Isadora Angarita-Martínez and Patricia Marconi, Conserving Neotropical Migratory Birds in the High Andean Wetlands, BirdLife International

Interview by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance

“Andean wetlands are seriously threatened by mining, which has cleared vegetation and contaminated water sources, as well as the unregulated growth in agriculture, ranching, and tourism.”

Pastizales degradados-Junin-PHoto by ECOAN

The Andes Mountains are home to lakes, lagoons, marshes, and bogs that are collectively known as the high Andean wetlands. These ecosystems provide fresh water for more than 100 million people and provide important habitat for valuable plants and wildlife, including Neotropical migratory birds. However, major threats to these wetlands are putting the well-being of human and animal populations that depend on them at risk.

Since 2011, BirdLife International and a group of local partners have been working across four countries in the region on a project called “Conserving Neotropical Migratory Birds in the High Andean Wetlands.” We talked with Isadora Angarita-Martínez, the project’s regional coordinator, and Patricia Marconi, project coordinator in Argentina, about the current situation in the high Andean wetlands and how the project is working with governments and local communities to protect these ecosystems and contribute to migratory bird conservation.

Question: Why are the high Andean wetlands special or important?

Angarita-Martínez: These ecosystems are large producers, regulators, and storehouses of water in the Andean countries. The high Andean wetlands of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina provide stopover and overwintering habitats for approximately 15 species of Neotropical migratory birds of interest to conservation and are also home to farming and indigenous communities.

Marconi:  The high Andean wetlands, as well as the grasslands or puna ecosystems in Catamarca, the most extensive in Argentina, provide important bird habitat.  They are summer concentration and nesting sites for the two species of high Andean flamingos (Phoenicoparrus andinus and P. jamesi), and safeguard all the endemic and characteristic species of the Altos Andes and the puna, such as the giant coot (Fulica gigantea) and the Andean avocet (Recurvirostra andina).  They’re also home to five species of migratory birds from the Northern Hemisphere: Baird’s sandpiper (Calidris bairdii), lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), Wilson’s phalarope (Steganopus tricolor), and the American golden plover (Pluvialis dominica).

Steganopus tricolor Photo by Biota

Q: What are the main threats to these ecosystems?

Angarita-Martínez: They are seriously threatened by mining, which has cleared vegetation and contaminated water sources, as well as the unregulated growth in agriculture, ranching, and tourism.  These activities are largely unregulated since it’s difficult for authorities to reach and guard the ecosystems. Moreover, most of the conservation efforts on this continent have been focused on forests and jungles and not so much on other ecosystems such as the high Andean wetlands, savannahs and natural grasslands.

Threats in Catamarca also include road development mainly linked to mineral prospecting, which have facilitated illegal activities such as the hunting of vicuñas and guanacos and collecting flamingo and Darwin’s rhea (Rhea pennata) eggs. Another major threat is unregulated adventure tourism activities, like off-road races. The Dakar Rally crosses Catamarca every year without any regulations or monitoring of its impact on the ecosystem.  It has made 4×4 vehicle tourism popular and led to circuits called “Following the Dakar Paths.”

Q: How is BirdLife International helping to mitigate these threats?

Angarita-Martínez: The “Conserving Neotropical Migratory Birds in the High Andean Wetlands” project, which is phase two of a project supported by the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA), supports the conservation of migrants in four Ramsar sites chosen for their strategic importance to these birds, as well as resident and endemic bird species, and because they are essential to human, economic, and cultural well-being. The sites are Llanganates National Park in Ecuador, Lago Junín in Peru, the Poopó and Uru Uru Lakes in Bolivia, and the high Andean lagoons and puna ecosystems of Catamarca in Argentina.

At each site, we’re supporting the development of conservation plans and implementing priority actions backed by research and education activities. We’re providing information about the status and habitat requirements of Neotropical migrants in the high Andean wetlands, developing action plans to conserve 1.2 million acres (500,000 hectares) of wetlands, managing 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) through specific conservation actions, and restoring 12,000 acres (5,000 hectares) of habitat suitable for Neotropical migratory birds.

Local Support Group-Ecuador-Photo by Aves y Conservación

We’re prioritizing for conservation the wetlands that provide ecosystem services such as water for human consumption, irrigation, electricity generation, tourism, and climate regulation for carbon storage.  We’re conducting field evaluations – using a novel tool developed by BirdLife – to learn about these ecosystems’ current status and to forecast changes in the availability of those services in the next 10 years under various management schemes. With this baseline information, we will educate communities, governments, and local authorities about the status of their wetlands and will help them get the information they need to make smart decisions and create effective management plans and conservation strategies.

The project is also looking at the direct impacts local communities have on the ecosystems and is offering sustainable alternatives. For example, residents of Lago Junín in Peru use “champa” or peat as fuel for heating and cooking, which removes considerable amounts of vegetation and negatively impacts migrant waterbird habitats. We can’t tell them to stop using peat because it is part of their traditions, so we suggest that they rotate their harvesting and give them stoves that better retain heat and emit less toxic gas.

Marconi: In Catamarca, we’ve put up informational posters in key off-road tourism areas, and redesigned vehicular access routes and trails to areas with lower impact.  We’ve also launched an environmental education program for teachers, students, and the community in general.

Q:  Are wetland communities supportive of the project?

Angarita-Martínez:  We talked with them about the importance of the ecosystem for bird conservation, emphasizing its value for their own well-being and how they would be affected by its loss. They have noticed fewer birds and less water, and are already suffering the consequences of the deterioration of their wetlands. They’re supportive of our work because we came to listen to them, understand them, and offer economic alternatives that will reduce their impact on the ecosystem, instead of telling them what to do or trying to change their customs. We’ve also worked very hard to generate a sense of pride and ownership of the wetlands.

Q: What economic alternatives have you recommended?

Angarita-Martínez: Ecotourism is one option. In Ecuador, the project is supporting the creation of the Kuri Pishku Ecoroute for bird-watchers, which generates sustainable income for the local communities through tourism services. This is a major initiative that has the support of Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of the Environment, and conservation groups.

Another alternative for governments and local communities is establishing and participating in environmental services payment programs. In another phase of the project, we plan on further developing these opportunities.

Campo Piedra Pomez-Catamarca-Argentina-Photo by Fundación Yuchán

Q: What are some of the project’s key successes to date?

Angarita-Martínez: Some of the key regional achievements are an analysis of the importance of high Andean wetlands habitats for migratory birds, which helps us understand exactly which site is important for which species and during which season.  We’re also helping Ramsar implement its Regional Strategy for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of the High Andean Wetlands.  The project has also identified wetlands’ ecosystem services, helping us to understand what they offer, how to conserve them, and what about them is most important to communities.  We’ve also contributed to the designation of a new protected area, Campo de Piedra Pómez Protected Nature Area, in Catamarca, Argentina.

Marconi:  In Catamarca, besides the designation of Campo de Piedra Pómez, our most important accomplishment is the level of trust and cooperation we’ve created with state agencies and authorities. We’ve also trained staff from the State Secretariat of the Environment and Sustainable Development of Catamarca to conduct summer waterbird monitoring, which they will be doing independently by 2014. We’ve also designed and implemented strategies to regulate tourism, set up training programs for ecotourism guides, and established registries of authorized local guides.

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