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Walking through 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.

Some 400,000 mangrove trees have been planted since a restoration initiative began two decades ago, in what was initially an attempt to increase the catch by local fishermen.

Now his work has taken on additional importance as alarm about global warming and nature loss mounts, with mangroves seen as a key weapon in the fight against climate change.

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

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

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

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

Despite their benefits, they are in decline, with the global mangrove area shrinking by just over 1 million hectares between 1990 and 2020, although the rate of loss has slowed in recent years, says the United Nations. for Agriculture and Food.

challenges

In Malaysia, mangroves are often cleared to make way for infrastructure development and agriculture, while they are also threatened by industrial pollution and overexploitation, including in the northern state of Penang, where Ilias lives.

As fish catches for him and other fishermen dwindled in the late 1990s, Ilias mobilized his peers to join him in restoring rapidly disappearing mangrove forests through the Association of Penang Coastal Fishermen Welfare (PIFWA), which he heads.

His small initiative has gained recognition: to date, some 30 local businesses have sponsored his tree planting as part of corporate social responsibility projects.

PIFWA charges companies a small fee of RM8 ($2) per tree planted, while participating fishermen are compensated for their time and labor.

Now, Ilias hopes to access larger sums of global funds to plant more trees, but he faces challenges, from ways to access the available money and scale up the project, to other issues such as language barriers and lack of technical expertise.

He cited an example of an international donor who wanted the group to innovate with new ideas and scale up the tree planting project after an initial round of funding.

“We didn’t have the capacity to offer other things, like turning this into an ecotourism site or engaging more youth,” he said, adding that they received no further support as a result.

“We are nervous, we are fishermen and we cannot commit to something that we are not sure of fulfilling,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a break from planting mangroves.

Their frustration shows the practical difficulties of channeling funding to rehabilitate nature where it is needed, even as more countries and donors invest in so-called “nature-based solutions,” from reforestation to wetland expansion.

new promises

Over the past decade, less than 1 percent of international climate finance has gone to indigenous and local communities to manage forests that absorb planet-warming carbon emissions and are rich in biodiversity, according to a recent report by environmental groups.

Nature protection remains underfunded around the world, with the UN calling for annual investment to quadruple to $536 billion by 2050, to tackle the triple threat of climate change, biodiversity and land degradation.

There has been a surge in pledges lately, including at the UN’s COP26 climate summit in November, where around $19 billion in public and private funds were pledged to protect and restore forests.

This month, the Rights and Resources Initiative and the Campaign for Nature launched a new global fund to help indigenous and local groups conserving forests and other ecosystems on the ground more easily access international funding.

Environmentalist Meena Raman said making more small grants available to communities and partnering with local nonprofits to overcome language and knowledge barriers would channel money to places that have been lost in the past.

“Nature provides them with jobs and they protect the ecosystem… It’s about sustainable livelihoods and sustaining nature (at the same time),” said Raman, president of Friends of the Earth Malaysia, a conservation group.

boost for women

Back in Sungai Acheh, a sleepy village with wooden fishing boats along the river, the women said they had also benefited from the mangrove planting initiative.

One group of them learned from mangrove communities in Indonesia how to turn some of the tree species into tea, juice and jam, selling the products for RM6-8 each to increase their household income.

“Not only did it help my husband increase his fishing catch, but I also benefited from it,” said Siti Hajar Abdul Aziz, 36, a mother of five.

More coastal communities like his would benefit from protecting nature and improving their livelihoods, if they get financial support to push similar initiatives, he added.

Siti Hajar hopes one day to find ways to expand sales of her mangrove products by selling them in places like supermarkets.

“Before this, I was just sitting at home; I’ve learned a lot since I started doing this,” he said.

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