More than 200 people took to the waters outside of Cancun, Mexico with the Message “People for biodiversity” with a call to world leaders meeting at United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to recognize and respect the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. 11 Dec, 2016  © Greenpeace

Greetings from Cancun, Mexico where I am attending the 13th meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), perhaps more easily understood as the “summit for life on Earth".

That the meeting is held in Mexico is highly appropriate. Mexico is one of the megadiverse countries on planet Earth – it is one of 17 countries that harbour 70% of the world’s wildlife. Different climatic zones mean Mexico possesses a wide range of habitats and ecosystems with a huge number of associated species.

Mexico is a nature lover’s paradise, except that Mexico’s natural environment, like everywhere else, is under increasing pressure from a wide range of human activities – from the relentless march of modern industrial agriculture that is creating sterile, poisoned monocultures to the proliferation of coastal tourist resorts that are destroying fragile marine ecosystems. Added to which are the impacts of climate change.

The outlook for many species is not good, and for many is dire. It is possibly worst for the vaquita, a small species of porpoise only found in the Gulf of California, that is literally teetering on the verge of extinction.

Sadly, I sometimes find that in these big, crucially important meetings, it all becomes a bit intellectual and the officials and delegates need to be reminded of what is really at stake and the need for urgent action. This is why I am so pleased that the Rainbow Warrior is currently in Mexican waters, carrying out scientific work on Mexico’s reefs and today bearing witness to the threats to the mangrove forest which is so important to wildlife and coastal communities.

Yesterday leaders and representatives of Indigenous Peoples and local communities from Mexico, Central America, Amazonia, Congo, Morocco and Indonesia, together with Greenpeace Mexico, toured Laguna Nichupté. Together they called on global leaders and decision-makers at the CBD to give these vital coastal forests protection and to respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities who are the true guardians of these areas.

To make sure their message was heard, the activists joined with local supporters and explored the lagoon in kayaks. This is the third time that Indigenous leaders and representatives have held a Global Canoe activity, the first being on the Seine River in Paris, France, during the climate negotiations last year and the second being this April when they met on the East River, New York, next to the United Nations to include Indigenous Peoples in determining and implementing the actions stemming from the Paris Agreement.

So why are they now in the mangroves?

Mangrove forest is a special habitat important both for the creatures that live in them and for the human communities that live nearby. Mangroves are highly productive ecosystems, the fallen leaves and branches from the trees are broken down by bacteria (this is what gives mangroves their distinctive ‘rotten egg’ odour) and provide the nutrients that are the base of the mangrove food web. The mangrove forests also provide shelter for many species, from nesting birds to shrimp and molluscs.

Red mangroves, taken at a mangrove forest in Mexico. 1 May, 2002  © Greenpeace / John Novis

Mangroves are particularly important as a fish spawning grounds and nurseries. In the case of the Mesoamerican reef, it has been shown that they massively enhance the fish populations on nearby reefs. This means mangroves are not only important places for local communities to fish but are often supporting commercial fisheries further offshore.

Fish aren’t the only thing that people derive from mangroves: mangroves also provide numerous other products including timber for building, fodder for animals, medicinal plants and charcoal for cooking. Furthermore, mangroves protect coral reefs and seagrass meadows from being smothered by sediment brought down by rivers, and they provide coastal protection from storms.

But there is another reason why mangroves need to be safeguarded. Mangroves are incredibly important in fixing and storing carbon. Protecting and restoring mangrove ecosystems is a key way conservation can help combat climate change. Although they only occupy 2% of the world’s tropical coastal regions they account for 5% of net primary production and as much as 30% of all carbon burial within coastal ecosystems. For a given area, the rates of carbon burial in sediments in mangrove forests are significantly greater than in the soils of both temperate and tropical forests on land.

My life-long environmentalism stems from my love of nature, of trees and plants and wildlife. I am seldom happier than when paddling a canoe or kayak and that we should protect the wild places for their own sake seems obvious to me. I think most of us intuitively know this, for the love of nature is deeply rooted in our different cultures. However, for those few who don’t have that feeling, I say look at the science. If we don’t protect the mangroves and massively scale up the protection of other important terrestrial and marine ecosystems, to put it simply, we’re toast.

Richard Page is a biodiversity advisor for Greenpeace, currently at the Convention on Biological Diversity - COP 13