Released today (07 February 2024), a new study provides the first-ever empirical assessment of ecosystem services — the benefits we receive from nature — of Brazilian mangroves. The study, titled “Flow of mangrove ecosystem services to coastal communities in the Brazilian Amazon” published by Frontiers in Environmental Science and co-authored by National Geographic Explorers Margaret Awuor Owuor and Angelo Bernardino, gives evidence of the critical environmental, social, economic, and cultural value mangroves hold for coastal communities.

Brazil has the second largest mangrove area in the world, housing 700,000 hectares of mangroves within the Amazonian border. Awuor Owuor and Bernardino’s study, conducted in 13 communities along the  northern Amazon coast of Pará, found that the healthy functioning of mangrove forests provides essential ecosystem services for local coastal communities including: food sources, cultural activities, income, education, climate regulation, and flood control. The study also shows food sources and cultural practices are highly dependent not only on mangroves, but also on adjacent coastal upland habitats such as forests and croplands. Ultimately, this new data fills a critical gap in our understanding of the value of these mangroves and reveals that a holistic approach to conserving mangrove forests in the Global South must also consider how local communities use the resources from connected coastal upland habitats.

“It is well documented that mangroves and coastal wetlands are significant carbon sinks, however, mangroves also provide both direct and indirect benefits such as fisheries and climate regulation to local communities which are not easy to quantify more so in data scarce regions of the world,” says Awuor Owuor, first author of the study. “In order to better understand these benefits as well as the connection between people and nature, our study combined qualitative data from interviews with the local communities and spatial maps of land use in the surrounding areas. This holistic approach not only highlights how valuable the communities find these habitats but also shows the complex connection of mangroves and upland habitats.”

Awuor Owuor and Bernardino interviewed over 100 households to understand how people use and value mangroves, their willingness to commit their time to mangrove conservation, and the economic significance of this ecosystem.

“This study has significant implications for decision-making around any economic activity in the Brazilian Amazon that can threaten the existence or the habitat quality of mangroves in the region, as we can directly link mangrove health to multiple ecosystem services provided to communities who live nearby, ” says Bernardino. “When we look at the flow of ecosystem benefits, their value to the local, coastal communities is evident, but these communities are among the most marginalized in the country and the social, economic and cultural benefits of mangroves are often not understood or valued outside their communities.”

Awuor Owuor and Bernardino’s efforts to understand the socioeconomic and ecological value of Brazilian mangroves is part of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Amazon Expedition, a multi-year, comprehensive exploration of the Amazon River which spans the entire basin, from the Andes to the Atlantic.

“A unique component of the Perpetual Planet Amazon Expedition is that it combines science, storytelling and local collaboration to illuminate and protect understudied ecosystems,” says Nicole Alexiev, Vice President of Science and Innovation Programs at National Geographic Society. “The work that Margaret and Angelo are leading in Brazil also demonstrates the critical role local communities play in devising these important conservation solutions.”