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ENVIRONMENT: Keeping Wetlands from Becoming Wastelands

Stephen Leahy

VICTORIA, Seychelles, Feb 5 2010 (IPS) - Swamps, marshes and other wetlands are beginning to be recognised as a country’s ‘green jewels’, even in a tropical paradise like Mahé Island here in the Seychelles, with its stunning beaches and dramatic granite outcrops.

“Wetlands are one of the world’s richest ecosystems on the planet,” said Joel Morgan, minister for environment, natural resources and transport, Republic of Seychelles.

“We islanders live closer to nature than many others and we have long understood the importance of wetlands and environmental services and resources they provide us with,” Morgan said at the first-ever World Wetlands Week.

Normally, World Wetlands Day is Feb. 2, but this year the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty on conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources, is celebrating wetlands around the world throughout the entire week.

The Seychelles were chosen for the global launch of World Wetlands Week because they exemplified the Ramsar principle of wise use successfully balancing tourism, development, food security and biodiversity, said Anada Tiega, secretary general of the Ramsar Convention.

“The Seychelles has done a good job implementing the Ramsar Convention,” Tiega said in the opening ceremony.

The Seychelles Islands are a tropical archipelago 1,800 kilometres off the east coast of Africa with a population of just 85,000 people. They comprise 115 islands – the Inner Islands are tall and granitic and the outer low-lying comprise coralline cays, atolls and reef islands. Although generally small in size, wetlands of various kinds can be found on most islands.

Still, there are wetlands here that scientists have determined of are international significance. Praslin Island’s Vallée de Mai, once believed to be the original site of the Garden of Eden, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is expected to be named a Ramsar wetland site of international importance by the end of the year.

At a signing ceremony this week, two other sites were officially designated as a Ramsar wetlands – the Aldabra atoll, the world’s largest raised coral atoll, and the Mare Aux Cochons high-altitude wetlands.

“We need to have a network of sites like this (Mare Aux Cochons) to support the unique life in the small islands of the Indian Ocean,” Tiega said.

Wetlands include riparian areas, mangroves, mudflats, marshes and seagrass beds. In the Seychelles, they provide economic and conservation benefits through fisheries production, flood control, shoreline stabilisation, maintenance of coastal water quality for fisheries and coral reefs.

Wetlands also house extensive biodiversity, ranging from algae and lichens to plants, insects, amphibians, crustaceans, birds and fish.

Wetlands have often been treated as wastelands and drained for agriculture, or filled in to create building space. In the Seychelles, like many tropical areas, most of the mangroves have been destroyed – cut for wood, for coastal development or simply removed because they were once thought to harbour diseases.

Losing mangroves and wetlands means losing the valuable services they provide. Tourism, food security and coastal protection are often the most obvious losers when wetlands die. In small islands, the poorest people often live very near to and depend directly on wetland ecosystems for their livelihood.

The main challenge in small countries like the Seychelles, where tourism is the country’s biggest source of income, is to balance development and conservation.

“For any nation, development is a must… On small islands, lack of land means some development will take place in environmentally sensitive areas,” said Morgan.

Stringent development guidelines and planning are required to sustainably use and maintain wetlands for the benefit of humans and nature, as set out under the Ramsar principles. In resort developments in the past decade, wetlands have been integrated into building plans and become a real tourist asset to the economy with proper management and conservation plans, he said.

Climate change is the other major threat to wetlands, by decreasing precipitation in many places and increasing evaporation rates due to warming temperatures. The Amazon can’t be preserved and store all the carbon in the forest without the 1,000-plus network of rivers and wetlands in the region that support the forest, said Tiega.

“Good management of wetlands can help mitigate climate change (by sequestering carbon),” he said.

And good management also means protecting peatlands from being turned into oil palm plantations because they store thousands of years of accumulated carbon. In fact, they contain more than twice the amount of carbon that can be found in existing forests today, he said.

“Climate change is threatening our very existence in the Seychelles. Tourism, fisheries, agriculture are already feeling the impact,” said Morgan.

Wetlands play a very important part in the natural process of mitigation, he said. “We need to continue to value wetlands preserve them.”

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