Blue Carbon: How Two Prize Winners are Conserving our Wetlands

February 3, 2020

Australia’s raging fires. The Amazon up in smoke. A nearly year-round fire season in California. Current events have elevated global concern for our forests, one of the earth’s largest and most essential carbon sinks. Often called “green carbon,” forest ecosystems are critical to carbon sequestration across the world. In the United States, for example, forests store about 16% of all the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted annually by the burning of fossil fuels1.

But what about a different kind of carbon sink? We’re talking about our wetlands, or “blue carbon.” Blue carbon refers to the earth’s coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves, salt marshes, marshes, and swamps. Although wetlands have a smaller footprint than the earth’s forests, they sequester carbon at a much faster rate2. Blue carbon ecosystems remove 10 times more CO2 per hectare from the atmosphere than forests, and do it two times faster3. Wetlands globally store 84-233M tons of carbon every year4. What’s more, these coastal ecosystems store carbon deep below the ground, retaining carbon for thousands of years.

Despite their crucial role in maintaining our global climate, our earth’s wetlands are under attack. According to UN Environment Programme peatlands expert Dianna Kopansky, “we’ve already lost 35 per cent of them since 19705.” Not only does the destruction of wetlands remove a valuable carbon sink, but it also releases centuries of stored carbon into the atmosphere. The draining and degradation of wetlands results in emissions that can and should be avoided.

Underappreciated and often overlooked, wetlands are finally having their moment in the spotlight— February 2 was World Wetlands Day. In celebration of this key carbon sink, we’re highlighting a couple of Goldman Environmental Prize winners for their phenomenal work with our favorite wet and wonderous ecosystem—wetlands.

Wadja Egnankou

Mangroves in the Ivory Coast found an advocate in 1992 Goldman Prize winner Wadja Egnankou. Egnankou navigated a complex political landscape to mobilize international organizations and local communities to recognize the value of this ecosystem. In 1989, he successfully prevented a major road from bisecting an intact area of mangroves and rainforests.

More recently, in 2018 Egnankou received a grant from the Goldman Environmental Foundation to continue his work with mangroves, specifically the Tanoe-Ehy Swamp Forest (TESF), which covers an area of about 10,000 hectares and is the only remaining relatively intact forest in the South Comoé Region of the Ivory Coast. The TESF is a primary source of income, food, water, and medicine for about 15,000 people living in nine communities in and around these forests. Threatened by agricultural activities, Egnankou’s work seeks to elevate and protect the swamp forest through community education and advocacy.

Jorge Varela

Industrial shrimp aquaculture is a serious threat to wetlands. Destroying precious ecosystems, displacing local communities, and contaminating water quality, 1999 Goldman Prize winner Jorge Varela worked to establish wetland sanctuaries after the presence of industrial shrimp farming threatened his Honduran community. Varela co-founded the Committee for the Defense and Development of Flora and Fauna of the Gulf of Fonseca (CODDEFFAGOLF), which mobilized Hondurans to implement a moratorium on new shrimp farm construction and establish on-the-ground enforcement. Ultimately, CODEFFAGOLF established nine protected areas and increased fish stocks by 36%, benefiting over 7,000 families.

Varela continues to work with the Goldman Prize, receiving a grant in 2018 for coastal restoration work and community education. In October 2019, he also joined 22 other Goldman Prize winners for a networking event in Bogotá, Colombia, to collaborate and exchange tactics for environmental advocacy and leadership in Latin America. We asked him how to help solve the issue of climate change. His answer? Wetlands! According to Varela, “…mangroves and wetlands are incredibly important in carbon sequestration. We have to work to revitalize the mangrove forests.”

“…los manglares y humedales son sumamente importantes en el secuestro de carbono. Tenemos que trabajar en recuperar los bosques de manglares.”

Join us in recognizing these key environmentalists for defending wetlands throughout the decades. Use the hashtag #WorldWetlandsDay to raise global awareness and help give a voice to our wetlands.

Abandoned shrimp farm in the Honduras wetlands

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About the author:
Ellen is a passionate storyteller for the environment. She manages the Prize’s digital presence, produces written and visual content, and contributes to strategic communications planning. Prior to joining the Prize, Ellen held various roles in the solar industry, from marketing to education program management. She holds a BA in Geography and Environmental Studies, with minors in Spanish and Environmental Systems and Society from the University of California, Los Angeles.