02 February 2011

World Wetlands Day 2011: Forests and Wetlands

Two years ago I put up a decent, now "sticky" post on the background and origins of World Wetlands Day, celebrated every year on 2 February as the date the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (site available in English, Français and Español) was signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. As I wrote then, a 2002 document stated that
''the Convention's mission is the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world."
By the time of my post in 2009, the official site listed 158 signatories (countries, protectorates, and former states) to the Convention who have collectively designated more than 170 million hectares (1.7M sq km) in 1,831 wetlands sites for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. In the following year, one signatory (Turkmenistan) had been added and the total designated wetlands area comprised more than 185 million hectares (1.85M sq km) across 1886 designated sites. That was good progress, I would say, in a year of great controversy over the potential role of wetlands and their cousin peatlands in climate negotiations that came to something of a head the previous autumn at COP-15 in Copenhagen.

Since World Wetlands Day in 2010, one more signatory to the Convention (Lao PDR) has been added, bringing the total number to 160.  The total designated wetlands area has risen to almost 187 million hectares (1.87M sq km) across 1912 designated sites.  Again, much progress in a year of little indication elsewhere of mass movement toward sustainability.  While most of the world's leaders floundered about on climate issues in the time leading up to COP-16 in Cancun, while politicians remained stuck on CO2 emissions standards and international finger-pointing over responsibility and leadership, and while significant flaws in the embryonic process to protect tropical forests through the REDD process were exposed, the rest of the world kept moving forward through a year of significant weather anomalies and wondering where we will eventually end up.  The health of our global wetland areas remains a key indicator of that destination.

For this 40th anniversary of the Ramsar Convention, the theme of World Wetlands Day in 2011 is "Forests for Water and Wetlands," aligned with the United Nations declaration of 2011 as the International Year of ForestsWetlands International describes several of the numerous connections between forests, wetlands, and the waters that flow between them.  Forested wetlands such as mangrove swamps, peat swamp forests, and freshwater swamp forests, bring special benefits to their surrounding environments including
  • biological diversity,
  • freshwater management,
  • carbon storage, and
  • water quality.
Mangrove swamps that thrive in brackish semi-marine environments provide significant coastline protection from tropical cyclones and accompanying storm surge waves. Freshwater swamp and fen forests, especially in river floodplains, serve a valuable in floodwater storage and flood wave attenuation. The ecology of all of these forest environments serves effectively to filter the water that flows through them, improving water quality in downstream areas. The health of a watershed is intimately related to the health of its forests.

But forests, of all kinds and around the world, are in danger from harvesting, development, drainage and conversion, and terrestrial nutrient pollution. Coastal mangrove forests in river deltas are also subject to the runoff from upstream, carrying sediments and agricultural pollutants. River flood events carry runoff and discharge pollutants and trash into the floodplain forests and then recede, leaving a toxic legacy behind. Timber harvesting in both tropical and temperate forests leave little protection for the underlying peatlands and swamps, which erode under the increased exposure. With the loss of the physical environment, we see the loss of species habitat and biodiversity at the same time that downstream water quality is irreversibly degraded.

Conservation International has, just today, published a list of "The World's Ten Most Threatened Forest Hotspots."  As stated in their press release,
"These forests have all lost 90% or more of their original habitat and each harbor at least 1500 endemic plant species (species found nowhere else in the world). If these forests are lost, those endemic species are also lost forever. These forests potentially support the lives of close to one billion people who live in or around them, and directly or indirectly depend on the natural resources forest ecosystems provide...
"Forests overall cover only 30 percent of our planet's area and yet they are home to 80 percent of the world's terrestrial biodiversity. They also sustain the livelihoods for 1.6 billion people, who directly depend on healthy forests for income. The trees, flowers, animals and microorganisms found in forests form a complex web of life. The interactions between the species and the ecosystems in them function as natural factories of some of our most basic needs, like clean air, healthy soils, medicines, crop pollination and fresh water."

Where are these designated hotspots around the world?  Many are isolated areas, including New Zealand, Sundaland (the Indo-Malayan archipelago), the Philippines, Madagascar, and Indian Ocean Islands. There, the forests are important for the health and sustainability of those island ecologies, of course.  Other identified forests at risk are integral to the character of their continental and coastal watersheds:
  • Indo-Burma (Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, and Mekong River basins)
  • South American Atlantic Forest (Parana River basin and coastal Brazil)
  • Mountains of Southwest China (upper portions of the Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, and Yangtze River basins)
  • California Floristic Province (Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins and coastal California)
  • Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa (Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique)
  • Eastern Afromontane (Nile River basin and Lake Tanganyika)
So many of these forest areas span transboundary river basins, where all of the resources must be shared and managed properly or will be lost forever in the midst of international struggles over resource rights and responsibilities.  Loss of forest areas because of logging, conversion to agriculture and pasture lands, urban development, and dam-building all pose threats not only to the forest ecology and biodiversity of the areas, but also to the quality and value of water that passes through those.  And not only do these large areas with significant ecological and habitat degradation need help, but also the remaining forested areas everywhere.

When the state and national forest land near your city or town is leased for grazing and mineral rights or sold for logging or development, downstream areas will suffer.  It is far too often that the government does not recognize the connections between their decisions and what will happen downstream, both in space and time, because of those actions.  We need to stand up for our forests and help to prevent further encroachment and degradation, and not just for the health of the forest and its ecology, but also for our own needs.  This is an issue of the quality of our environment, which supports our quality of life in so many ways that we often recognize only when they've gone.  For the sake of our forests and the ecological support that they provide, for our water and for ourselves, we must act as individuals and in community to preserve and protect what we are still seeking to understand in our forests and wetlands.

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