Once scorned as swamplands just waiting to be felled, filled, and developed, the world’s mangrove forests are increasingly coveted for their value to both people and wildlife. Often called the “rainforests of the sea,” mangroves once dominated the coasts of tropical countries. In the past several decades, however, people have destroyed thousands of mangrove forests purposely or indirectly, through the impacts of pollution, so ecologists are now trying to recreate these essential but endangered ecosystems. The latest restoration effort is underway on the island of Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela, where the conservation group Provita hopes to re-establish 50 acres (20 hectares) of mangrove forest in a popular park and tourism destination.
Tourism, in fact, is one reason the mangroves of La Restinga National Park need help, as thousands of visitors inevitably take their toll on the delicate ecosystem. The 42,000 acre (17,000-hectare) reserve also suffers from extraction of sand and rock for construction and illegal hunting. Tourism, however, is also responsible for Provita’s rescue and restoration effort, according to Jon Paul Rodríguez, who is coordinating the project for the organization. He explains that about 70 boatmen make their living from taking both local and foreign tourists through the serene and wild mangroves, and it was they who first raised the alarm about increasing deterioration.
In addition to being a popular tourism destination, mangroves protect mainlands from storm damage and erosion, provide people with fresh water, wood, and food, as they are the natural nurseries for scores of fish and mollusk species. Like most of the world’s mangroves, La Restinga National Park is home to thousands of birds, including migratory species like the peregrine falcon, the green heron, and the black-bellied plover. A designated Ramsar site – meaning it is a wetland of recognized international importance – it is the only site in the Caribbean that is home to wild carnivores, including ocelots and the Amazonian hog-nosed skunk. Loggerhead, hawksbill, and green sea turtles nest on the park’s beaches.
The two-year, $33,000 restoration project began earlier this year with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Trust, and the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research. Rodríguez says it will be the first mangrove restoration attempt in Venezuela and is steered by a successful wetlands recreation initiative in Colombia. As part of the initiative, a map identifying sites critical to migratory birds will be created, using information collected from satellite photos and data from national park personnel, who are very involved in the project. The map will help identify priority areas in need of restoration. “One of the sites we are going to restore is a small plain that faces the entrance to the park, where the boats bring the tourists,” says Rodríguez. “We hope to convert the area into a living laboratory.”
A list of common and easily identified birds will be developed for each restoration site, the first step in a bird monitoring program that is accessible to students, amateur birdwatchers, and park guards. Provita also hopes to train local residents so they can be nature guides and own small, low-impact tourism businesses. Another project objective is to determine the appropriate carrying capacity of the park and establish restrictions in land-use that focus on the protection of migratory birds and other important wildlife species.
Five young people from the community, called “bio-monitors,” also are participating in the project, collecting data about mangrove tree species. Other important project allies are the teachers in five local public schools, who teach students about the importance of La Restinga as an internationally significant wetland, one that is invaluable to them, their families and neighbors, migratory birds, and other wildlife. Provita is also planning annual migratory bird conservation festivals, will give presentations to local groups and government offices, launch an education campaign through the media, and establish volunteer youth brigades to help park personnel monitor and guide visitors.
Edgar Villarroel, regional director of Venezuela’s National Park Institute, says that one goal of the wetlands restoration effort is to bring the La Restinga National Park back to its condition in 1974, when it was created. He believes that the project allows “not only for the recuperation of the mangroves, but also for better coordination and interaction with nearby communities.” Rodríguez adds that local residents are motivated and have responded enthusiastically to the project. “The mangroves are an integral part of their lives, and they understand that their well-being depends on the healthy condition of the mangrove,” he says.
If the restoration effort is successful, Provita hopes to restore mangrove forests in Margarita Island’s coastal communities for the purpose of providing residents with a source of wood, which would reduce pressure on the protected forest. “If we do not involve local communities, our long-term success is not possible,” Rodríguez says, underscoring that community participation has been central to Provita’s work throughout its 13 years of working to conserve biodiversity in La Restinga and Tacarigua Lagoon National Parks. The latter is also a Ramsar site, located on the central coast of Venezuela and may be the site of the next mangrove resoration project, depending on what happens in La Restinga.
Contacts in Venezuela:
Jon Paul Rodríguez, Provita, 47552, Caracas 1041-A, Oficina 15-1, Los Caobos, Caracas 1040, Caracas
tel +58-212/794-2234, 794-1291, 794-1691
tel +58-295 / 311-2073, 311-2074, 311-2075
Read more about this project on the Eco-Index: