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Tsunami-Blocking Mangroves Lure Carbon Investors: Southeast Asia

This article originally appeared on Bloomberg on November 20, 2013.

Replanted mangrove trees in Southeast Asia are getting credit for protecting against deadly tsunamis and typhoons such as Haiyan in the Philippines and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Mangrove regeneration in Northern Samar, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of the worst-hit Philippine city of Tacloban, helped minimize damage from the Nov. 8 storm, according to the Trowel Development Foundation, which oversaw the plantings. On Indonesia's Sumatra island, where a 2004 tsunami killed 170,000 residents, companies including Danone and Credit Agricole SA (ACA) have put up about $4 million in exchange for tradable carbon offsets tied to the reforestation.

Mangroves have twisted webs of roots above ground that absorb carbon dioxide linked to climate change and help protect coasts from tidal surges such as the one that killed 3,900 people when Typhoon Haiyan swamped the Philippines this month.  The storm, one of the strongest to make landfall, has gripped UN climate talks in Warsaw this week, with a Philippines delegate tearfully calling for action to slow climate change.

"Had we not protected the mangrove trees against illegal cutting and had we not planted the areas surrounding the fish farms with native mangrove species, the super typhoon would have destroyed everything that the poor fishfolks established," Leonardo Rosario, a development consultant on the Northern Samar project, said by e-mail on Nov. 19.

People plant mangrove trees in Northern Samar province, the Philippines, in this May 2011 handout photograph released to the media on Nov. 19, 2013.

Source: Trowel Development Foundation

The devastation in Tacloban was aggravated because it is near open seas with no mangroves to provide a buffer, he said.  "So the super typhoon hit the land with its strongest might and high speed because there is no mangrove forest that should have slowed it down," he said.  "I hope the government would now realize the import of mangrove forests in protecting people, structures and livelihoods in the coastal areas."

Fishermen clean their boats in Banda Aceh.  A study in the wake of the 2004 tsunami off Aceh, which killed 220,000 people living near the Indian Ocean, showed that 30 coastal trees per 100 square metres may reduce the flow of a tsunami by 90 percent, according to a 2005 report in the journal Science.

Photographer: Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images

'Very Much Degraded'

Mangroves in the Philippines have been lost at a rate of about 1 percent a year, with conditions "very much degraded," Daniel Murdiyarso, a forestry scientist at the Bogor, Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, said Nov. 18.

Mangroves, found on marine coasts and estuaries, may help low-lying coasts adapt to rising sea levels by increasing sedimentation, he said.  The trees, adapted to changing water levels with roots several feet above ground, can help reduce the height and power of waves generated by storms, according to a Cambridge University report published in 2012 by The Nature Conservancy and Wetlands International.

An illegal logger prepares to cut trees from the tropical rainforest in Kuala Cenaku, Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia, in this 2010 file photo.  Deforestation was the main cause of rising emissions from Indonesia, the world's fourth-most populous nation.

Photographer: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

2004 Tsunami

A study in the wake of the 2004 tsunami of Aceh, Indonesia, which killed 220,000 people living near the Indian Ocean, cited models showing that 30 coastal trees per 100 square meters may reduce the flow of tsunami by 90 percent, according to a 2005 report in the journal Science. While field-based evidence was limited, replanting coastal mangroves should buffer communities from future tsunamis, it said.

"I have been in far too many disaster areas as a member of the UNESCO International Tsunami Survey Team and seen too many coastal forests overwhelmed to put much faith in trees being effective defenses against a tsunami," said Brian McAdoo, professor of science at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

The Aceh project by the Medan-based conservation group Tagasu involves restoring 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) on the northern coast of Sumatra. The program will help develop a methodology for a program letting Indonesian companies buy credits to voluntarily offset their greenhouse gas emissions, said Bambang Suprayogi, Yagasu's founder, in a Nob. 18 interview.

Indonesia President Susilo Bamabng Yudhoyono, who leaves office next year, pledged in 2009 to reduce Indonesia's emissions by 26 percent at the end of the decade. Deforestation is the main cause of emissions from Indonesia, named by the World Bank as the third-largest emittor on earth in a 2007 report.

Warsaw Talks

Indonesia and the Philippines are among the 200 nations meeting in Warsaw this week for climate talks.  Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest economy, doesn't have an obligation under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which envisioned that developing countries would host emission-reduction projects to generate offsets against pollution limits in richer nations.

The U.S. never signed the treaty, while Japan, Russia, Canada and New Zealand have opted against extending their commitments to Kyoto. The UN has yet to spell out how credits from reforestation can be recognized.

Yagasu hopes to save 9 million tons of carbon dioxide over the Aceh project's 20-year timeframe, Suprayogi said.  While it has applied for UN validation, he expects most of the credits to be sold under a voluntary emission program to avoid the length and uncertainty of the UN approval process.

Voluntary Credits

While Indonesia has 141 UN-approved projects designed to cut 249 million metric tons of emissions, the nation is designing its own program and methodology, Agus Purnomo, a presidential adviser for the climate change, said in Jakarta on Nov. 14. The domestic plan would rely on companies voluntarily buying offsets, he said.

"Most investors in the Yagasu project are corporate and will use those credits to offset part of their own CO2 emissions," said Charlotte Pasternak, head of external communications for Danone (BN) in Paris.

Indonesia's rate of deforestation is about half the level of a decade ago because of a government moratorium on logging in natural forests, Purnomo said. Government figures put annual deforestation at about 450,000 hectares (4,500 square kilometers) for 2011/2012, he said.

A report in the journal Science this month, based on high resolution global maps of forest cover change, said Indonesia's deforestation has accelerated and put the level at more than 20,000 kilometers a year in 2011/2012, most than four times the government's figure.

Losing the Forest

"Of all the countries globally, Indonesia exhibited the largest increase in forest loss," the report said.

Total emissions from Indonesia may reach 2.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020 under business as usual projections, Purnomo said. That compares with an environment ministry estimate of 1.79 billion tons in 2005, with 63 percent of that from land use change, forestry and peat fires. The World Bank put the 2005 figure at 3 billion.

Greenpeace, the global environmental group, targeted Indonesian paper company APP and palm oil producer PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology, and buyers of their products such as Mattel Inc and Nestle SA, for clearing forests that are home to orangutans. APP said in February it would end natural forest clearance. PT Sinar Mas has said a 2010 audit showed Greenpeace allegations were largely unfounded.

"Most of our coastal areas used to be mangroves, and many of them are no more," said Purnomo. Coastal forests were destroyed for pools to grow shrimp and for agriculture, but with intensive prawn farming being abandoned in some areas because of pollution, replanting was now viable, Purnomo said.

Rural Ecosystems

The north coast of Sumatra had 200,000 hectares of mangroves in 1987 and has 83,000 hectares now, according to Livelihoods, an organization to sustain rural ecosystems. It's a vehicle for corporate support of the Yagasu project.

Suprayogi started Yagasu in 2001 to protect Sumatra's elephants and switched his focus on mangroves after the tsunami devastated Aceh. Replanting has helped the economy of the local community by increasing villagers' catch of the fish and crabs that shelter in the mangroves, he said.

Coastal forests reduce the risk of losses from typhoons and tsunamis by increasing the sustainable livelihoods and wealth in exposed areas, giving more resources to help communities recover, Yale-NUS's McAdoo said.

"Where the mangroves are, the people are happy," Suprayogi said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Neil Chatterjee in Jakarta at nchatterjee1@bloomberg.net
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Alexander Kwiatkowski at akwiatkowsk2@bloomberg.net