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Setbacks and lessons learned from mangrove restoration in Sri Lanka

Thursday, November 16, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rebecca Shoer
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Restoration site, where most of the mangroves have died. These seedlings were planted in water that was too deep, and in a site where mangroves didn’t grow historically (KAS Kodikara, 2013)


The catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed between an estimated 230,000 to 280,000 people, and over 35,000 people in Sri Lanka alone.  In the aftermath, there was a sudden and renewed interest among Southeast Asian governments, NGOs, and coastal communities in restoring mangrove ecosystems throughout Southeast Asia. Mangrove ecosystems provide incredible benefits to coastal regions, as nurseries for local fish, natural water filtration systems, and buffers against coastal storm damage.


Unfortunately, most of the mangrove restoration projects in Sri Lanka have had an average failure rate of 80%, according to a new study released in Restoration Ecology.


The team of researchers, led by K. A. Sunanda Kodikara, evaluated 23 project sites covering a total area of about 2,000 hectares. They found that only about 200–220 hectares, less than 12%, showed any successful mangrove restoration whatsoever, and only three sites had a success level higher than 50%. This, despite the fact that over 13 million USD have been invested in these 23 restoration projects to date.

“Mangrove restoration projects in Sri Lanka have been generally unsuccessful, despite the good intentions which fueled them in the first place,” says Mr. Kodikara. “Our study shows a frequent mismatch between the aims of restoration initiatives and the realities on the ground.”

Why did so many of these projects fail? For many, pressure to deliver meant little time spent on planning and long-term monitoring. Immediately after the 2004 tsunami, restoration groups were flooded with donations, inspired by the potential of mangroves to provide coastal protection against future storms. However, these rushed projects failed to include plans for adequate long-term monitoring and post-planting care for the newly planted mangroves. Many sites, for example, were quickly decimated by grazing animals like cows, donkeys, and goats.

Local coastal communities responsible for carrying out the actual restoration work were given little technical guidance or oversight. Without expert advice, groups inadvertently chose unsuitable restoration sites, planted non-native species, or even planted seedlings incorrectly. A lack of coordination between institutions implementing restoration projects, both governmental and non-governmental, is another leading cause of mangrove restoration failure in Sri Lanka.

“Surprisingly, many restoration programs are still continuing without addressing the causes of these failures,” says Mr. Kodikara, “and apparently no lessons were learned from the previous efforts.”

Meanwhile, economic pressure from destructive industries like shrimp farming, and limited political support for restoration, continues to drive habitat destruction.

Given the high rate of past failures, should mangrove restoration be abandoned altogether in Sri Lanka? Absolutely not, say the authors. As ocean levels continue to rise and storms become more powerful due to climate change, coastal communities will rely even more on the natural protection mangroves provide. Experiences in other countries show that mangrove restoration efforts can be successful if well planned and well managed, with effective long-term monitoring protocols.

Until researchers, NGOs, and government agencies can work together, mangrove restoration has an uncertain future in Sri Lanka. Establishing a national center to coordinate and monitor restoration efforts could help support successful projects in Sri Lanka. 


The study, Have mangrove restoration projects worked? An in-depth study in Sri Lanka, is published in Restoration Ecology (doi: 10.1111/rec.12492)


About Restoration Ecology
Restoration Ecology is the Society’s bi-monthly scientific and technical peer-reviewed journal published Edited by a distinguished international panel, the journal addresses global concerns and communicates them to researchers and practitioners throughout the world

About SER
The Society for Ecological Restoration is an international non-profit organization dedicated to promoting ecological restoration as a means of sustaining the diversity of life on Earth and re-establishing an ecologically healthy relationship between nature and culture. 

Media Contact: 
Rebecca Shoer
Communications and Operations Associate
Society for Ecological Restoration
202.299.9518 /