Community Outreach, Environmental Education, Land Conservation and Forest Restoration, Miscellaneous

Wetlands Conservation: one more item on the waiting list for presidential candidates

Terraba Sierpe wetlands, Costa Rica. Photo credit: Cavu

Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands, Costa Rica. Photo credit: Cavu

By: Luis Williams

Community Planning – Wetlands Program

Luis Williams

A functional environment is built on a day-to-day basis, from all sectors of society, and a fundamental support for environmental security comes from the participation of local citizens. In many cases, local organizations become protagonists that can either complement or detract from the government’s role in supporting a functioning environment. At Osa Conservation, we aim to highlight the responsibility of citizen participation by presenting useful information to voters during this year’s presidential run-off elections. We want to focus on an issue that we consider crucial to the country, which has remained pending in the proposals of the candidates: conservation of the nation’s wetlands.

Thirteen years ago, Costa Rica approved the Wetlands Policy, a national policy that defined guidelines for the management and conservation of the country’s wetlands. The policy holds Costa Rica’s commitment to the ratification of the Ramsar Convention in 1991, a commission dedicated to the international protection and “wise use” of wetland ecosystems, due to their biological wealth and function as a refuge for a significant number of seasonal migratory water birds. Costa Rica currently has 12 Ramsar sites in count, all of which cover approximately an 11% of the national territory and 350 identified wetlands (SINAC 2013, Environmental Kiosks, 2013).

Despite these efforts at preservation, years have passed and Costa Rica’s wetlands are disbanded and remain without the government and citizen support that they deserve. For example, The Management Plan of National Wetlands Térraba-Sierpe (HNTS)1 still has yet to be approved. During this year’s elections, presidential candidates paid little attention to wetland conservation. But why should they? The answer is simple: wetlands provide us with a great variety of products that vary from basic foods like fish and rice, to lumber, firewood, vegetable oil, salt, herbs, stems and leaves for weaving, and fodder for animals. Many wetlands are also directly related with subterranean water and play a large role in regulating the quantity and quality of the groundwater, which is often an important source of drinking water and water for crop irrigation. Wetlands are also reservoirs of biodiversity, and there is an enormous cultural link between human populations that develop their understanding of the world from their relationship to wetland ecosystems.

The mouth of the Sierpe River, part of the Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands.

The mouth of the Sierpe River, part of the Térraba-Sierpe National Wetlands.

The Ramsar Report 2013 and the XIX Report of the State of the Nation 2012 are very clear about the challenges that pressure these Costa Rican ecosystems. These include:

·       Conflicts over the use of land

·       Economic activities surrounding the wetlands that threaten biodiversity

·       Uncontrolled expansion of monoculture crops (pineapple, banana, etc.)

·       Haphazard use of chemicals on crops

·       Illegal exploitation of species

·       Lack of resources for the protection, management, and restoration of wetlands

·       Scarce cooperation between governmental entities

In the wake of the electoral campaign, Osa Conservation is focused more on finding solutions than defining problems, so let’s analyze the proposed plans of the government. As mentioned, none of the top five candidates expressed any interest in conserving wetlands, although the Citizen Action Party and Broad Front plans make references to some topics that could allow a negotiation and conservation of wetland ecosystems. These proposals are the ones that come closest to creating favorable mechanisms to these ecosystems and these same proposals can be found in the box at the bottom of the text.

The government plans of the presidential candidates leave us the following:

1.     Wetlands are just one more item on the waiting list. None of them have made a direct proposal about conserving wetlands; they have not even spoken about the issue.

2.     To the candidates, only rivers are considered wetlands. You could say that all candidates tie wetlands to rivers, obtaining from them just one sole environmental service: the production of water.

3.     The PLN, FA, and the PAC set out in their plans, with their respective differences on how to do this, the issue of watershed management as either a part of a strategy to strengthen foreign policy (PLN), as the basis unit of territorial organization (FA), or as a foundation for secure access and protection of water resources (PAC).

4.     In making an effort to bring out the positive aspects of all parties, including those with the least mention on the topic, to think about the future institutional mechanisms for the protection of the wetlands, we could say, with difficulty, that the ML and the PUSC prescribe the necessity for better water management as a form of contamination control.

5.     It is important to mention that although it is not explicit for the wetlands, the FA and the PAC give a lot of importance to the role that the communities living around Protected Areas play in conservation and protection, like Caño Negro. This could be a rescuing point, since without doubt, a real exercise in conservation and democracy initiates from the possibility that we gave as citizens to construct the mechanisms necessary to care for the wetlands.

From all of the above, there is only conclusion we can draw – for all of the presidential candidates, the wetlands barely exist, and when they do, the only ecosystem service they provide is generating water. To underestimate the biological importance of Costa Rica’s wetlands is a grave mistake, and one that we can only hope the next president will reverse.

1This plan was approved on December 16, 2013, after many years of diagnostics, studies, and negotiations. After all, the HNTS is one of the most important wetlands of Central America. According to official reports, accounts with an area of about 24 sq. meters with 4 different ecosystems bring together hundreds of species, including human groups, with strongly rooted relationships with these productive ecosystems and cultural ties.