The secret of the wetlands

[This article is reprinted from the bilingual newspaper Costa Rica Today, 27 March 1997. Unfortunately, it was impossible to get decent scans from the many interesting photographs that accompanied the original article. ]

The secret of the wetlands

Costa Rica, next site of the world meeting on wetlands

by Katiana Murillo

It is wet, it can be small in size or extend across entire countries, and has the capacity to break the force of a storm, avoid flooding, provide refuge for unique species, stabilize climate, and even purify water. It may be present during just a part of the year, it can be fresh or salty, and provides food for entire populations.

Some people consider them stagnant waters, whose murky color and general appearance is somewhat disagreeable, but wetlands are one of the most biologically important systems, and of most benefit to man. According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN) there are six types of landscape units that can be considered wetlands: estuaries, open coasts, flood plains, fresh water swamps, lakes, peat bogs, and flood forests. Mangroves are located in estuaries; these are the wetlands characteristic of tropical coasts. Their economic importance is enormous since they provide food for coastal populations.

Despite all the benefits they offer, wetlands are destroyed more than any other type of ecosystem due to the lack of understanding concerning their biological and productive roles.

Hurricane Caesar offers an example; in its passage through Costa Rica last year, the deterioration of natural environment in our country made it very easy for the storm to carry out the full potential of its devastating capacity of destruction. Among other factors, this was due to the elimination of many of. the wetland areas this country once possessed. These areas act as a buffer against storms and hurricanes and retain flooding and run-off. In this case, their essential role in maintaining environmental equilibrium was weakened.

Worldwide protection

Efforts are now being made all over the world and in this country to protect these ecosystems. This is not a recent concern: the Ramsar Convention, regarding wetlands of international importance and especially as habitat for aquatic species, dates back to 1971, and is one of the first legal instruments established for environmental issues.

A total of 93 countries, including Costa Rica, have signed the convention since its creation. There have been six international meetings to discuss support, strategy implementation, compliance with commitments, financing, and cooperation. There are 871 Ramsar sites in the seven regions included in this convention: Africa, Asia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Neotropical Region, North America, and Oceania. The convention is important because it promotes protection of wetlands with great biological and social importance, whether or not these are actually endangered; these sites are not necessari1y a part of national parks or reserves.

The seventh meeting of this convention will be taking place in Costa Rica, in 1999, which will deepen this country's commitment regarding protection of such ecosystems. This is the first time that signatory nations will be meeting in a developing country; between international observers and experts and members of governmental and nongovernmental organizations, some 1500 persons are expected to attend the meeting.

According to Delmar Blasco, Secretary General of Ramsar, the objective of this meeting is to review the criteria for identifying internationally-important wetlands, in order to include the majority of them under protection. Their importance is not only ecological, but social as well.

Costa Rican wetlands

It is estimated that wetlands occupy 4% of national territory, and some 20 types of these ecosystems have been identified. But they are threatened by problems such as draining and landfill in order to carry out agricultural activities or meet demand for urbanization, for example. This is why Costa Rica's Ministry of the Environment and Energy has created the National Strategy for Conservation and Sustainable Development of Wetlands, with technical support from the IUCN and financial backing from the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands.

The objective of this project is to establish the foundations for a wetlands conservation strategy that will make possible the sustainable use and management that is so necessary for maintaining these ecosystems, their resources, and their benefits.

As part of the project, there is now a National Wetlands Inventory, which is a map of these ecosystems in Costa Rica. The Inventory also serves as a guide for wetlands management and incorporation of conservation area personnel during the process of the strategy.

This last aspect is fundamental; among the various management categories for protected areas, around 60% of the nation's wetlands fall into the category of protection. Costa Rica also possesses six such ecosystems that have international importance and form part of the Ramsar Convention: Palo Verde National Park; the Caño Negro, Tamarindo, and Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Reserves; Sierpe-Térraba National Wetlands and the core area of the Tortuguero Plains Conservation Area. All are shelters for our biodiversity and resources, which must be used sustainably if they are to continue existing in the future.

Definition of Wetlands

According to the Ramsar Convention, wetlands include salt marshes, swamps, tuberas or surfaces covered with water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, stagnant or running, fresh, brackish or salty, including sea waters whose extension does not exceed six meters at low tide.

Examples of wetlands: Estuaries, mangroves, open coasts, flood plains, fresh water swamps, lakes, peat bogs, volcanic lakes, and flood forests.

Functions of wetlands:

  • Refill of aquifers
  • Discharge of aquifers
  • Flood control
  • Erosion control
  • Retention of sediments and toxic substances
  • Retention of nutrients
  • Protection against storms
  • Stabilization of microclimates
  • Transport of water
  • Purification of water
  • Habitat for organisms, such as fish and waterfowl
  • A source of food and other resources for local populations
  • Potential for tourism activities, such as fishing, bird watching, nature photography, swimming, and sailing

Source: World Conservation Union (IUCN)

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