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Ecology

Wetlands a Vital Resource for Humanity

Throughout Earth’s long history, wetlands have contained and conserved the scarce, finite, and essential element of water. 64% of these environments have been lost over the last 150 years, making it imperative that we all help conserve what remains.

 Text and photos: Javier A. Pinzón

Water spreads over the earth, capriciously appearing as liquid, solid, and vapor. Even though two thirds of our planet is liquid, only 3% is fresh water and 1.7% of that is locked inside glaciers and polar ice caps. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this vital liquid to all living beings: water is scarce and finite. Throughout our Earth’s long history, wetlands ―valuable ecosystems distributed across the geographic spectrum― have helped to contain and conserve water. However, Arturo Dominici, executive director of the Ramsar Regional Center, points out that we have lost 64% of these environments over the last 150 years.

Wetlands are large expanses of seasonal or permanent fresh, brackish, or salt water that can measure twenty feet deep, and are, in fact, the largest fresh water reservoirs in the world. While wetland ecosystems are quite varied and shelter species of plants and animals that have evolved to take advantage of the abundance of nutrients unique to these habitats, they can also be considered the cradle of all forms of life. Furthermore, they serve as significant carbon sinks. Wetlands can stair-step down altitude levels, starting with bofedales at over 16,000 feet and then descending through high plains, rivers and marshlands, all the way down to mangrove swamps at sea level. Surprisingly, wetlands also penetrate up to twenty feet into the ocean, where coral reefs are located.

I invite you to follow us as we journey from mountain heights of over 16,000 feet down to sea level to discover some of these wetlands and learn how each one adds to the enormous diversity of our world. The arid steppes in the central Andes feature an unusual expanse of high-altitude wetlands called bofedales. In the words of Francisco A. Squeo, professor at Chile’s Serena University, bofedales are distributed between 10,500 and 16,400 feet above sea level, at the foot of mountains and snowy peaks in northern Argentina, Bolivia, Perú, and Chile. Their fresh and marginally saline water derives from underground water from glacier streams, snowmelt, and rain. The vegetation is a green layer resembling a sponge, soft to the touch and able to absorb a large amount of water. The inhabitants of this ecosystem have been little studied, and only some fifty-two species of plants and sixty species of animals are known. These unique systems are very fragile because of their reliance on water, and they are sensitive to changes in climate and susceptible to human pressure.

Our trek continues to the high plains of the Andes of Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, and the heights of Costa Rica. Mario E. Tapia, from the Consortium for Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion (CONDESAN), notes that this singular ecosystem is found at altitudes between 11,150 and 13,800 feet, where some 5,000 species of plants grow even though it is too cold for forests. Local plants have had to adapt to the unusual conditions, with the frailejón, a native type of espeletia, being a good example. It has a thick trunk and hair-covered succulent leaves that trap and store water from the mist. It is characterized by slow growth of less than half an inch per year.

The fauna of the high plains has been little studied, but the plains are known to be the habitat of the only true bear found in Latin America: the Andean or spectacled bear, which is now threatened by encroaching agriculture and habitat destruction. The high plains play an important ecological role that includes regulating the water cycle, so essential to human life. These fragile ecosystems supply water to many Andean cities. Furthermore, the deep soil (nearly ten feet below the surface) of the plains retains a high concentration of organic matter. These characteristics mean that the total concentration of carbon stored per hectare can be higher than in a hectare of tropical forest.

Leaving behind the astounding mountains, we now turn to the rivers: another type of wetland that brings varied landscapes to life and feeds marshes and coastal lagoons, eventually emptying into the vastness of the ocean. Sadly, 60% to 70% of the region’s rivers are polluted and many of them have been dammed, with myriad species of flora and fauna suffering from the stagnant water, explains Dominici. This situation has led to the extinction of several species and flooding of large areas of wetlands, forests, and farmland. The conditions likewise generate methane gas, which retains twenty-one to thirty-four times more atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide.

Our next destination is marshland: large stretches of floodable land that have been drained for farming or urbanization, as is the case in parts of Panama City, relates Smithsonian Institute scientist Stanley Heckadon. The Americas can lay claim to Brazil’s Great Swamp, which spreads over some 85,000 square miles, making it the largest and most biodiverse marsh in the world. These watery expanses are extremely important to migratory birds, since they serve as feeding or breeding sites during the birds’ long journeys, which sometimes cover thousands of miles.

We now head for the mangrove swamps. Heckadon explains that mangrove swamps are marshy forests that form along the coasts where fresh water meets salt water. Mangroves put out surface roots that hang in the air or grow into water or muddy soil. The roots interlace to form impenetrable barriers that serve as homes and nurseries for hundreds of species, while creating a protective coastal wall against storms and hurricanes by slowing down water currents. Mangroves filter organic and inorganic nutrients, helping to purify the water. However, these systems are being destroyed by shrimp farming, expanding agriculture, forest exploitation, infrastructure works, and port development, all of which generate pollution.

Fittingly, we end our journey underwater, in search of the multi-color coral reef world that is home to a wide range of species. According to the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Forum, these ecosystems, dubbed “marine forests” because of their immense diversity, occupy barely 0.1% of the oceans, but are home to 25% of all marine species. Nearly 10% of the fish consumed around the world are caught on reefs. Less than half a square mile of healthy reef provides enough fish to feed 300 people, but overfishing, destructive fishery practices, pollution, sedimentation, irresponsible tourism, acidification of the oceans, and high temperatures are causing these magnificent entities to shrink.

However, Dominici assures me that all is not lost. Signed in 1971, the Ramsar Convention is the only treaty of its kind designed to protect wetlands. Ratified by 168 countries, thirty-nine of which are in the Americas, this Convention was adopted to encourage the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. Among other agreements, signatory countries promise to name wetlands as Ramsar sites, thereby granting them international protection.

These extremely fragile ecosystems must be defended and protected. All this may seem simple and obvious, but the convenience of our cities and the easy availability of running water allow us to ignore the provenance of such a vital resource. The truth is that we need wetlands and we are all responsible for protecting them.