I. The Importance of Mangrove Forests
and Management Experience in Central America
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.
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.
II. Analysis of Major
Aspects of the Sustainable Use Initiative
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
2. Dependency of Rural Populations on
Rather 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
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
3. Costs and Benefits Related to Investment
in Maintaining Renewable Resources
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
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 management
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
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 resources
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
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.
Within 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.
III. Special Contributions
to the Analysis of Sustainability in Mangrove Use
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
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]