Wetlands do not save themselves: encouraging community involvement is vital

By Chris Walley, A Rocha
For over 30 years A Rocha has found itself working with wetlands in many countries: the Alvor Estuary in Portugal, the Vallée des Baux and the high-level wetlands of Domaine de Courmettes in France, the Aammiq Marshes in Lebanon to name but a few. What have we learnt about saving them?
The most important thing we have learnt is that wetlands do not save themselves: they need defending. They are vulnerable: sensitive to being polluted, drained and ending up as rubbish dumps or building sites. They are also commonly undervalued. This is hardly surprising; in the English language at least almost all the words commonly used for wetlands, swamp, bog, morass, quagmire, are regularly used as figures of speech for negative or difficult situations. Whereas any threat to a wood or a beach will automatically generate a defence by the public, a threat to a wetland is likely to be ignored.
Because of this combination of being vulnerable and undervalued we have learnt that encouraging community involvement is vital.  That involvement can come in three ways.

  1. Building awareness in the community
    Many wetlands are overlooked. It is often necessary to tell people (even those in authority) where they exist. It is also necessary to explain what their value is and to point out their vulnerability. Awareness building can involve making access paths, creating hides, producing educational literature, or encouraging school visits.
  2. Building alliances with the community
    One piece of good news about wetlands is that there are actually a lot of people who have an investment in their preservation. Planners and administrators, not to mention water engineers, value wetlands for their ability to buffer heavy rain events and minimise flood risk. Their role in cleaning wastewater may also be an overlooked factor. One unlikely group to have recently raised their voices in favour of the preservation of wetlands are archaeologists, who have pointed out the fact that in the black and anoxic muds of wetlands tissues and fabrics can be preserved for millennia. Drain a wetland and oxygen enters with catastrophic impact on artefacts. As a Christian organisation A Rocha has been very much involved in mobilising church support: and in many parts of the world the church is more influential in shaping opinion than the local government!
    Defending a wetland is so much easier with more people and multiple voices involved. On their own conservationists may be inadequate to prevent threats to wetlands; but we are not on our own. We have allies: let’s make use of them.
  3. Building advocacy by the community
    In the preservation of wetlands there needs to be persistent, watchful and active advocacy. There needs to be a constant guard against a multitude of subtle but dangerous threats: perhaps some agricultural development upstream that will take out water and put in pesticides, a low publicity planning application for a new road or leisure development that will carve up a wetland, or the cancellation of some legislation preventing waste dumping.

Sooner or later however monitoring will not be enough. Action must be taken. So for instance with the Alvor Estuary in Portugal’s congested Algarve, A Rocha has successfully fought a decade-long battle against leisure development that would have badly impacted a Ramsar site.
Wetlands are valuable and never more so than at the time of climate change. Yet they do not save themselves: they need work!
Photo: Trapping of migratory swallows at roosting time in mist nets in the Vallée des Baux, France. The birds are ringed and released on the following day. © Chris Walley