Growing a sustainable family tree: Why we’ve nurtured mangroves since the 1940s

From wildfires in Greece to floods in Germany and heatwaves in North America, we are witnessing many more adverse climatic conditions today. These include more intensive cyclonic activity across the Indian subcontinent where 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 km of the coast — 170 million Indians living in coastal areas already feel intense weather phenomena impacting their lives and livelihoods.

In this situation, we must rely ever more on mangrove forests which protect us against extreme weather. Mangroves in Tamil Nadu, for instance, protected the coastal communities of Pichavaram and Muthupet from complete destruction during 2004’s tsunami while in 2021, low-lying areas like Jharkhali in the Sundarbans survived Cyclone Yaas only because of mangroves planted by women in the Jharkhali Sabuj Bahini.

Apart from their strengthening powers, mangroves, with saltmarshes and seagrasses, are among just three marine blue carbon ecosystems recognised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as capable of helping a country reduce its emissions. Afforestation has a direct role in this — but a common misconception is that this means terrestrial forest ecosystems. This land-centric discourse ignores the massive potential of coastal forests like mangroves.

Globally, around 33 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (or three-quarters of the world’s emissions in 2019) are locked away in blue carbon ecosystems. These store upto five times as much carbon dioxide as terrestrial forests because they accumulate carbon vertically in layers.

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About 83% of the global carbon cycle is circulated through oceans or blue carbon systems. Of that, mangroves account for huge carbon sequestration, despite covering just 0.1% of Earth’s land surface. Additionally, they prevent soil erosion, soak up excess rainwater and reduce flash floods. Their dense root networks act as natural filters, reducing water pollution and stabilising land against storm surges. They also sustain livelihoods, enabling fishing, aquaculture, etc. Yet, de spi te thei r importance, over 50% of the world’s mangroves have disappeared in the last half-century. Considering this, it seems fitting to celebrate the foresight of my grandfather Naoroji Godrej and granduncle Sohrabji Godrej who, in the 1940s, set out to prove that nature could coexist harmoniously with industry. Sohrabji was an ardent environmentalist and realised the significance of mangroves. He was disturbed by how Mumbai’s natural resources were being depleted by unchecked development and decided to preserve mangroves extending from Vikhroli to the western Thane creek. He, with my grandfather, believed that for sustainable conservation, a multi-pronged approach wi th research , education and community engagement were necessary.

It was due to their visionary leadership that the Soonabai Pirojsha Godrej Foundation and the Godrej Marine Ecology Centre were established in 1985. In 1997, the Vikhroli mangroves under the trusteeship of Godrej & Boyce and the Godrej Foundation became India’s first ISO 14001 certified forest. The Soonabai Pirojsha Godrej Foundation also planned and implemented additional mangrove plantations over 80 acres for the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.

Caring for the environment and sustainability are in the DNA of Godrej & Boyce — we do not see sustainability and business as separate entities but part of a composite whole. Our approach has always been to see environmental issues from the perspective of shared value, building a social value proposition into the competitive positioning of our business. This gives us differentiation and satisfaction — the Pirojshanagar community in Vikhroli is protected from severe floods and soil erosion while studies find the air is 30% cleaner than in other areas, due to the mangroves’ carbon sequestration.

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For me, these mangroves are always a fascinating place to visit. Their beautiful f lamingos and rich f lora transport me to an ethereal world. It makes me proud that our family demonstrated true trusteeship of this

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ecosystem. As one of the custodians of this natural asset, it is my responsibility to leave the mangroves in a better position than before. I’m thus involved in collaborations towards this with industry bodies. We’ve created a partnership platform with CII-IBBI, WWF India and Godrej & Boyce called the ‘India Mangrove Coalition’ that propagates greater conservation and plantation across India using a multi-stakeholder approach.

Along side more te chnic a l knowledge and capacity building, additional finance is needed to support such sustainability. The private sector must work with government to develop business models for mangrove management. Investments could be made in the revenue streams f lowing from the many services mangroves offer. These could attract long-term investment and meet impact investor requirements.

We stand at a critical inf lection point today. Mangroves are under existential threat from land use changes and extreme weather. But, as long as mangroves face threats, so do we. It is our responsibility and our need to find sustainable solutions.

(Views expressed are personal)

( Originally published on Aug 13, 2021 )