects

1. Role of traditional knowledge in natural resource
It is not possible to speak of traditional knowledge in the case of Central American mangroves. Most of the current population settled in these areas during the last 40 years, not enough time for the co-evolution of management practices and ecosystem responses. It is evident that people living in the mangroves have developed a series of skills in resource extraction and management of the different natural variables that govern mangrove cycles (seasons, tides, etc.), but these skills cannot yet be considered traditional knowledge.

2. Perceptions of traditional knowledge in natural
    resource management

For the same reasons described above, no philosophical and cultural perceptions currently exist. However, even though most values held by people living in Central American mangroves have not changed since they first arrived, certain new characteristics are emerging that are different from typical campesino behavior in the region:

  • Activities are highly monetized, while common practices such as bartering are nonexistent. In this sense, the mangrove acts more as a banking entity than an element for subsistence.
  • Products are quickly exchanged for money, and in this sense, the campesino has a sense of the future and planning. This behavior is absent in those living in mangroves, where extraction is the tendency.
  • An absence of accumulation, since the quantity extracted is the totality of what must be sold in order to cover day-to-day needs. Campesinos tend to take advantage of surplus in order to rest for a few days until they need more money.

D. Institutional Aspects

1. Rights of access, tenure or ownership of renewable
Since mangroves in general are legally state property or under public ownership, land tenure is a difficult aspect with respect to sustainable use. However, experiences in the region have shown that it is almost impossible to promote sustainable natural resource use unless local people are ensured some form of tenure or right of access to resources.

Concession systems have not been very effective since the requirements for obtaining a mangrove under concession are outside the economic and social realities of its main users.

2. Government policies and legislation on natural
     resource use
In all of the Central American countries, laws prohibit use of mangroves. Extraction of the red mangrove (Rhizophora spp.) is partially or totally banned throughout the region. In reality, however, this species is used actively and without control since current policies are inconsistent with our reality.

In general there are no regulations on the use of other mangrove-associated resources except for fishing laws, such as the minimum size for Andara spp catch established in Costa Rica.

Extractive use is being reassessed in Nicaragua and Guatemala, thanks to the identification of potential for management. Guatemala's forest law and draft regulations on mangrove use provide opportunities for such management. MARENA, in Nicaragua, is evaluating a review of its legislation in order to include special chapters on mangroves. Costa Rica, on the other hand, would eliminate this possibility for local communities in its new forest law. It is anticipated that the Wetlands Conservation Law being prepared by MINAE with IUCN will ensure the existence of regulations on sustainable mangrove use.

Some countries prohibit the conversion of mangroves for other uses, but this does not cover conversion of other parts of the ecosystems, such as salt marshes. None of the countries have performed environmental impact assessments on massive conversion of marshes to establish aquaculture tanks.

In all of the countries regulations on mangrove forests are the same as those applying to forests on solid ground (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama), except for a few cases in Costa Rica and Guatemala, where specific regulations have been set up for mangroves. Concession systems (Nicaragua and Costa Rica) and co-management agreements (Guatemala) have been effective in promoting a long-range vision in users, thus encouraging sustainable use.

3. Governmental Capacity to Promote Sustainable Use
Reduction of state structures and budgets has weakened government capacity for supervision and implementation. Under such conditions, private commercial and non-commercial associations will increasingly assume these functions.

Horno de producción de carbón: uso sostenible de manglaresWithin this framework governments do not have the capacity to promote sustainable use due to lack of funds, personnel and trained professionals. Additionally, the race to attain a balance of trade and increase exports favors conversion of mangrove for shrimp cultivation (Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala), banana production (Panama) and urbanization and tourism (Panama, Costa Rica and Belize.)

Nonetheless, if governments have neither the capacity nor policies to manage natural resources on their own they should at least promote management by establishing the necessary legal and administrative framework. They have the authority to bring together the different sectors that could design such a framework, and the political power to make it happen. In this context, it is worth mentioning once again current efforts by Costa Rica (National Wetlands Strategy) and Nicaragua (Estero Real Management Strategy), as well as the Gulf of Fonseca Coastal Ecosystems Conservation Project.


Regarding the contribution of Central American experiences in sustainable mangrove use to the conceptualization, validity and approach of sustainability in general, certain important questions can be posed.

The principal limitation to advances toward sustainability at this time is how to operationalize the attractive concepts we have elaborated. Sustainability is not a final destination, but rather an unending search for better equilibrium between the satisfaction of human needs and the environment's capacity to generate goods and services on a permanent basis.

Sustainability continues to be an ambiguous and consequently difficult concept. It is necessary to identify more immediate and attainable goals along the route to sustainability. In addition to action and evaluation, we need goals that assist us in learning along the way.

We need elements for fieldwork that technical personnel and local people can understand easily and which are simple to measure and apply. If we want to advance toward self-regulation with less government intervention, we need practical instruments such as harvest quotas, minimum sizes, simple calendars of activities, physical and biological thresholds, and other mechanisms.

These mechanisms cannot be designed in ways that are isolated and sectoral. There is a great need for multidisciplinary efforts to attack the tangled web of ecological and social problems facing sustainable use.

Despite all these difficulties, sustainable use still appears to be an attainable goal for mangrove systems, and efforts in this area should be identified.

We need to start working with what we have. Social and economic demands make it impossible to keep waiting until finished products become available. Existing knowledge, technical capacity and resources in the region are sufficient for getting started right now.

*Coordinator of the IUCN/ORMA Program for Wetlands
and Coastal Zones Conservation in Mesoamerica
P.O. Box 1160-2150, Moravia, Costa Rica
E-mail: [email protected]


Technical Comuniqués

In this issue:

Editorial Main Article Technical Comuniqués 
Activities Links Bibliography
Doc. Center
Archives Search Español E-mail

Current Bulletin Issue Wetlands and C. Zones Specialists Directory