‘Wetlands are being lost faster than forests’

‘Wetlands are being lost faster than forests’

13 June 2017

Interview with Ramsar Secretary General, Martha Rojas-Urrego conducted by Laura Betancur Alarcón for 'El Tiempo', a nationally distributed daily newspaper in Colombia.

Martha Rojas Urrego, the new Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, sets alarm bells ringing.

Martha Rojas Urrego, one of the pioneers in the creation of the country’s national parks, is currently in charge of the protection of one of the world's key ecosystems:  wetlands.

Rojas is the new Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, a historic treaty designed to protect wetlands such as lakes, lagoons, rivers, marshes, peat bogs and coral reefs.

During her visit to Colombia, where she visited the Tarapoto Lakes System –which it is hoped will become a Ramsar Site, in other words a Wetland of International Importance– she spoke to EL TIEMPO about the current status of these locations.

Why are wetland ecosystems the ones that are suffering the highest levels of degradation in the world?

Wetlands have always suffered from degradation. It is estimated that from 1900 to the present day, 64% of them have been lost, and this is because historically their importance has not been fully appreciated. Wetlands include lakes, marshes, rivers, peat bogs, etc. And they have been considered as places that can be drained and filled in, places whose use can be changed, and as places for dumping rubbish.  They have even been associated with disease.

Wetlands have been devalued. However, when they are studied carefully, it can be seen that they have high levels of biodiversity and also provide services essential for development. Let’s start with water resources. Without wetlands we would have no fresh water. They are also a source of food. The clearest example of this is rice, which grows in wetlands and on which 3,000 million people depend. Another is fishing, from which over 600 million people make their living.

What about the remaining percentage?

The current trend is that they are disappearing quickly. In terms of speed, for example, wetlands are being lost faster than forests. Europe and Asia are suffering most in terms of the number of wetlands lost, but the trend remains the same on the other continents. The same thing is happening with species:  the most threatened ones are freshwater species. We do not have precise data on this. This is one of our challenges: to raise awareness about the contribution wetlands make and the consequences of losing them.

How can over 2,000 wetlands of international importance be monitored?

Countries designate these wetlands. The challenge most commonly faced regarding these and other protected areas is how to manage them. Therefore, the importance of wetlands needs to be promoted in order to get people to invest in conservation. It is not simply a matter of finding resources, but also one of integrating these sites into local development plans. They need to be linked to other types of policy. There have been successful cases in which conservation and sustainable use have been combined.

What is causing wetlands to become degraded so rapidly?

They face several threats. Normally, we talk about freshwater wetlands, but there are coastal wetlands too, such as mangroves and coral reefs. Conversion is one of the main factors involved in the loss of the former. Another major factor is the interruption of the water flow by dams or barriers. The water is also overused for certain activities.

Coastal wetlands are threatened by deforestation, and there is another major threat: climate change. One of the world’s flagship wetlands is Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

What is its current status?

It is in crisis. In this ecosystem, one can clearly see the effects of climate change due to the variation in the temperature and in the acidity of the water. However, despite being greatly affected, wetlands can still be useful. One of the facts that I find most telling is that wetlands retain more carbon than forests. For example, peat bogs are ecosystems with a flooded part, and they create a deeper layer of soil due to the accumulation of organic matter, which retains this carbon. As these peat bogs dry out, all this stored carbon is released. It is estimated that peat bogs alone account for 3% of the Earth's land surface and store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests.

How well protected are peat bogs?

Very poorly. This is one of our priorities now. Our technical team is trying to help countries develop guidelines for designing and managing new Ramsar sites, which contain this type of ecosystem. There are different kinds of peat bog. For example, in Indonesia there are peat swamp forests, which were burnt as a result of the large number of fires that broke out in 2015, and produced more CO2 emissions than those of a country such as the United States. The emissions could even be seen from space. These peatlands store twice as much carbon as forests. Peat bogs contain 30% of the world’s soil carbon. This means that, although a great deal of attention has been paid to forests, we now need to focus on this type of wetland. Linking wetland conservation to climate change goals will generate more incentives.

In addition to this new focal point, which other types of wetland still need to be protected?

Other very important wetlands are coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and seagrass meadows, which also store large amounts of carbon.

And what about the Amazon rainforest?

There are 19 Ramsar Regional Initiatives that aim to find connectivity between wetlands. Amazonia is one example of this. In the diagnosis that was carried out, it was found that there is an under-representation of these ecosystems in the protected areas. At the meeting, threats such as overfishing and mining were discussed, as was the importance of making new inventories in order to choose which ecosystems to protect.

People criticise the fact that although places are designated Ramsar Sites, there is no real conservation, as in the case of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta [Large Swamp of Saint Martha].

The declaration on its own is not enough. It can raise public awareness of some sites, for example.  Often, the fact that a place is designated a Ramsar Site helps a country limit national legislation.  

The Convention has certain mechanisms that can be used when the ecological characteristics of a wetland change.  These mechanisms include declaring them on a special list and carrying out advisory missions, as we did with the Ciénaga Grande, where we organised a mission with independent experts and submitted a report. We are currently waiting for the Government of Colombia to reach a decision.

You formed part of the first management team in charge of running the country’s national parks. How has the view of environmental issues changed?

Conservation discourse has evolved a great deal over the last two decades. The sustainable development agenda was hard to imagine in the past. You did not see investment in renewable energies before. The private sector has also started to try to be carbon neutral and to invest in wetlands.

Environmental issues today are not a niche affair; they are part of the development discourse. This changes things radically. However, we still have a long way to go.


El Tiempo (English: The Time) is a nationally distributed daily newspaper in Colombia. As of 2012, it had the highest circulation in Colombia with an average daily weekday of 1,137,483 readers, rising to 1,921,571 readers for the Sunday edition.