Malaysia’s mangrove-planting fishermen stumble at nature finance hurdle

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SUNGAI ACHEH, MALAYSIA (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) – Walking across a swamp, retired fisherman Ilias Shafie and a small group of villagers plant mangrove saplings on Malaysia’s west coast, one tree at a time.

They have put in some 400,000 mangrove trees since a restoration initiative started two decades ago, in what was initially a bid to increase the catch of local fishermen.

Now their work has taken on extra significance as alarm grows over global warming and nature loss, with mangroves regarded as a key weapon in the fight against climate change.

But the surge of international concern has yet to help this community win the global finance required to expand its project, highlighting the barriers often faced by groups on the ground seeking to tap into growing funding flows for nature protection.

“Mangroves are important to us fishermen – we need them because this is the breeding ground of fish,” said Ilias, 70, recalling how dwindling mangrove forests affected his catch and livelihood, which prompted him to launch the initiative.

Mangroves make up less than 1 per cent of tropical forests worldwide but are crucial in the fight against climate change because they are more effective than most other forests at absorbing and storing planet-heating carbon.

Mangrove ecosystems also protect coastal communities from storm surges, reduce flooding and help shore up food security.

Despite their benefits, they are in decline, with the world’s mangrove area decreasing by just over 1 million hectares between 1990 and 2020, although the rate of loss has slowed in recent years, says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Challenges

In Malaysia, mangroves are often cleared to make way for infrastructure development and farming, while they are also under threat from industrial pollution and over-harvesting – including in northern Penang state, where Ilias lives.

As fish catches dwindled for him and other fishermen in the late 1990s, Ilias mobilised his peers to join him in restoring the fast-vanishing mangrove forests through the Penang Inshore Fishermen Welfare Association (PIFWA), which he leads.

Their small initiative has won recognition – to date about 30 local companies have sponsored their tree-planting as part of corporate social responsibility projects.

PIFWA charges the companies a small fee of 8 ringgit (S$2.60) per tree planted, while participating fishermen are compensated with allowances for their time and labour.

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