In conjunction with the celebration of the International Day for the Conservation of the Mangroves Ecosystem on 26 July, this piece calls for enhanced mangroves conservation at the national and local levels focusing on it as a nature-based solution to address adverse environmental, societal and climatic challenges.
Malaysian shoreline is rich with mangroves ecosystem, with some 544,032 ha of permanent forest reserve (official figures at 61 per cent in Sabah, 21 per cent in Sarawak, and the remaining 18 per cent in Peninsular Malaysia). Mangroves are largely unique in terms of their adaptive capacity to respond to harsh natural environments. They can stabilise shorelines and protect coastal communities by acting as a buffer against storm surges and winds. The critical role of the coastal ecosystem in maintaining the climate is also being increasingly acknowledged.
In many parts in Malaysia, however, mangroves have been lost or degraded along with their valuable ecosystem services, which have in turn affected livelihoods of the coastal communities in several areas. The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources of Malaysia for instance, recently highlighted that the economic value of wetlands in the Peninsular Malaysia alone was accounted for more than RM5 billion annually.
Mangroves in the Pulau Kukup RAMSAR site
The conservation of mangroves supports national obligation in line with the Sustainable Development Goal 14 (Life below water), specifically on Targets 14.2 and 14.5 focusing on the following: to sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid adverse impacts including by strengthening their resilience and take action for their restoration for healthy and productive oceans; and the aim to conserve a certain percentage of the coastal and marine areas; respectively. The United Nations Climate Action Summit in 2019 brought specific attention to Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) for climate and sustainable development, which further underlined the importance of wetlands conservation. Since then, there has been numerous initiatives and best practices from around the world which focuses on coastal ecosystems especially mangroves.
Amongst others, the Malaysian National Policy on Biological Diversity (NPBD) 2016 – 2025, for instance, recognises the importance of coastal ecosystems and calls for increased marine protected areas (MPAs) and network for their ecological representation. Although not explicitly stated in the NPBD, the NBS concept has also been increasingly mentioned in related national stakeholders’ engagements when discussing the need for enhanced coastal habitats conservation. NBS has however remained as a general concept overall, and we have yet come to fully understand the necessary criteria and standards for its effective implementation, rendering its potential far from being fully realised at the national and local levels.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), on 23rd July 2020, released a set of benchmarks for NBS to global challenges to assist government, private and civil societies to ensure the effectiveness of NBS and maximise the potential to address climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental challenges. Formulated against a scientifically robust background, the IUCN document has been designed based on a credible framework with criteria and associated indicators to ensure transparency and possible linkages to international conservation targets and commitments.
Keeping at par with this and other related international and regional developments on mangroves conservation provides an opportunity to effectively implement and ‘walk the talk’ on SDG 14, help accelerate policy development, and improve research and conservation on the ground. If properly adopted and implemented, NBS could prove to be an essential component of the overall effort to achieve goals of the Paris Agreement and facilitate the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in the overall endeavour in addressing and reducing related environmental, societal and climatic risks and challenges.
On related aspects, the Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA) has also been a strong advocate for ‘no-net loss’ policy for mangrove conservation, where the goal is for the total acreage of mangrove areas in the country to be kept constant or, preferably, increased via conservation of ecologically importance areas involving a variety of stakeholders who are directly or indirectly affected in the process.
Mangroves in the Pulau Kukup RAMSAR site.
There are ever more opportunities now for the nation to champion and lead an improved change in the policies and management guidelines and show significance towards reversing mangroves ecosystem degradation at the national and local levels. We need to keep abreast with new developments, available best practices and lessons from elsewhere to mainstream and formulate adaptive approaches that are best applicable to our situation in the overall efforts to improve mangroves ecosystem conservation and sustainable development.