Interview by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
“The time has come to put ‘artificial systems’ to work for nature, instead of just seeing them as one thing destroying another. The dikes, even without any kind of management or intervention, provide opportunities for many waterbirds to survive.”
Seagulls, ducks, shorebirds, stilts, and dozens of other species of resident and migratory waterbirds tend to be found in a particular kind of habitat: wetlands. For some, these aquatic ecosystems are home, and for others they provide temporary resting stops along their migratory journeys. However, in the last 100 years, approximately 60 percent of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed.
The accelerated rate of wetland degradation is a challenge to the survival of many bird species and other wildlife. Their connection is such that experts around the world are seeking alternatives for protecting birds through the conservation of natural wetlands, and recently, through man-made wetlands.
Biologist Enrique Bucher of the Center for Applied Zoology at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina is developing a project that combines engineering and biology to convert dikes and dams into opportunities for bird conservation through the creation of artificial wetlands.
Question: Why are wetlands such important habitat for birds?
Bucher: Wetlands are one of the most complex and biodiverse ecosystems. They serve as natural filters for rivers, buffer temperatures and water levels, and support the production of food such as fish and rice. Because the wetlands have sediments that are very rich in nutrients and high in biomass such as fish and vegetation, they are ideal feeding, resting, and nesting grounds for resident waterbirds and migratory birds. Some migrants, such as the shorebirds that make inter-continental migrations, are capable of tripling their weight before making a long journey. Even so, they need to make intermediate stopovers in other wetlands along the way to regain the strength they need to reach their destinations.
Q: Statistics show that more than half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared. What are the main causes of wetland loss?
Bucher: There are a series of factors ranging from overuse and drainage from agriculture to contamination, erosion, over-fishing, infrastructure development, dam construction, and global warming.
Q: If wetland ecosystems are so important and yet so threatened, why has their conservation not been a high priority?
Bucher: For a long time, humans have had the idea that water is a never-ending resource and as such, environmental protection has prioritized terrestrial ecosystems. It wasn’t until the last century when water was determined to be a critical resource of concern. A focus on wetlands came along even later because they are typically associated with negative phenomena such as floods and malaria breeding grounds. For many years their absence meant that the land had been “cleaned up” or improved. It was in the 1970s and ’80s that their value for conservation was lauded, beginning with the adoption of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1971.
There is a real problem of wetland disappearance and degradation, but the question — more than what was or wasn’t done — is what is being done now? The destruction of the environment continues advancing at an exponential rate — what we used to destroy in 10 years we now destroy in five. The few wetlands that remain could disappear in even less time. Birds are also affected at an increasing magnitude. Thousands of birds can no longer find the wetlands they need to regain strength, or they only have access to ones that are contaminated, have little food, or lack suitable nesting habitat. Wetland elimination and degradation is a clear threat to the survival of many species.
Q: How did construction of dams and dikes emerge as one solution to this problem?
Bucher: In Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay, wetlands have disappeared, giving way to hundreds of dams and dikes where, curiously, many resident and migratory birds have been documented. This is a fact, but it is little recognized by ornithologists and we want to learn much more about this phenomenon. We find that these dikes and dams are being developed in settings that have characteristics similar to natural wetlands, and therefore they are suitable for the birds’ survival needs because they provide food and vegetation for nesting and rest sites.
Q: What is the goal of your project “Artificial Lakes in Central Argentina: Importance for Migratory Waterbird Conservation“?
Bucher: In recognizing the potential of these structures, the need arose to establish their role in bird conservation and to seek alternatives for manipulating them in a way that, for example, the water level could be controlled at the edges, adjusting it for the birds of interest according to the seasons they visit. Furthermore, another more advanced option would be to manage the dikes to stimulate periodic floods that would generate pulses similar to those in the natural environments that are essential for their ecological integrity. This means trying to create an “ecological garden” on a large scale, or trying to make traditional use of artificial water bodies that are compatible with the protection and conservation of regional aquatic fauna.
The goal is to be able to implement these management criteria, and thereby create a network of artificial wetlands along the migratory bird routes. Our research encompasses more than 15,440 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) in the Chaco and Monte regions in Argentina to ensure that the species have adequate stopover sites where they can recover before completing their journeys. A similar scheme has been developed successfully in North America by the organization Ducks Unlimited, along the migratory routes of ducks.
Q: What has been the main challenge you’ve encountered during your research?
Bucher: There must be formal and multidisciplinary interaction among the biologists, engineers, hydrologists, and the businesses that manage the dikes. Unifying the vision of conservationists with that of other professionals and business people, sectors that have traditionally viewed their work areas as polar opposites, is an interesting challenge. More research is also needed. Each dike is distinct, and the same model cannot be applied everywhere. We also have to fight the stigma associated with re-creating floods because people generally think that any flood is bad.
Q: Have the dike, dam, and similar companies been supportive?
Bucher: Yes, and this is one of the strengths of our project. At present, the businesses are willing to collaborate because they know that taking responsible measures, in this case environmental measures, helps to create a positive image. Furthermore, the intention is to manipulate the dikes in a way that does not cause any damage or operational inconvenience.
Q: Do local residents understand the importance of the wetlands?
Bucher: The topic isn’t always easy, and there are distinct points of view in the local communities. We are always confronting opinions based on ignorance and negative stereotypes about wetlands. At the same time wetlands benefit local residents because they attract bird watchers and other tourists and provide fresh water. Therefore, the project includes extension and environmental education activities. We also want to go beyond the local scale and involve the communities in hydrographic basin management through watershed committees that would work on a regional scale.
Q: It’s hard not to see the artificial lakes as displacing natural wetlands. Will the day come when all wetlands are artificial?
Bucher: We are rescuing the importance of the natural wetlands that remain. We humans must find a balance or we are going to destroy all of our natural ecosystems. But we have got to be realistic — the time has come to put “artificial systems” to work for nature, instead of just seeing them as one thing destroying another.
The dikes, even without any kind of management or intervention, provide opportunities for many birds to survive. So, why don’t we take advantage of this and maximize it? Efforts in conservation are going to have to start using non-traditional means. And through this project, at least, we are just getting started.