Considered among the wooded areas that add the most beauty to Cuba's natural landscape, mangroves occupy today some 5.1% of the archipelago's surface area, and are the most extensive in the insular Caribbean.
They tend to be located along coastlines of biological origin, that is swampy sites where organic sediment has accumulated, with estuaries into which fresh water flows. Mangroves also thrive in saline environments, principally on keys and islets along the main island's platform, having the unique characteristic of being able to survive in regular contact with sea water.
Studies conducted over many years by the recently decreased Dr. Leda Menéndez Carrera - senior researcher at the Institute of Ecology and Systematics' National Biodiversity Center, affiliated with the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment (Citma), and one of the most widely recognized authorities on the subject in the region - demonstrate that mangroves are of vital importance to biodiversity, serving as an ideal refuge where fish, mollusks, crustaceans, reptiles, birds, and mammals live and reproduce.
Some 80% of marine species depend on mangroves for their survival, and many of these form the foundation of food chains not only in surrounding ecosystems, but for those at some distance which include large fish.
Mangroves filter sediment and contaminating substances which reach the sea via rivers, while also mitigating the impact of flooding by absorbing and storing water. They additionally serve as a valuable, strategic forest reserve.
Cuba's mangroves are basically comprised of four species: red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle); black (Avicennia germinais); white (Laguncularia racemosa); and buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus).
They are present along 50% of the coastline, and areas with the greatest populations and the most developed ecosystems are located in the island's western provinces, above all from San Antonio to Bahía Honda on the northern coast, and from Cape Francés to the Bay of Pigs to the south.
According to evaluations conducted by Dr. Menéndez and Dr. José Manuel Guzmán, former director of the National Biodiversity Center, almost a third of Cuba's mangroves have been negatively impacted by environmental changes attributed to human activity.
These include pollution caused by the discharge of chemical waste from agriculture, livestock ranching, and human settlements; reduced accumulations of nutrients due to the damming of rivers and channels; the interruption of natural water flows caused by the construction of causeways and other obstacles; over-harvesting of wood; and human alterations to the coastline.
Likewise detected was a tendency toward mangroves of less height and smaller diameter trunks, reflecting current rainfall patterns which have led to lower fresh water flows into estuaries and a consequent reduction in the nutrients and energy contributed to the ecosystem.
A PROMISING REBIRTH
Given Cuba's condition as an island, highly vulnerable to the impact of climate change, the recovery of mangrove populations is a high priority for the country, since they form a natural shield protecting the coast from erosion due to the combined effect of wind and waves during hurricanes and other severe weather phenomena, as well as a barrier against progressively rising sea levels and saline intrusion into aquifers and agricultural land.
Moreover, mangroves have the noteworthy ability to absorb five times more carbon dioxide than other tropical forests, thus playing an important role in mitigating global warming.
Among the projects directed toward saving such valuable ecosystems is one entitled "Manglar Vivo" (Living Mangrove), which has been in progress, since 2014, along the southern coast of Artemisa and Mayabeque provinces, where mangrove ecosystems have become noticeably degraded.
With the collaboration of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the project is intended to improve the ability of coastal communities to confront climate change, and incorporate adaptive measures into local development plans, among other objectives.
It should be pointed out that red mangroves provide the most protection since their fork-like roots are anchored deeply into the muddy sand, becoming a strong barrier in the event of storm surges and coastal flooding.
Research studies and mangrove restoration projects in Cuba are backed by a body of law and legal norms which regulate the management and use of these ecosystems, to promote their recovery.
A crucial step in national efforts to promote growth of mangrove populations was recently taken, with the Council of Ministers' approval, this past April, of a state plan to confront climate change, entitled "Tarea Vida" (Project Life).
Of the 11 tasks included in the plan, the fifth proposes directing reforestation efforts toward greater protection of soils and waters, in terms of both quality and quantity, as well as the recovery of the most damaged mangroves.
As the document outlines, projected in the short term is the planting of 1,766 hectares of mangroves along the Dique Sur, and another 1,290 along the coastline between Surgidero de Batabanó and Playa Tasajera, to protect this coastal region.
The effort is, no doubt, key to the nation's future and its sustainable development.