As narrated by Anne Wanjiru, Project Impact Officer, Mikoko Pamoja

Mangroves are among the most endangered ecosystems in the world. They are also among the most critical, for biodiversity and for humanity.

According to The State of the World's Mangroves, these “blue forests” prevent more than US$ 65 billion in property damages from storms and reduce flood risk to some 15 million people every year. About 4.1 million small-scale fishers depend on mangroves worldwide. Functioning coastal ecosystems are a haven for diverse species and provide substantial social and economic benefits, particularly for low-income coastal communities. Yet humans are responsible for over 60% of mangrove loss, primarily for the conversion of land to farmland, agriculture, and/or urbanization.

The community in Gazi Bay, on the southern coast of Kenya, is leading the way in showing the world how to reap the immense benefits of mangroves without their destruction. They have pioneered the world’s first conservation project to link mangrove forests to the global carbon market and won the 2017 Equator Prize for their efforts.

Mangrove forests are important to the community in Gazi Bay – 90% of the local population depends on the fishing industry, which is sustained by the mangroves, for their livelihoods. However, by 2010, 20% of these forests had been lost to the timber industry.

In 2012, the two villages of Gazi and Makongeni came together as a result of two decades of research and community engagement by James Kairo from the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institution (KMFRI) and Mark Huxham from Edinburgh Napier University. Local elders from the villages challenged the two scientists to go beyond simply demonstrating the benefits of the mangroves, to using their scientific work to bring benefits for people and nature. This resulted in a partnership between the residents of Gazi Bay and the Scotland-based Association for Coastal Ecosystem Services (ACES) and Plan Vivo Foundation to launch the Mikoko Pamoja (“Mangroves Together” in Swahili) mangrove conservation and restoration project.

Mikoko Pamoja was established as a community-based organization, which was granted co-management rights to the forest under Kenyan legislation. It is managed by three groups: the Mikoko Pamoja Community Organization (MPCO) consisting of representatives of Gazi Bay, specifically the villages of Gazi and Makongeni; the Mikoko Pamoja Steering Group (MPSG) providing technical support to the MPCO; and ACES as the project coordinator.

The community runs mangrove tree nurseries, transplants the seedlings into reclaimed mangrove forests, and nurtures them into full growth. Community scouts conduct surveillance to prevent illegal harvesting. The initiative conserves 117 hectares of mangroves and restores further acreage every year. Nearly 500 people, from local schools and villages, regularly plant mangroves with technical inputs from the KMFRI.

Mikoko Pamoja also generates income for the Gazi and Makongeni communities through the sale of carbon credits. In addition to the other benefits they provide, mangroves are champions at capturing and storing carbon dioxide within tree roots and surrounding soil – much better than other major forest types. These credits are generated through a Payment for Ecosystem Services agreement between the Plan Vivo Foundation and the community.

Plan Vivo has an Offset Project Standard for land use projects that places particular emphasis on the socio-economic development of less developed nations, allowing for flexibility in project design to enhance accessibility for small projects. With support from scientists, the total volume of biomass in the forests regenerated by communities is translated into tons of carbon. The project only calculates carbon stored in the tree itself – even though mangrove forests store a lot of soil carbon, calculating soil carbon is a resource-intensive undertaking for small projects. In general, 50% of above-ground biomass is carbon. This figure is then relayed to the Plan Vivo Foundation, which certifies the calculations and issues Plan Vivo Certificates (PVCs) to Mikoko Pamoja. One PVC is equivalent to one metric ton of carbon dioxide emission reductions. The PVCs are submitted to ACES, which offers them for purchase by individuals and organizations to offset their carbon emissions, generated through activities such as fuel and energy consumption, and travel.

From 2014 until the time of publication in 2023, the Mikoko Pamoja project has counted emission reductions of 18,052 tons of carbon dioxide, which have generated payments in carbon credits totaling US$ 143,976 to the community. Revenues from sale of carbon credits are deposited in a community development fund, which is used for the project work and for community projects in water and sanitation, education, health, and environmental conservation. For example, the fund has supported water supply for 4,500 community members and education for 700 local schoolchildren, including through building of wells, school building repairs, provision of schoolbooks, and funding for local community groups such as children’s football clubs.

How Challenges Are Addressed

The project is relatively small-scale in carbon market terms, which means it does not qualify for global compliance carbon markets, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change mechanisms. However, sometimes “small is beautiful” and confers versatility on the community institutions in charge. The credits are still able to be marketed on the voluntary carbon market via Plan Vivo, a carbon credit aggregator, which provides the steady revenue flow that the community needs.

The lessons learned are being spread far – Mikoko Pamoja constantly hosts local and international university students and participants of international mangrove training courses conducted by KMFRI.