A new approach to creation care is being explored in Peru’s mangrove forest by Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA).
MEDA, which specializes in business solutions to poverty, recently undertook a five-year, $1.8 million project for the Peruvian government to protect exotic birds and bio-rich plant life through sustainable development in the country’s only mangrove sanctuary.
Mangrove trees, which can look like a tangle of jagged roots twisting deep into the mud, are among the most biologically diverse wetlands on earth, hosting plant life that can’t survive elsewhere. They’re a haven for hundreds of bird species, and offer refuge and nursery grounds for fish, crabs, shrimp, and mollusks.
Many residents of Peru’s mangrove sanctuary make their living from fishing, and a $50 million prawn-exporting industry operates nearby.
The mangrove forest faces pressures such as contamination from sewage, garbage, and industrial waste. “As well, villagers and companies have been tempted by short-term gains, such as cutting mangrove wood illegally for commercial purposes,” says Ben Fowler, MEDA’s project manager.
More than half of the thousands of residents in the sanctuary don’t have access to clean water or sewage drainage, and a third are undernourished, Fowler says, adding that economic options, already limited, will be further diminished if ecological health declines.
MEDA’s approach will be to boost awareness of how conservation and long-term economic interests go hand-in-hand, so that all stakeholders join hands to protect them. Fowler cites the example of discouraging people from going into logging that directly impacts their own ability to earn a livelihood.
“A key task will be to gain the trust of villagers themselves, bring them on board, and empower them to develop their own strategies and community regulations,” he says.
A related tactic is to expand cooperation among local producer associations who sometimes see themselves as rivals. “There are strong local associations that need to be brought into the picture and made to feel that they have a stake in managing it,” says Fowler. “We want to build recognition of their common interest and link that into government structures.”
Other strategies will include:
- Conservation workshops and curriculum in local schools;
- Maintain the current wet and dry forest cover, reduce contamination, and reforest at least 100 acres of mangroves;
- Develop sustainable ecotourism packages;
- Raise revenue, perhaps with the help of local prawn and tourism companies, to cover costs of conservation and management and make the park self-financing.
For local Peruvians, a lot is riding on the project, both economically and environmentally, according to Fowler. “If it succeeds as planned, it could be replicated in many of the other protected areas.”