Meet James Kairo: The Kenya’s Mangrove Man
James Kairo: The mangroves man of Gazi (Photo: Indian Ocean Observatory)

Indian Ocean Observatory

Wanjohi Kabukuru

On a general talk, it appears as if the Gazi project was initiated a few years ago. However after spending a few days in this rural outpost is when one realises that the project is a culmination of years of determined study and quiet determination by a quiet researcher who decided to make a difference.

“Knowledge is a good thing but it is better when it is shared and changes lives for the better.” Josphat Mwamba says.

“Gazi rose to international prominence because someone decided to open his knowledge from the library to the world. And that man is not shy to walk in the muddy terrain along mangroves.”

And so begins a story that thrust Gazi to the global map.

Ali Shuffa picks from where Mwamba leaves and points me to right direction. The story can be traced back to one idealistic scientist Dr James Kairo. “Dr Kairo came here over 20 years ago to study mangroves.” Shuffa says. “He stayed and never left.”

Kairu recalls how he fell in love with mangroves some 27 years ago.
“This is a long story and sweet to narrate. It all started in 1990 as a student at the University of Nairobi undertaking my masters of science studies in plant ecology.” Dr. Kairo recalls.

“My subject line was to seek ways how mangroves could be planted and managed as other terrestrial forests. This paid off. And the first plantations were established then. So I have been studying the restoration ecology of these trees for doctoral studies and then for my career development.”

He eventually acquired his doctorate degree from Belgium in marine resources management.

As new dynamics settled in and emerging challenges of climate change moved in Kairo was compelled to think deeper. He saw firsthand as his adopted community mostly of fisherfolk would move further into the deep sea to catch fish that was previously readily available within the shores of Gazi. This piqued him and challenged his knowledge.

Kairo who is a chief scientist at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KEMFRI) quickly moved his study subject a notch higher. The community looked up to him for answers. The marine scientist had few options as he raced against time seeking for answers.

“With the challenges posed by climate change there has been a new approach to fix increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some zero per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions is known to be associated with tropical deforestation, including loss of mangroves. Fixing this through agriculture and forest sector would not only mitigate climate but lead biodiversity conservation…so our carbon dioxide project Mikoko Pamoja cropped from my earlier mangrove planting in the 1990s but to be specific the bigger idea of trading in mangrove carbon was in 2013.”

When asked what is special about mangroves, Kairo takes a long look into the horizon, gathers his thoughts and calmly responds. “So many things make mangroves special.” Kairo says. “Simply put mangroves provide habitat for fish and other wildlife, protects shorelines and in the context of climate change captures stores huge volumes of carbon that would otherwise evaporate and cause climate change. They are precious.”

Kairo who apparently has led study expeditions all across the western Indian Ocean on mangroves and is a member of the Blue Carbon Working Group and Africa Mangroves Network says that it is important that mangroves are protected. “Losses of mangroves either through overharvesting or transforming mangrove land to other land uses has negative effects to fisheries, resource sustainability and shoreline stability. That is why we should protect them.” Kairo says.

According to Kairo mangroves are critical in the climate change mitigation because “mangroves and associated blue carbon sequester more carbon than any other system. For instance mangroves in Kenya sequester 10 times more carbon than average terrestrial forests” Kairo says. “This carbon risks being ejected back into the atmosphere when mangroves are lost. The carbon captured is stored in both below and above ground components.”

Kairo’s study findings and his Gazi idea were recently corroborated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) when it published its paper “Clarifying the role of coastal and marine Systems in Climate Mitigation.

This IUCN report notes: “Recent research suggests that healthy, intact coastal wetland ecosystems such as mangrove forests, tidal marshes and seagrass meadows are particularly good at drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it for hundreds of thousands of years.”

Article written under the aegis of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) Media Fellowships Programme