Mangrove forests are otherworldly ecosystems. They are beautiful, unassuming, and so good to us. These salt-tolerant evergreens are most commonly found along subtropical coastlines and they not only provide protection to local communities by acting as flood defence, but they are one of the most effective carbon sinks worldwide. But alright, enough about how amazing mangroves are, how are they gendered, you might ask.
Mangroves are unfortunately a dying species. An estimated 67% of mangroves have been lost or degraded to date. Despite their usefulness as fish nurseries and habitats, flood defence, food security, and carbon sequestration, these forests have been exploited for a long time. Many mangroves died during the 1980s shrimp boom when monocultures in aquaculture were created, and the water around the forests was filled with medicines and pesticides. The trees have also been cleared for other forms of farming, and for local development. As with all coastal systems, mangrove forests bounce back at remarkable speeds, and so with a little push, local governments are able to restore these ecosystems to their former glory. However, as with many (if not all) conservation projects, the voices of women are being left out.
According to countless studies, men and women have different priorities when it comes to conservation, and mangroves are no exception. Studies show that men tend to put greater emphasis on making mangroves commercially viable, which de-prioritises biodiversity and local food security, two areas which women tend to find more important. Similarly, in areas such as the Philippines, women have a great amount of knowledge about tidal changes and species. Where their fishing needs are seen as secondary to the commercial desires of the men, this knowledge is lost, and thus conservation projects are doomed from the start. Only by embracing feminist political ecology can we hope to restore and protect the precious mangrove forests.
In countries like Vietnam, mangrove forests are vital as rising sea levels and unpredictable weather changes caused by the climate crisis increase the likelihood of flooding. Women are disproportionately affected by these devastating storms: as primary caregivers, they are less able to find shelter for themselves as they are responsible for young children or elderly relatives, and they often earn money in the “informal sector” leaving them financially unstable, and they are vastly underrepresented in government meaning their needs get deprioritised. This is not only true in Vietnam, but in many countries where mangrove forests could mean the difference between life and death. Whilst the march for overall equality is slow, women worldwide are leading the charge on mangrove conservation worldwide.
There is hope for mangrove conservation, just as there is hope for gender equality. We fight for rights side by side with nature, slowly moving towards a more secure future.