This first-person account is part of a regular series of how Counterpart works in the field. This story is by Jennifer Norfolk, Senior Environmental Program Manager, as told to Counterpart’s Senior Content Producer, Jennifer Brookland.

In Dominican Republic’s Montecristi National Park, sunlight filters down through the dense branches of mangroves that have thrived for thousands of years. Counterpart joined Oregon State University ecologist Dr. Boone Kauffman and local partners to sample this soil that seeped so readily into jeans and old sneakers; waders, we were told, were futile.

What we found was incredible. Though a complete analysis has yet to be done on the several hundred little cups of soil we sent off to the lab, Dr. Kauffman thinks the mangroves of Montecristi could be one of the most carbon-rich sites in the hemisphere.

If that’s true, it could help make the case for doing whatever it takes to protect these essential ecosystems.

Finding a market for blue carbon

Carbon finance programs create economic incentives for communities to preserve natural resources that help alleviate the mounting pressures of climate change. But mangroves and other coastal ecosystems – like seagrass beds and salt marshes – are currently not part of any such program. Without economic incentives, why should coastal communities preserve these scraggly trees when they could clear them for shrimp ponds, or cut them down for timber and firewood?

That was the question we were trying to answer in Montecristi. Potential carbon financing profits from the rich stores in coastal soils, called “blue carbon,” may prove to be the real selling point when it comes to convincing poor communities who live around mangroves, and their governments, to protect them.  But first we have to figure out how much carbon is there.

Counterpart chose to use Montecristi for our pilot blue carbon site because we have worked there for five years with a wonderful local partner, AgroFrontera. We know many of the key actors in the area, and they know and trust us.

Getting the dirt on mangrove carbon stores

I went there to sample soil from tall, medium, and dwarf mangroves and from abandoned shrimp farms with Dr. Kauffman, AgroFrontera and CIBIMA, the public university in the Dominican Republic that offers the nation’s only marine biology program.

At our Arlington, Virginia, headquarters location, plenty of Counterpart employees tell stories about their trips to the field.  Those tales don’t usually involve mangrove crabs crawling over your hands, or tricky patches of earth that look solid but give way to feet of sucking mud when you place a misguided step.

The tall mangroves were the muddiest, and the hardest physically to walk through. The ground was covered with webs of roots you have to either balance on, or navigate between. Any foot set down required surprisingly demanding extraction. Grabbing onto a tree for support sent handfuls of tiny crabs scuttling across your arms.

The medium mangroves were thinner and shorter, so traversing them felt less like a turn on the jungle gym. But it became dizzying to mark and keep track of hundreds of them with our tools. Walking through the dwarf mangroves, the shorter plants offered no shade from the sun. Jellyfish and rays glided around my feet in the watery tracts between the roots.

After this trip to the mangroves of Estero Balsa in Montecristi National Park, I have grown to love these swamps.

The root of the problem

To compare the level of carbon stored by mangroves to soils where these trees have been depleted, we also sampled the ground of abandoned shrimp farms, an unfortunately frequent conversion of these coastal lands.  Compared to the rich vitality of the mangroves, these looked like desolate wastelands: barren, dry, hot, and unforgiving. There was no shade, and the soils were depleted, no longer fed by nutrient-rich trees. Satellite imagery shows swaths of green punctuated by empty gray squares.

As we lose mangroves, carbon is released into the atmosphere, and the potential to sequester more in the future is also diminished since it would take thousands of years to rebuild carbon stocks to the same level.  Degraded coastal ecosystems offer less protection against storms and floods, and ruin fish nurseries and crustacean habitats. This leaves communities who depend on them without a protein source, and fisherman and crabbers without their livelihoods.

Part of the problem is that mangroves are historically undervalued land, deemed unimportant by local government officials who gain no tax revenue from them. When officials get a business proposal to put something- anything- in their place, many see it as an easy win, and a clear benefit.

Mangroves are vulnerable to deforestation and degradation when impoverished people who live near them have no other options but to destroy them for fuel or construction materials.

Creating opportunities for conservation

Just by knowing how much carbon is in the soil, the daily decisions of these communities and their governments might be influenced to protect mangroves and support better management strategies.  If we can connect the amazing preliminary findings at Montecristi to a carbon financing mechanism, these communities might not have to choose between conserving the mangroves and making a living. Worldwide, the impact could be huge: 500 million people rely on coastal zones for their livelihoods.

Counterpart is trying to make that link between research like Kauffman’s and development. The next step is to evaluate how feasible it would be to create a market for blue carbon. We partnered with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which plans to take Kauffman’s data to see if and how blue carbon can be marketed. Hopefully communities that preserve mangroves, salt marshes and sea grass beds will ultimately reap the financial rewards.

Counterpart is also looking for opportunities to increase community and government awareness about how to value and use coastal land. We would like to work with the Dominican government to take the information from Montecristi and look at other national mangroves to come up with a conservation plan. If carbon credits can work, authorities will likely find conservation a much more enticing option.

Getting money to coastal communities to preserve their mangroves, as a blue carbon credit could do, would be a huge accomplishment- and a replicable model.  A new project category has been approved by the Verified Carbon Standard for Wetlands Restoration and Conservation, which would include these blue carbon ecosystems. It would pave the way for environmental protection so that decades from now, future project staff can sample the same soils and find even more carbon safely secured in the rich mud.

Jennifer Norfolk is the Senior Environmental Program Manager, focusing on Counterpart’s economic development programming. She has been at Counterpart since October 2011.