“It Takes a Village” (and a Government) to Raise a Mangrove: Protecting the Trees and Local Subsistence Farming

by Scott McClinton

October 19, 2015

Cover Photo Credits

From the tiger laden Sundarbans of India to the dark reservas extrevistas of Ecuador, from the shining coasts of Eritrea to tropical Brazilian shores, mangroves represent more than just a distinctive, unique, salt loving tree. Mangroves are a way of life for many individuals across the globe—a precarious way of life. At near constant threat of the overuse and destruction so readily seen in many environmental settings, mangroves and their often subsistent communities require policies and oversight as unique as they are in order to foster the type of long term sustainability the communities that live off of them hope to see.

There are of course some success stories here, a rarity in environmental topics. In Bangladesh and India, the Sundarbans are governed by a strong presence hailing from the central government which has given traditional and subsistence farmers/gatherers free reign in the forest while keeping outside (i.e., non-subsistence) users at bay. Similarly, in Ecuador, heritage use communities have direct ownership over these highly rich and productive areas, and decisions on extraction limits and harvest rates are made by a local council. In both cases we see a resource area that in many countries is treated as “wasteland” governed by its users. In both cases we see a situation whereby localization of control turns an issue that could put a central government and an impoverished community in massive disagreement, with misaligned interests and unclear property rights, into one where stewardship of a resource creates benefits at all levels. This process of turning what could be considered a common pool resource, which is rival but not excludable, into what becomes a private good either held directly by, or in well managed trust of, the subsistence communities that rely on it, has been highly successful in these instances.

Unfortunately, this is simply not the case for all such unique mangrove forests. The main threat for mangroves, and by extension the communities that surround them, is from the tiniest of things: literally, shrimp. In nations like Panama and Brazil, where these forests are owned by governments who have not enacted the same policies as Bangladesh, India, and Ecuador, the impact of these massive farms is clear. Mangroves, because of their high nutrient count in the mud and water and very low land value, have been targeted by large scale shrimping companies who clear the land to make pools for shrimp to match U.S. demand for these little bites of seafood. Beyond the clearing of the forests, the waste produced, the disruption of waterways, and depletion of nearby fish stocks all take a toll of the local ecosystems. Moreover, they take a toll on local communities. There have been cases of nearby towns greatly affected by shrimp farms taking action into their own hands and destroying the infrastructure of these companies. It is thus now the practice in many of these zones for the companies to guard their lands with armed mercenaries.

Ultimately, like so many environmental problems in the policy world today, if there is not action now it may be too late in the future, for both the mangroves and the people who subsist off of them. National and international action spurring local protections and growth is needed to combat the loss of a series of unique ecosystems and the slow decline of those who live around them.


Warne, K. P. Let Them Eat Shrimp: The Tragic Disappearance of the Rainforests of the Sea. Washington, DC: Island, 2011. Print.

Quarto, Alfredo. “Violent Eviction of Ancestral Villages in Ecuador’s Mangrove Ecosystem.” Mangrove Action Project. MAP, 16 Dec. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.

Dudenhoefer, David. “Balancing Shrimp and Mangroves in Ecuador.” Balancing Shrimp and Mangroves in Ecuador. N.p., 3 Jan. 2002. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.

Scott McClinton is a Master’s candidate in Public Policy at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.