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‘Locals want their resources to last’: Q&A with marine ecologist Vilma Machava-António

Researchers examining a tree. Image courtesy of Vilma Machava-António.

  • Ocean Revolution Mozambique (ORM), a recipient of the UNDP’s Equator Prize for 2022, promotes marine conservation in the East African nation by supporting Mozambican researchers in their quest for knowledge.
  • “You cannot talk about ecosystem conservation without talking about people,” says Vilma Machava-António, a researcher who benefited from an ORM scholarship.
  • The marine ecologist spoke to Mongabay about what attracted her to mangroves, the role these unique coastal systems play in climate adaptation, and what explains the success of some community-led efforts to preserve them.
  • Mangroves stash carbon efficiently and are critical to adapting to climate impacts, especially in Mozambique, which is hit by cyclones with distressing frequency.

Ocean Revolution Mozambique (ORM) was one of the winners of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Equator Prize for 2022, awarded to recognize community-led efforts in conservation and sustainability that lead to poverty alleviation.

The nonprofit works at the grassroots level to protect coastal ecosystems like mangrove forests and seagrass meadows in Mozambique’s Inhambane Bay. One of the ways it promotes coastal conservation is by supporting young Mozambicans in their pursuit of higher education.

Vilma Machava-António, an ORM scholarship recipient, completed her master’s degree in marine sciences at Maputo’s Eduardo Mondlane University and is now a doctoral student at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. The marine ecologist spoke to Mongabay about her research and what factors contribute to success for community-led efforts in the East African nation.

Vilma Machava-António among trees.
Vilma Machava-António, an ORM scholarship recipient, completed her master’s degree in marine sciences and is now a doctoral student. Image courtesy of Vilma Machava-António.

Machava-António spoke to Mongabay over video call and over email. These excerpts from the conversation have been edited for clarity and length.

Mongabay: What sparked your interest in marine biology? Why mangroves, in particular?

Vilma Machava-António: I was born and grew up in Inhambane. Inhambane city has a bay, there are mangroves up and down the city’s shoreline.

My family did not depend on the mangroves, but in the surrounding areas people go into the mangroves and cut them. In Inhambane province, they use the trees for constructing houses and building boats.

When I was going to write exams to go to university, I saw marine biology and I thought, wow, this could be interesting. My first option was medicine, but I got through marine biology [as an undergraduate major], and I’m so lucky that I did.

My whole childhood I lived in front of mangroves, I always saw them but didn’t understand everything about them. These trees that I have been seeing in front of my house, I got to learn how important they were. When I look at mangroves and their ability to survive in freshwater and seawater at the same time, it fascinates me.

It was always part of my plan to do my masters and Ph.D., all before turning 30. But my parents didn’t have the money to pay for my studies. For my undergraduate studies I had a scholarship. For my master’s, too, I received one from Ocean Revolution Mozambique. Without these scholarships, higher studies wouldn’t be possible for me.

Mongabay: What kinds of questions are you trying to answer in your research?

Vilma Machava-António: During my master’s, I did a project on coastal ecosystems and poverty alleviation; not just looking at the ecosystem itself, but the people living in the surrounding areas; how they depend on mangroves and how it affects their livelihoods. I continue to work on the socioeconomic side of mangrove management.

One of my recently published papers compared mangroves in Príncipe Island [in the West African nation of São Tomé and Príncipe] and in Mozambique. I looked at both the ecology and how the people use the mangroves. It is amazing because in Príncipe they don’t cut mangroves because they don’t need mangrove poles for construction. In Maputo Bay [in Mozambique] people are cutting down mangroves to build their houses, for charcoal production.

I don’t like management activities that prohibit people using a resource. You need to come up with alternatives or teach them how use the resource sustainably. It’s what local people actually want. They are the first people to want their resources to last.

Mangroves and boat to the north of Inhaca village on Inhaca Island.
Mangroves to the north of Inhaca village on Inhaca Island. Image by Magnus Franklin via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Mongabay: Why is it important to study the socioeconomic aspects of ecosystems?

Vilma Machava-António: Because you cannot talk about ecosystem conservation without talking about people. Especially in Mozambique, we have one of the biggest coastlines in Africa. The coastal cities are the most populated and we have a lot of people that depend on coastal resources for their livelihoods.

You can tell people they can’t cut mangroves but it will never work. Because, for example, the whole city needs poles from mangrove trees for construction. Without understanding that you will just be writing laws, because you don’t understand how important this ecosystem is to the community.

In Mozambique, mangrove harvesting is prohibited by law but people can use it for their day-to-day purposes. You are allowed to harvest mangrove trees to build your house but not for selling. But we don’t enforce the prohibition. If people who harvest mangroves say it is for their personal use and there is no one to control that, it is not going to work.

It is working better only in places where there are community-based organizations, especially where the communities have taken part in mangrove restoration. They try to make sure the trees they planted are not taken. One community along the Matola River, the Sathuma community-based organization, has been involved in mangrove nursery development and reforestation. If they catch someone cutting a mangrove they make the person plant 100 new saplings.

Mongabay: Are there other examples of restoration efforts that have been successful?

Vilma Machava-António: [I know of] two areas in Mozambique where restoration was successful, these are areas where mangrove loss impacted communities.

One is in the Limpopo estuary. There was a big flooding event in 2000 for about 14 days. After floods, the mangroves that were under freshwater, they died. They lost mangroves and they lost their resources, for example fishing. So they knew from experience why it was important. When the project came for mangrove restoration, they were willing to participate. They did that for 10 years or so.

Unfortunately the project ended, but because the community learned from their own experience, they are continuing their efforts.

In other places where we have mangrove restoration, when a project ends, the work stops. It takes money to do these projects. Usually people are willing to do it when they have a source of income when they are getting materials for the nursery; once the project ends, everything stops. Since these communities have learnt from their own experiences, they put all their efforts in mangrove restoration, they don’t quit. They are now working on a community-based management plan.

Another site is in Beira where a lot of cyclones happen. In 2019 there was Idai. Because Beira is below the sea level, flooding is common. The communities there have been involved in mangrove restoration for years. We have done studies, not yet published, that show that places where there were mangroves, the [mangroves] helped protect against the impact of the cyclone.

Mangroves at the mouth of Limpopo river.
Mangroves at the mouth of Limpopo river. Image by Ton Rulkens via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Mongabay: What new avenues are you exploring in mangrove research?

Vilma Machava-António: I’ve discovered there’s a lot of information that is not yet disseminated, especially in Mozambique. Up north in Inhambane there were a series of cyclones and till now that area continues to suffer from the effects of these cyclones. I have looked into the effect of cyclones on mangroves and the importance of mangroves for coastal protection.

I am interested in the effect of extreme events. While doing the studies in 2019, we came across an area in Maputo Bay where the mangroves were dead. It was like a cemetery for mangroves. The communities were saying there was a hailstorm and after that, the mangroves died. I looked at the satellite images to see what was happening. After the hailstorm, the difference was huge, almost half of the mangrove area was lost.

These extreme events happen periodically, because we could see some old trees that showed signs of recovering from past events. We are now doing deeper research to understand if it was just the hailstorm or other factors.

Mongabay: Do you often rely on communities to develop a hypothesis about how an ecosystem is behaving?

Vilma Machava-António: Well, we don’t rely just on the communities, but they have a lot of good information. Because they live there, they know what’s happening. I will also be writing about that, focusing only on what the people are saying about the impact of this hailstorm and the mangroves on their livelihood.

I see communities as a good source of information even for scientific research because they can tell you what’s happening. They may not understand why, but they know what happened.

Banner image: Researchers examining a tree. Image courtesy of Vilma Machava-António.

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Machava-António, V., Fernando, A., Cravo, M., Massingue, M., Lima, H., Macamo, C., … Paula, J. (2022). A comparison of mangrove forest structure and ecosystem services in Maputo Bay (Eastern Africa) and Príncipe Island (Western Africa). Forests13(9), 1466. doi:10.3390/f13091466

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