Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance
“To protect wetlands, we need to find better ways to carry out development. Although there is a lack of awareness, at times it is simply a lack of ideas.”
Despite the fact that wetlands provide important environmental services around the world, these ecosystems continue to be threatened, endangering the habitats of valuable species and the survival of local communities that have depended on these resources for generations. We talked to Margarita Astrálaga, the Ramsar Convention’s Adviser for the Americas, about the importance and challenges of the wetlands in the region.
The Convention on Wetlands, adopted in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.
The Convention uses a wide broad definition of the types of wetlands covered in its mission, including swamps and marshes, wet grasslands and peatlands, oases, estuaries, deltas and tidal flats, near-shore marine areas, mangroves and coral reefs, and human-made sites such as fish ponds, rice paddies, reservoirs, and salt pans.
There are currently 150 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1,590 wetland sites, totaling 331 million acres (134 million hectares) designated for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance.
Question: What is the situation of the wetlands in Latin America?
Astrálaga: The Convention is a little concerned about the management of wetlands at Ramsar sites and other wetlands in natural areas. Detailed management plans are needed to provide clear guidelines for activities that can be carried out in the wetlands and to indicate the allocations of water to maintain the functioning of the ecosystem. Many wetlands are drying up or are becoming fragmented. We really need to learn more about the importance of wetlands to ensure the survival of the people in the region, considering economic options such as fishing, tourism, and other activities that could be much more productive for countries.
Q: What are the main threats facing wetlands?
Astrálaga: Pollution is a big threat. We have serious problems with gray water in the coastal and inland wetlands in this region. Landfills for urban and tourism developments are the greatest threats for the coastal wetlands.
Q: What percentage of wetlands is considered to be in a critical state?
Astrálaga: It is hard to calculate because not all countries have adopted the Convention’s specific definition for wetlands. We estimate that 70 percent of Ramsar sites are threatened by projects such as highway construction, pipelines, or tourism mega-projects.
Q: Can NGOs propose a Ramsar site?
Astrálaga: The Contracting Parties of the Convention have approved specific criteria and guidelines to identify sites that comply with the requirements to be designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List. Countries must present the information sheet on Ramsar Wetlands to the Secretariat with a request to be designated as a Ramsar site. Although an NGO can prepare the information sheet, only the country’s Ramsar Administrative Authority can present the request to be included as a site.
Q: How do wetlands contribute to local economies in Latin America?
Astrálaga: Wetlands provide innumerable services to our region and the rest of the world including flood water control, groundwater replenishment, shoreline stabilization and erosion control, storm protection, nutrient and sediment retention, climate change mitigation, and water purification. Wetlands also function as reservoirs of biodiversity and provide a source of fish and other food, recreational sites, and have intrinsic cultural value.
Most Ramsar sites are important for local economies. For years, the indigenous people in Peru have used resources from Laguna de Salinas and Laguna del Indio, Ramsar sites located at an elevation of 9,900 feet above sea level (4,000 meters). If these ecosystems disappear, they won’t have any other options.
Tourism has provided employment to local communities in other sites. In some cases, badly-managed tourism projects have created problems for fishermen by causing a decline of fish populations.
According to a study carried out in 1997, the dollar value of our natural ecosystems is $33 billion, of which 45 percent or $14.9 billion corresponds to the wetlands ecosystem.
Q: Is there now a greater awareness of the importance of wetlands?
Astrálaga: We have made great progress. Understanding the economic benefits of the different types of wetlands has led many countries in the region to incorporate sustainable development into their development policies and practices to conserve and responsibly use these ecosystems.
Twenty years ago, regional legislation promoted the draining of wetlands. Many of the stakeholders became aware that the larvae of fish, shrimp, lobster, and others found in mangroves are part of the food chain and that destroying mangroves broke this chain. These countries have now subscribed to some form of legislation to protect mangroves.
There is also a greater understanding of the importance of mangroves as barriers for storm and hurricane protection. Natural disasters such as the tsunami and the hurricanes in the Caribbean made this clear. Hurricane Mitch, for example, which had a high economic and human toll, made us aware of the importance of conserving these ecosystems.
Cities have also encroached on coastal lands. This was demonstrated in Campeche, Mexico, during Hurricane Stan, when water levels reached the same point as twenty years ago.
Q: What are examples of important wetlands that require priority conservation actions?
Astrálaga: The Montreux Record lists these wetlands. Palo Verde is listed for Costa Rican and Laguna del Tigre for Guatemala. Although these sites are not necessarily in the most critical state, they have been presented by the countries as needing attention to deal with threats. There are also some wetlands that need help but are not listed in the record.
It is always a challenge to maintain a balance between development plans that generate money in the short-term and other long-term considerations.
Q: What is the greatest challenge for the conservation of wetlands in Latin America?
Astrálaga: The greatest challenge is to have wetlands valued for their environmental services; making it more worthwhile to protect them than to destroy them because these ecosystems will provide more income over the long term than if they are eliminated.
In Panama, for example, a landowner had planned a tourism project for a turtle nesting site and a mangrove area that is an important habitat for migratory birds. When I arrived, the landowner and the National Environmental Authority were locked in a huge conflict. I approached the landowner to talk to him about his plans to rent cabins at $20 a night, asking him if knew how much Europeans would pay to go bird watching or to see turtles. I told him that he could possibly charge a lot more per night if he bought the adjoining vacant property and built raised wooden bridges over the mangroves for the tourists to silently observe the turtles at night and bird watch in the mornings from lookout points and observation towers. This would be a win-win situation because this man would have more income than he had hoped and we would have protected the area, the birds, and the Ramsar site.
This shows how we can promote better ideas for development. Although there is a lack of awareness, at times it is simply a lack of ideas.
Q: How important is wetlands management for the proper administration of water resources?
Astrálaga: National environmental policies are not consistent with international commitments. An all-encompassing law is needed that can be applied to all the countries. Control and monitoring of this legislation is also needed. The rules of the game need to be clearly articulated to everyone.
We are promoting the creation of wetlands committees in each country and Ramsar site, including people from all sectors: governmental, academic, NGO, etc., to address all wetlands-related issues. We need to involve more local people and find more life-supporting options that promote conservation.
Q: How can NGOs work more closely with the Convention?
Astrálaga: The Convention collaborates closely with NGOs; four have been involved since the beginning and have been confirmed as International Organization Partners to the Convention: BirdLife International; IUCN — The World Conservation Union, Wetlands International; the World Wildlife Fund, and more recently, the International Water Management Institute.
Among international conventions, the Ramsar Convention’s collaboration with local NGOs working in wetlands conservation has been noteworthy. In the Americas, through the Wetlands for the Future initiative, funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Secretariat has supported participatory projects in wetlands management, training, and education in the Neotropics and Mexico since 1997.