San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Wetlands Fading Fast

Cangrejo Verde, a 600-hectare lagoon in the Southern Zone, was once a thriving wetland, a refuge for fish, rare aquatic plants and snowbirds escaping the northern winter.

Now it’s gone.

It is not the only casualty.

Costa Rica’s wetlands – home to crocodiles, endangered sawfish a host of migratory waterfowl – have receded by as much as 60% in Costa Rica in the past 30 years, according to scientists.

The biggest threat, they say, is not urban sprawl or industrial agriculture but the country’s weak, confusing and poorly enforced laws, which have left plants, animals and birds that depend on the country’s once prolific swamps and mangrove forests high and dry.

According to Jorge Gamboa, of the country’s National Wetland Program, it has taken less than 10 years for some wetlands to dry up.

From his corner office overlooking the heavily developed Central Valley, Gamboa watches as green is steadily being enveloped and replaced by the grays and blacks of concrete and asphalt.

He rattles off a list of problems that seem foreign in a country known for its green image: rampant water pollution, fish kills, drying rivers, illegal logging, irrigation, and new developments.

It’s a grim scenario, said biologist Jorge Arturo Jiménez, who has spent a lifetime watching the slow decline of the country’s once abundant wetlands.

Official estimates, based on the outdated surveys of the mid-1990s, put the country at 7% wetlands, or roughly 350,000 hectares.

Jiménez believes it could be as little as half that today – a more likely scenario perhaps 240,000 hectares, most concentrated in areas below 600 meters of elevation, along the northern Caribbean slope and the TempisqueRiverValley, in Guanacaste.

“But no one knows for sure,” he said.

Jiménez believes laws must be tightened, and clarified if this is to change.

Costa Rica’s current legislation declares wetlands places of “public interest,” he said, but does little to delineate exactly what is – and what isn’t – a wetland.

“Right now, a presidential decree is required to declare an area wetland. It’s absurd.”

Scientific standards for classifying wetlands, such as those employed by the U.S.

Fish and Wildlife Service, are virtually nonexistent here.

The confusion bubbles up to the judicial level, where he said judges often recognize an area is a wetland, but legally can do nothing to protect it.

“As a country, we lack the ability to delimit, decree and expropriate important wetlands,” he said.

In a presentation for the Costa Rican Ornithological Association (AOCR) last week, Jiménez said that ven some of the country’s 11 Ramsar wetlands, protected by a 1991 international convention of the same name, are at risk.

PaloVerdeNational Park, a massive wetland that attracts thousands of migratory birds along the TempisqueRiver, and Caño Negro, near the Nicaragua border, are two examples.

“The Tempisque almost dries up during the summer,” he said. “The amount of water being extracted for use in agriculture has shot up in the past 15 years.”

Likewise for issues of contamination.

“There is no national program that monitors the water quality in our wetlands.

There are fish kills in the news every year, and still, we don’t know what is happening,” said Jiménez.

AOCR President Roy May, an avid, lifelong birder and naturalist who has spent years tromping through the country’s swampy areas looking for birds, said he hoped his group might help contribute to monitoring programs by beginning bird counts in critical wetlands.

“Birds are a good monitor of a wetland’s health,” he said.

Gamboa, of the National Wetlands Program, said such citizen-action programs are necessary.

“We need more education. In this country, we taught people that national parks are sacred. But wetlands mean very little to most,” he said. “If we are going to preserve our remaining wetlands, that must change.”

What Are Ramsar Wetlands?

The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, is a treaty that encourages the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. The treaty brings together 157 countries, with 1702 wetland sites, totaling 153 million hectares, designated as “Wetlands of International Importance.” The nation with the highest number of sites is the United Kingdom at 164; the nation with the greatest area of listed wetlands is Canada with over 130,000 km?,

including the QueenMaudGulf site at 62,800 km?.Costa Rica has 11. (Please see map.)



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