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How Blue Carbon drives socio-ecological businesses

The experience of the Mangrove Sanctuary in Peru

Riccardo Silvi
a story by
Riccardo Silvi
How Blue Carbon drives socio-ecological businesses

From carbon credits to aquaculture management, from microcredit to sustainable tourism: a journey into generative economy models from the blue carbon of mangroves 

There is a mangrove “sanctuary” in Peru that represents a new model of emerging economy, capable of recording an increase in economic value of 200% in just a few years. It has a multifaceted and differentiated approach, which goes beyond the predatory logic of raw materials and, through the protagonism of local communities, includes mechanisms to compensate for global CO2 emissions, processes of internationalisation of products and eco-tourism. 

As a matter of fact, among the many impacts that climate change is having on our systems, there is one, less obvious but very important, on the economic front: new sustainable business models are emerging. In other words, another possible economy.

This is what has been happening in recent years around mangroves and “Blue Carbon”, systems that bring new models of the generative economy that, inevitably, do not focus on the dynamics, markets and cultures of the global north. They are socio-ecological businesses.

What is Blue Carbon?

The term “blue carbon” refers to carbon dioxide sequestered from the atmosphere in oceanic and coastal ecosystems and deposited in the roots of marine plants such as mangroves.

Blue is therefore not the colour of carbon but the colour of the places where carbon is captured: large bodies of water, such as the ocean and the sea.

The construct ‘blue carbon’ was coined in 2009 in a report1 by the United Nations Environment Programme, the authority setting the global environmental agenda. For years, therefore, international attention has turned to this biological phenomenon as one of the key elements in climate change mitigation.

But how is blue carbon formed? Nothing new compared to what was studied in middle school biology books: all types of plants need to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide and convert it into roots, leaves and stems to live and grow. Some of the captured carbon then reaches the soil, either through transport within the plant or, finally, when the plant dies. Thanks to the incessant work of the microbes in the soil and the process of respiration they carry out, the carbon returns to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. A small part, however, may remain stored underground. It is at this point in the cycle that, thanks to a shade of blue, something else happens.

Indeed, the biomass of marine ecosystems, although less extensive than terrestrial ones, can sequester and store up to ten times more carbon in the soil.2 An area of mangroves, in particular, captures three to five times more carbon than the same area of a tropical forest.

This advantage comes from its being on the border: mangroves have roots that branch out on a thin layer of oxygenated soil, most of which is, however, submerged in water. There is less oxygen in water than in air, so decomposition processes take place more slowly: the carbon in the plant therefore remains intact for long periods before being released into the atmosphere.

This diagram is adapted from a figure in Sutton-Grier et al. Maritime Policy (2014). Source: Understanding blue carbon | NOAA

This is why mangroves and blue carbon are so important in combating climate change. Conversely, this ‘storehouse’ in the mangrove roots can suddenly be released when the ecosystem is stressed, degraded or drained to make way for construction. Since the 1940s, 30 to 50 per cent of mangroves have been cut down, and this continues at a rate of up to 3 per cent per year.3

The roots of socio-ecological businesses

Blue carbon and the phenomenal mangroves are prime examples of social-ecological business models to invest in.

A social-ecological system (SES), according to the study published for the scientific journal Elsevier, entitled Reconciling nature, people and policy in the mangrove social-ecological system through the adaptive cycle heuristic4, is a system in which the physical, biological and social components are interdependently related. 

It is a system that reconciles nature, people and socio-economic policies: there is no boundary between what the land produces and the wealth of people, between the fauna that inhabits a forest and the trust of the people who live and care for that forest. «The entire productive base of a socio-ecological system (SES), including natural, built, human and social capital, is called inclusive wealth, which must be maintained or increased over time for a SES to be sustainable».

An interesting experiment is what is happening at the Santuario Nacional los Manglares de Tumbes in northern Peru.

The Santuario Nacional Manglares de Tumbes National Park. Source: Google maps.

Diversification as a key element to the success model

The Santuario Nacional los Manglares de Tumbes5 is the largest mangrove forest in Peru: 29.72 square kilometres. Since 2017, this area has been entrusted by the State for 20 years to the local communities, thanks to the work of the Consorcio Manglares Noroeste del Perú, created in 2015 and dedicated to the management of this hydrobiological heritage. The consortium has had the merit of bringing together under one umbrella all the associations that have been active in this important ecosystem for more than 30 years, and of grafting an innovative model, which starts with environmental conservation and arrives at creating a real financial culture in the communities. 

The Consorcio Manglares Noroeste del Perú is a social organisation established in 2015, consisting of six local productive associations composed of workers dedicated to the management of hydrobiological resources. It has been promoting the conservation of the Mangrove ecosystem and the sustainable use of its main resources for over 30 years.

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«When we founded the consortium,» explains engineer Henry Preciado, member of the steering committee and technical head of the organisation, «we were supported by some operational funding. This allowed us to strengthen the capacity of the organisation and, above all, to involve existing associations».6

Today, Preciado specifies that thanks to cooperative funding, the consortium has six associations of workers specialised in the management and collection of hydrobiological resources. «Each has an average of 50 members, with a total of almost 300 people using the mangrove swamp» Preciado adds. «This capacity building allowed us to apply to the Peruvian state for 20-year management of the sanctuary, through five-year plans. It is going very well.

Dai Carbon Credit all’ecoturismo

The Peruvian project has a multidisciplinary business model, which focuses on the sale of carbon credits. «The carbon credit market is crucial for us» Preciado explains. «We have estimated the carbon stock in the Tumbas mangrove through a standard known as Plan Vivo7, and this will allow us to certify carbon, to have the support of companies or entities interested in mitigating their carbon footprint by buying these bonds or certificates from us».

Alongside this source of income, there are other minor but socially important ones: fishing, aquaculture and handicrafts. «We have a development model guided by an economic-strategic plan of financial sustainability that allows us to take care of many initiatives and management and conservation,» explains Preciado, emphasising the participative aspect of the people who are part of the community and who use the resources of the protected area.

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«We have managed to create an artisanal processing plant for our products,» Preciado specifies. «A primary processing plant for hydrobiological products that gives great added value and economic value to the resources offered by the mangroves». 

The objective of the plant, as Preciado explains, is twofold: valuing mangrove hydro-biological resources and generating income for the fishermen. «In addition, the fishermen’s cooperative of the Manglares consortium has been established,» Preciado explains. «We want to get to manage the whole process of conserving, harvesting, processing and marketing the hydrobiological resources».

Sustainable tourism is also progressively becoming an important source of income for local communities. «The protected area has a very important tourism potential,» Preciado explains. «We are working on these activities to strengthen and improve the tourism activity provided by the extractors themselves. The workers who exploit the hydrobiological resources can carry out a different activity such as sustainable tourism and contribute to improving and conserving the hydrobiological resources».

Some local actors contributing to the Manglares Consortium members in a photo taken by Henry Preciado. Source: Henry Preciado. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author

Generative economy through microcredit

Among the most interesting innovations introduced by the Peruvian mangrove sanctuary’s economic model is the cooperative credit mechanism, which they call Las Unicas and which has the merit of fostering a new economic culture in local communities.

«This system puts the youth and women of the community at the centre. The Consortium has 13 Credit and Savings Units (UNICAS), consisting of 15-30 people, fed by regular deposits of workers’ savings. Through these funds, it is possible to trigger a mechanism of loans to those who want to start a business or for their children’s educational needs. These loans generate interest and this interest helps to receive profits. It is a small model,» Preciado concludes, «that is generating a lot of expectations and also helps families in understanding the financial and business mechanisms».

The voice of Blue Carbon

In the creation of these new economic and social models, knowledge of the value of ecosystems is a central element. Art, as a transformation of the intangible into the tangible, also in the case of blue carbon can be an important tool for creating awareness. 

This is perfectly illustrated by marine biologist Vardhan Patankar and artists Kaldi Moss and Waylon D’souzal in their latest installation, curated by Ravi Agarwal and Jahnavi Phalkey of the Science Gallery Bengaluru and presented at the “Blue Carbon” exhibition8 in the latest edition of the Serendipity Art Festival, India’s largest arts and interdisciplinary festival.

Patankar, Moss and D’souza have placed a hydrophone in a natural system, collecting a unique recording: that of an ecosystem that is removing carbon from the atmosphere. On the borderline between art and science, or rather, between the sound of the coral reef and the blue carbon atoms of the ocean, the work engages people in an experience inside the sometimes harrowing sounds of marine ecosystems.

The work, as well as the entire ‘Blue Carbon’ exhibition, shows how the subject of climate change and thus the relationship between the earth and living beings cannot be just a technological issue but must be approached from a deeper, «intimate and personal» point of view, to use the words of Ravi Agarwal, the project’s curator.

This approach, offered by the art world, can and must be transferred to economic and business models by focusing on new ways of thinking about the present and perceiving the future.

This article was written in collaboration with Alessandra Navazio.

She has a scientific and humanistic background. She believes in a new form of knowledge and, therefore, of action that is interdisciplinary and ecosystemic.

  1. Nellemann, C., et al. 2009 Blue Carbon. A Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal, ↩︎
  2. McLeod, E., et al. (2011). A blueprint for blue carbon: toward an improved understanding of the role of vegetated coastal habitats in sequestering CO2. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment9(10), 552–560. ↩︎
  3. Understanding blue carbon. (2022, September 29). NOAA ↩︎
  4. Dahdouh‐Guebas, F., et al. (2021). Reconciling nature, people and policy in the mangrove social-ecological system through the adaptive cycle heuristic. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science248, 106942. ↩︎
  5. Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes. Informes Y Publicaciones – Servicio Nacional De Áreas Naturales Protegidas Por El Estado – Plataforma Del Estado Peruano. ↩︎
  6. In particular, the programme Profonanpe, the programme Programa Nacional de Innovación en Pesca y Acuicultura, and the Blue Carbon Accelerator Fund (BCAF), promoted by Blue Natural Capital of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the largest global network on environmental protection and sustainable development. ↩︎
  7. Plan Vivo System – Carbon Offset Guide. (2020, December 29). Carbon Offset Guide. ↩︎
  8. Nath, D. (2023, December 23). Blue carbon takes centerstage as Goa exhibition reveals hidden aspects of climate crisisThe Indian Express. ↩︎


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