James Kairo is chief scientist at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute. GLF/Handout

Mad about mangroves: Scientist James Kairo

Crosscutting challenges

NAIROBI (Landscape News) — A self-proclaimed “ambassador for mangroves,” scientist James Kairo has been swapping between the muddy gumboots of grassroots action and the shiny shoes of high-level policy discussions for around 27 years now.

As a graduate student at the University of Nairobi, Kairo became involved in a project to restore and manage mangroves in Gazi Bay on Kenya’s southern coastline. Later, as a Ph.D. student at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium, he returned to the area to explore its restoration ecology.

Now chief scientist at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI), Kairo has continued his relationship with the bay, and has been particularly involved in exploring ways to mitigate climate change impacts through restoration. With his assistance, the reforestation project there evolved into Mikoko Pamoja, the world’s first community-led blue carbon initiative.

We spoke to Kairo in the lead-up to the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) to be held in Nairobi later this month, to find out more about the challenges of restoration, the unsung virtues of mangrove mud, and his hopes for the event.


In global environmental forums to date, there has been a lot of attention on restoring terrestrial forests, says Kairo. “And that’s great, but mangroves tend to be forgotten in the process, despite their enormous contributions to livelihoods, biodiversity and environmental conservation.”

Situated between land and sea, mangroves play a critical role in protecting fisheries, and they can also serve to manage and prevent natural disasters such as flooding and cyclone damage. What’s more, they are able to store vast quantities of carbon.

As such, Kairo and his colleagues are working towards getting mangrove restoration integrated into Kenya’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for emissions reductions under the U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change.

It is a move they hope will help win mangroves the attention they deserve, before it is too late. Mangrove forests are one of the most degraded natural ecosystems, with 1 to 2 percent of global mangrove stocks disappearing every year, 23 percent of that total in Africa. In the western region, where most of the continent’s mangroves lie, almost 4,000 hectares are lost annually, which is a huge amount when you look at it, says Kairo.

The challenges facing mangroves globally are cross-cutting, he says. Overexploitation of wood products is the biggest threat. Mangrove forests are also vulnerable to conversion to other land uses like agriculture (such as rice paddies), aquaculture (such as shrimp farming), and urbanization. River pollution is another factor, because increased sedimentation affects mangrove health.

One obstacle for progress in mangrove restoration is the fact that many countries don’t even know how much mangrove forest they have, much less how degraded those forests are, or the rate of degradation. “If you don’t even know what you have, you’re unlikely to be able to manage it properly,” he says.


Another challenge for mangrove restoration is their swampy, marginal image. “I think mangroves have been neglected because people don’t understand them,” says Kairo. “They think the areas where mangroves grow are the most suitable sites to build hotels or marinas, or to do aquaculture.”

He says that when people understand mangroves’ potential for carbon capture storage and biodiversity, “They start to see these muddy environments quite differently.” In fact, he explains: “That mud is exactly what helps mangroves to sink a lot of carbon, because microbial activity is very low. So it’s actually extremely important.”

Helping people make these kinds of connections is a particular passion for Kairo. “I’m really interested in looking at the people-mangrove mix-up,” he explains. “People will always need mangroves – particularly where I come from – and if they understand how the ecosystem works, they are more likely to protect it.”


Kairo is “very excited” that GLF Nairobi focuses on African forest landscape restoration, and that it will be hosted at UN Environment headquarters. “It will give us another level of focus on our mangroves, and on the region of Africa in general,” he says.

He’s looking forward to “cross-pollinating” ideas with other ecologists – including his counterparts who study terrestrial forests, although he cautions that there will be no one-size-fits-all solution to restoration challenges: “You need to understand the ecology of each system before you can restore it.”

But he’s grateful for the chance to give his beloved mangrove forests the recognition he feels they deserve on the international stage.  “There’s an opportunity here to showcase the importance of mangroves, not only to people in other countries with mangroves on their coastlines, but to the global community,” he says.

To hear more from James Kairo and other mangrove experts from across the African continent, tune in to the African Blue Carbon Forum at the GLF at 9 a.m. Nairobi time (GMT+3) on Wed. Aug. 29, 2018 either in person or online. Click here for further information.


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