Ramsar Advisory Missions: Report No. 5, Bañados del Este, Uruguay (1988)


Special attention is given to assisting member States in the management and conservation of listed sites whose ecological character is threatened. This is carried out through the Ramsar Advisory Mission, a technical assistance mechanism formally adopted by Recommendation 4.7 of the 1990 Conference of the Parties. (The Ramsar Advisory Mission mechanism was formerly known as the Monitoring Procedure and the Management Guidance Procedure.)   The main objective of this mechanism is to provide assistance to developed and developing countries alike in solving the problems or threats that make inclusion in the Montreux Record necessary.

Ramsar Convention Monitoring Procedure

[Report No. 5:] Bañados del Este, Uruguay

by Patrick J. Dugan & Antonio C. Diegues

1. Preface

The present report is the result of a four-day visit to Uruguay from 24-28 October 1988 by Patrick J. Dugan (Coordinator of the IUCN Wetlands Programme) and Antonio C. Diegues (Coordinator of the IUCN Wetlands Programme in Brazil). The purpose of the mission was threefold. First, to meet with government and non-governmental institutions concerned with the problems of wetland management in Uruguay, in particular those of the Bañados del Este. Second, to review the current status of the Bañados del Este and the threats to this area. And third, to provide recommendations on future action through which the concerned authorities can work towards effective conservation and environmentally sound management of the Bañados. Meetings were held with the Sub-Commission for the Bañados del Este of the Institute for the Preservation of the Environment; the Laguna Merin Commission; the Environmental Commissions of the Congress and the Senate; the Society for the Conservation of the Environment; the Society for the Study and Conservation of Birds; the Institute for Legal and Social Studies; the National Museum of Natural History; and the Department of Biology of the University. Discussions were focused upon the current status of the Bañados del Este and the apparent conflict between conservation and development in the zone, the existing plans for further investment in development activities which are likely to change the ecological character of the zone, proposals for conservation measures within the Ramsar site and compensatory measures outside, and proposals through which the Ramsar Convention and associated international institutions might provide technical and other assistance to Uruguay in order that it might more effectively fulfill its obligations under the Ramsar Convention.

The present report introduces the Ramsar monitoring procedure, summarizes the status and likely prospects for the Bañados del Este, makes preliminary suggestions on approaches which may provide lasting solutions to the conflicts that exist in the zone, and makes recommendations to the Ramsar Convention as to how the Convention might most effectively follow up on this initial mission with more substantive support to Uruguay.

2. Acknowledgements

The consultants would like to thank the Institute for the Preservation of the Environment for organising the mission to Uruguay, and the Laguna Merin Commission, the Environmental Commissions of the Congress and the Senate, the Society for the Study and Conservation of Birds, the Institute for Legal and Social Studies, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Department of Biology of the University for the opportunity to discuss with them the problems of the Bañados del Este.

3. Introduction

In ratifying the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention) each Contracting Party undertakes to "designate suitable wetlands within its territory for inclusion in a List of wetlands of international importance" (Article 2.1 of the Convention). Specifically, each Contracting Party is obligated to "designate at least one wetland to be included in the List" (Article 2.4) and "shall formulate and implement their planning so as to promote the conservation of the wetlands included in the List" (Article 3.1). Further, each Contracting Party "shall arrange to be informed at the earliest possible time if the ecological character of any wetland in its territory and included in the List has changed, is changing, or is likely to change, as the result of technological developments, pollution or other human interference. Information on such changes shall be passed without delay to the organisation or government responsible for continuing Bureau duties" (Article 3.2).

At the Third Conference of the Contracting Parties held in Regina, Canada, in 1987, the Conference approved a recommendation (C.3.9) on the importance of avoiding changes in the ecological character of sites listed under the Convention. The recommendation (Annex I) urges Contracting Parties "to take swift and effective action to prevent any further degradation of sites and to restore, as far as possible, the value of damaged sites". The recommendation further requests Contracting Parties in whose territory are located sites whose ecological character has been degraded or are threatened, "to report to the Convention Bureau the actions undertaken to safeguard these sites".

At the Fourth Meeting of the Ramsar Convention’s Standing Committee, the members and observers considered the best way of promoting the implementation of Recommendation C.3.9. A "monitoring procedure" (Annex II) was adopted by the Standing Committee as a procedure to monitor Ramsar sites, and has been used since February 1988 by the Convention Secretariat. The present report is the fifth prepared under this procedure.

In addition to the obligation to maintain wetlands listed under the Convention, the Contracting Parties also undertake to promote the wise use of wetlands throughout their territory. In other words, the Parties specifically recognise that, in view of the range of environmental functions and services provided by natural wetland systems, these should be managed in order that such benefits can contribute most effectively to present and future needs of human society. In reviewing the problems of the Bañados del Este, the present report therefore also considers how Uruguay might address this requirement of the Convention.

4. Background

Uruguay and the Ramsar Convention

In adhering to the Ramsar Convention on 22 May 1984, Uruguay listed as its first Ramsar site the " Bañados del Este and Franja Costera". This area covers a total of 325,000 hectares in the Departments of Rocha, Treinta y Tres, and Cerro Largo (Fig. 1).

The Bañados del Este

The area designated as the Ramsar site includes two lakes (Castillos and Negra) and part of an international lake (Merin); part of the rivers Yaguarón, Tacuarií, Olimar, Cebollatí and San Luis; various streams; low plains that are permanently, periodically or occasionally flooded and which adjoin the major water masses; and the section of coast that extends from the Uruguay/Brazil border to Cabo Polonio. It also extends to the Atlantic coastal islands close to Coronilla and Cabo Polonio (Vas-Ferreira, 1987).

Within this area, a wide range of wetland habitats occur which support a great diversity of fauna and flora. The wetlands are particularly important for waterbirds, of which at least 120 species live for part or all of the year in the Ramsar site (Vaz-Ferreira, 1987). The Bañados also support an important mammal fauna, including Capybara Hidrochoerus hidrochaeris, Coypu Myocastor coypus and a residual population of "venado de campo" Ozotocerus bezoarcticus. More than 30 species of amphibians and 5 reptiles are found in the site. Among the latter is the "yacaré" Caiman latirostris. 80 species of fish occur, of which some 30 are important in commercial fishing or in sport fishing.

Legal status

In the Uruguayan national report to the Third Conference of Contracting Parties (Vaz-Ferreira, 1987), it was noted that listing of the zone has not brought about any effective additional protection of the Bañados. These are still controlled by national shooting laws and decrees rather than by any specific legislation directed at the Bañados. This is in part a consequence of the fact that although the major lagoons within the site are State property, more than 85% of the wetland habitats (excluding these lagoons) is privately owned. Consequently, these sites can be changed without present legislation being able to prevent it. In addition, public lands are not necessarily adequately protected.

5. Current Status of the Bañados

As emphasised in the Uruguayan report to the Third Conference of Contracting Parties (Vaz-Ferreira, 1987), the ecological character of the Bañados del Este was changed prior to listing of the site under the Convention. As early as the mid-19th century, plans to drain part of the Bañados were developed. In 1885, it was proposed to drain 20,000 hectares of the area via the Andreoni Canal. Although this was dropped from service in 1930, a second canal (Canal Number One) was subsequently built between the Bañado de India Muerta and the San Luis river. In 1978, Canal Number One was continued, and a third canal (Canal Number Two) was built to link Canal Number One with the Andreoni Canal. Further, the India Muerta dam was built, covering 3,000 hectares in its reservoir.

Today, the principal government investment in the Bañados is coordinated through the Comisión Mixta para el Desarrollo de la Cuenca de la Laguna Merin which was established in the 1960s by the governments of Uruguay and Brazil to coordinate development investment in the basin of the Laguna Merin. Under the auspices of the Joint Commission, funding was obtained from the InterAmerican Development Bank in 1986 (US$ 27.3 M) for the electrification of the existing water pumping system and for the improvement of 860 kilometres of roads. This investment was designed to improve irrigation of 80,000 hectares of the region of the Laguna Merin. Following this investment, there are today proposals for further investment in water management in the basin. These include the construction of a retaining dyke for 70 km along the right bank of the Rio Cebollati; canalisation of the Estero de Pelotas; construction of a 40 km sump which will collect water from the San Miguel region and drain this to the Laguna Merin; a dyke to control flooding of the India Muerta. The total cost of these investments is estimated at US$ 50 M and a study is now beginning with funds from the InterAmerican Development Bank to identify the viability of this investment. At the same time, an environmental impact study will be carried out. However, this will last for only six months.

6. Environmental Impact and Wise Use of the Bañados del Este

There is little doubt that the Bañados del Este have enormous economic potential. The fertile soils currently support a major proportion of the country’s rice production, which is valued at a total of US$ 80 M in export earnings. Further, the Bañados are extremely important in cattle production which in 1983 contributed some US$ 250 M to the national economy. In addition, between the years 1976 and 1986, Uruguay exported Coypu skins of a total value of US$ 52 M, and FAO has estimated that in the 1970s, some 40% of the rural families in the Department of Rocha benefited from the exploitation of this species. And along the coast, an important fishing industry depends upon the productivity of the coastal waters and the quality and quantity of freshwater inflow.

Given the range of benefits which the Bañados provide, and given the many ways in which the government might invest in exploitation of these resources, it is clearly essential that their full value, and the full cost of their loss, be determined prior to any large-scale investment. Future investment in the Bañados should be based upon such analysis and consideration of the ways through which investment can yield long-term sustainable benefits from the resources, rather than short-term profit. By means of such careful planning and effective enforcement of existing or new legislation, it will be possible to achieve effective integration of many different activities which can be carried out in the Bañados. While this will certainly limit certain activities, such limitation will be in the best long-term interests of the communities which use the resources.

Available evidence suggests that previous investments in drainage in the Banados have not been based upon such careful analysis and have led to substantial socio-economic and economic costs. For example, by improving the drainage capacity of the Andreoni Canal in 1978, discharge of fresh water was increased along the Coronilla beach. This change in salinity is thought to have reduced the productivity of the offshore fishery and income from the associated artisanal and sport fishing activities.

Similarly, debris carried down by the canal littered the beach, dissuading bathers and triggering a substantial decline in the number of tourists and in the income of hotels and other tourist facilities in the area.

The loss of the wetlands and the associated fauna has led to a reduction in the exploitation of Coypu and to a decline in the importance of this source of income to the local communities. Also, certain of the water management works have led to an increase in flooding at certain times of year, rather than to a decrease. This increase in flooding has reduced the capacity of the wetlands to support the pastoral industry at certain times of year.

Not only has drainage yielded many costs, but the return on investment has in certain cases been lower than anticipated. For example, the India Muerta dam now irrigates only 4,000 of the 10,000 hectares that had been forecast (Vaz-Ferreira, 1987).

In the light of these observations, it is surprising that the 1986 loan from the InterAmerican Development Bank was preceded by an environmental impact assessment which detected no significant environmental impact that could destroy the renewable natural resources as a result of the project. This may have been a consequence of the short duration of the study, and it is therefore essential that, in future, environmental impact assessments are done in the most thorough manner possible. It is most likely that such studies, in order to be effective, will require to be undertaken over a period of at least one, and ideally two, complete annual cycles. Any study of shorter duration is likely to be superficial and of limited value in detecting the true environmental impact.

By definition, drainage in the Bañados will have an environmental impact. What needs to be determined is not what that impact is, but rather whether the true economic and social cost of that impact can be offset by the investment whose impact is being studied. To determine whether this is indeed the case, attention needs to be focused not only upon the environmental impact of drainage investment, but upon the precise sum required to carry out the drainage, the effectiveness of that drainage, the precise return upon that investment, the distribution of benefits from that investment to the communities which currently use the resources, and the net impact upon the national economy. Unfortunately, we were unable to obtain copies of the detailed proposals for the Bañados, and it is therefore not possible at this stage to say whether such detailed analyses have been carried out. However, it is clear that the full value of the wetland resources of the Bañados, and their interaction with the economic activities in the region, is considerable. We therefore believe that prior to any further investment in the Bañados, a detailed ecological and hydrological study of the resources should be carried out in order to determine the full range and full value of the functions which these wetlands provide. These functions will range from flood control to provision of water supply, fisheries support, and species conservation. The impact upon these functions, and the economic consequences of their loss as a result of drainage, should be assessed and this net loss to the economy should be compared with the net benefit as a result of the investment. In this context, specific consideration needs to be given not only to the yield in terms of rice production that would be generated but to the investments (fuel, infrastructure, and running costs) which are required to achieve the drainage proposed and to exploit the drained land.

Other neighbouring wetland areas

In addition to the areas included within the Ramsar site, several other wetland areas in the region are of international interest. Most notable among these is the Laguna de Rocha which is widely regarded as being one of the most important sites in Latin America for migratory waterbirds. More information is needed on this and other similar sites in order to identify their precise management requirements. This is of particular importance as effective protection of these sites could be an appropriate compensatory measure for loss of some of the wetland area within the Bañados del Este.

7. Conclusions

i) Despite the considerable national and international concern for the Bañados del Este, there is today a rising willingness on the part of the government of Uruguay to address these problems and to identify solutions. This effort should be supported by the Ramsar Convention and particular efforts made to ensure that solutions are pursued through an integrated interdisciplinary approach, and through an inter-institutional consensus which involves both government and non-governmental institutions.

ii) It is clear that large areas of the original site designated under the Ramsar Convention have been converted to agriculture and can no longer be considered as wetlands. While it is extremely regrettable that this occurred without a full environmental impact assessment, the limits of the Ramsar site now need to be reviewed and those areas which are clearly under intensive agricultural production or intensive grazing as of 1 January 1989 should be excluded. Other areas vhere agricultural production and grazing are extensive should be considered for inclusion in a buffer zone surrounding sites of highest ecological and hydrological value. These sites should be retained on the Ramsar List.

iii) In order to identify such sites, a detailed analysis of the available information on the fauna and flora of the area should be effected. This should pay particular attention to the criteria for listing of sites of international importance under the Ramsar Convention and should result in the identification of specific sites within the Bañados which would be given special conservation attention by the government under its present development plan for the area.

Within this study, special emphasis should also be given to the wide range of hydrological and ecological functions which the wetlands of the Bañados serve, and to the economic importance of these. In addition to the sites designated as being of international importance, other wetlands in the Bañados should only be reclaimed for agriculture when it is clear that the value of drainage to the local people is greater than that of the functions currently provided by the wetlands.

iv) As part of any future investment in agricultural productivity in the area, special attention should be given to ways through which the existing natural functions of the wetland system can contribute more effectively to the local and national economy. Such methods may include rehabilitation of the fur industry dependent upon Coypu, and development of ecological tourism.

v) In addition to identification of sites of highest importance within the Bañados area, special attention should be given to identification of other wetland sites within Uruguay, in particular in the vicinity of the Bañados, which are of similar international importance. One such site is the Laguna de Rocha to which special consideration should be given.

vi) The Ramsar Convention Secretariat should liaise closely with the government of Uruguay and with the InterAmerican Development Bank to ensure that future investments are based upon a detailed study of the natural benefits of the wetland system and of the environmental and socio-economic impact of any economic investment in wetland drainage.

Annex I: Recommendation C.3.9

Annex II: Monitoring Procedure

Annex III: Itinerary of Ramsar Mission, 24-28 October 1988

Monday, 24 October

Arrival in Montevideo. Meeting with Prof. Raúl Vaz-Ferreira.

Tuesday, 25 October

Meeting with the Sub-commission for the Bañados del Este of the Instituto Nacional para la Preservación del Medio Ambiente.
Meeting with the Environmental Commission of the Cámara de Diputados.
Meeting with the Joint Commission of Laguna Merin
Meeting with the Environmental Commission of the Cámara de Senadores

Wednesday 26/Thursday 27 October

Field visit to Bañados del Este and Laguna de Rocha

Thursday, 27 October

Meeting with the Sociedad de Conservación del Medio Ambiente and selected journalists

Friday, 28 October

Interview with El País
Departure for Sao Paulo

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