Category Archives: EN

Alexander Watson, Putting wetlands on the map

As natural buffers against storms and floods, nursing grounds for fisheries, sources of wood for fuel and timber, and hotspots of biodiversity, mangroves are a vital lifeline for people and nature. But, mangroves are being lost rapidly as cities, agriculture and aquaculture expand. And, being in remote locations, means that it’s even more difficult to pinpoint the causes.

“It’s hard to believe that wetlands are often still viewed by humans as useless land.”

One young wetland ambassador working to change this is Alexander Watson, based in Krefeld, Germany. With his heart and soul in landscape recovery, this ‘nature-inspired’ entrepreneur specialises in supporting civil society organisations and communities with the remote sensing, data analysis, visualisation and map-based communication tools needed to safeguard or restore their forest landscapes, including mangroves.

“Mangroves make landscapes and ecosystems more resilient. As border ecosystems between land and water, they have a structural diversity and provide a habitat for many rare plant and animal species. It’s hard to believe that wetlands are often still viewed by humans as useless land,” says Alexander.

Mangrove protecting the cost land, El Salvador

Alexander graduated as a forestry scientist but without any formal wetland training. It was during a hike in Panama in 2008 that began in the rainforests when he came to realise just how vital water is by connecting our ecosystems and he had an idea for how to help people value these ecosystems.

Alexander during a hike in the Panamanian cloud forests.

“The air had over 90% humidity. Everything was slightly wet. The surfaces and mosses on the trees were soaked with water. The forest floor was muddy and repeatedly crossed by small streams. Mud had formed on flat surfaces into which you sank deep beyond your ankles,” he says.“The hike followed the water, along small streams down to the sea on the Caribbean side. There was no white beach there, but mangroves. This hike, in which I followed the water, from the fog of the mountains to the sea, showed me how water connects ecosystems,” he adds.

He realised that by monitoring these landscapes closely via satellite imagery and by making their visual diversity accessible via high-resolution aerial images, he could help people value these ecosystems. It’s only what we see, understand, and connect with that we are going to protect, he says.

Following this vision, Alexander and two friends started OpenForests in 2011, and today the team has grown to 12 people supporting more than 150 projects around the world.

The hiking journey downhill to the mangroves

However, it took some time for Alexander and his co-founders to find their way. It started with making aerial photographs by mounting a normal camera to a helium balloon. Unsurprisingly, operating a balloon on a rope in a windy forest presented some challenges.

Mounting a camera with a balloon.

Experimenting with the first available drones, which came out shortly after, helped the team improve and they mapped up to 100 hectares a day, producing high-quality images. This led to their first consultancy contract. Armed with a brand new drone necessary for the job, and bought with €10.000 scraped together from friends, the team set out to Suriname.

But, day one, flight one, in front of all clients, the prized drone crashed into a tree and was badly damaged. It took the team three weeks to carry out repairs, only to run into repeated problems with take-off in a dense forest. To avoid yet another crash, they decided to haul the drone above the canopy, using a helicopter drone and a rope, thus securing a safe take-off – for the drone and the business.

Mounting the fixed-wing glider drone with a copter drone 2015 Suriname.

More #PowerofWetlands stories...

Alexander Watson, Putting wetlands on the map

As natural buffers against storms and floods, nursing grounds for fisheries, sources of wood for fuel and timber, and hotspots of biodiversity, mangroves are a

María Elisa Sánchez, Thinking like a mountain

Wetlands high up in mountains are often remote and harsh places, blasted by wind and rain, with all seasons possible in a day. But while their social sparsity m

Youssoupha Sané, Awakening to the bond between people and nature

Wetland wildernesses are all too often lost to the march of development — industrial infrastructure, the encroachment of the city, clearing for agricultur

Hugo Ferreira, Taking flight with the flamingos

When we think of spectacular nature, our minds perhaps turn to the dusty savannahs of Africa or the vast wilderness of the Pantanal, where jaguars roam and caim

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María Elisa Sánchez, Thinking like a mountain

Wetlands high up in mountains are often remote and harsh places, blasted by wind and rain, with all seasons possible in a day. But while their social sparsity might suggest a lack of importance, they are in fact, fundamental to thousands of cities around the world; as a vital source of freshwater, fed by melting snow and glaciers.

“They are natural ‘water towers’ because of their ability to collect water and release it slowly through time.”

Thirty-three year old Ecuadorian, Maria Sánchez, is someone who recognises just how crucial to life these wetlands are. Born in the second highest capital city in the world, Quito, Maria has been studying how mountain peatlands are affected by a shift in winter precipitation due to climate change for the past two years. “They are natural ‘water towers’ because of their ability to collect water and release it slowly through time but they are disproportionately affected by climate change,” she says.

One of Maria’s favourite sites is the Helen Lake peatland in Banff National Park in Canada. “It is super hard to hike in all the equipment there, because we are not allowed to leave it in. But the views are amazing and it is so peaceful and quiet. I feel very grateful I get to work there.”

One of Maria’s favourite sites in the Helen Lake peatland in Banff National Park in Canada.

To survive in these conditions, life has to be hardy. Mountain peatlands are also the home of very specific species that have adapted to live in what are often harsh conditions. These ecosystems may see all the seasons in one day, and these adapted species thrive there, says Maria.

Among these, the Alpine Bearberry’s shortness allows it to stay alive through high winds, avalanches. It protects itself from cold by staying under the snow. Sphagnum moss, meanwhile, acts like sponge to hold huge amounts of water and allows peat to accumulate.

What fascinates María most, however, is the way that organic matter has managed to still gather over landscapes that have changed so much — through landslides, volcanic eruptions, and glacier retreat. “It is also awe-inspiring how these peatlands have accumulated carbon for over ten thousand years in such small places. Peatlands in the mountains are not vast and flat, they are small but very prevalent,” she says.

The Alpine Bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpine) is a shrub adapted to high elevation. Its shortness allows it to stay alive through the extreme climactic conditions of the region.

Unfortunately, high-altitude wetlands are rapidly being degraded due to the drainage of mountain peatlands, conversion of lakes and channelisation of rivers. The loss of upstream wetlands threatens the health and safety of billions of people downstream by reducing the capacity of the landscape to store water. This prevents the replenishment of groundwater and increases the risk of water scarcity and flash floods.

“Studying mountain peatlands is an essential step for conservation as these ecosystems are an essential piece of the hydrological cycle. María says: “It is incredibly important that we turn to look at them now: to inventory them, characterise them, and include them in our studies, because we may end up losing entire ecosystems, without knowing they existed or how they worked.”

Maria’s path, from her environmental engineering degree to her passion for mountain wetlands, was not always easy. “I somehow felt I was missing something. I later understood that a great component of my satisfaction with work was to be outdoors in the field understanding ecosystems by observing them,” she says.

More #PowerofWetlands stories...

Alexander Watson, Putting wetlands on the map

As natural buffers against storms and floods, nursing grounds for fisheries, sources of wood for fuel and timber, and hotspots of biodiversity, mangroves are a

María Elisa Sánchez, Thinking like a mountain

Wetlands high up in mountains are often remote and harsh places, blasted by wind and rain, with all seasons possible in a day. But while their social sparsity m

Youssoupha Sané, Awakening to the bond between people and nature

Wetland wildernesses are all too often lost to the march of development — industrial infrastructure, the encroachment of the city, clearing for agricultur

Hugo Ferreira, Taking flight with the flamingos

When we think of spectacular nature, our minds perhaps turn to the dusty savannahs of Africa or the vast wilderness of the Pantanal, where jaguars roam and caim

Tell us your story →

Youssoupha Sané, Awakening to the bond between people and nature

Wetland wildernesses are all too often lost to the march of development — industrial infrastructure, the encroachment of the city, clearing for agriculture — under the promise of jobs, prosperity and a better life. But, in many cases, what is gained can never replace what was lost, and the benefits are overshadowed by the consequences.

Threats such as saltwater intrusion into crop fields give Youssoupha an even greater incentive to protect the mangroves of the Saloum.

One young wetland ambassador looking for a different way is Youssoupha Sane, a teacher at Mbam village primary school, Senegal — a sleepy village in the Fatick district, upstream from the Saloum Delta.

Just 180 kilometers south-east of Dakar, the Delta is a biodiversity hotspot and UNESCO world heritage site covering some 180,000 hectares of wetlands, lakes, lagoons and marshes, sandy coasts and dunes, terrestrial savannah areas and dry, open forest. It’s home to 400 species, is a source of millions of livelihoods and plays a vital role in flood control and regulating the distribution of rainwater for local people and wildlife.

However, these wetlands have been under pressure on a number of different fronts over the last decade. The discovery of oil in the Sangomar Deep block, off the Senegalese coast close to the National Park of the Saloum Delta, has been a cause for concern. Many, including Youssoupha, are worried about the risks to the Delta.

Many, including Youssoupha, are worried about the risks to the delta.

At the same time, due to drought, climate change and the uncontrolled logging of mangrove forests, the ground’s salinity has shot up – threatening the livelihoods of thousands of people living there, with saltwater intrusion into rice fields and pastoral areas. It’s even more reason to protect the mangroves since they help stop the advancement of salinisation in the crop fields, Youssoupha says.

A local oil spill in 2014, with severe consequences for the community, livelihoods and wildlife, convinced Youssoupha that the wetlands must be safeguarded. Seeing the connections between threats and disastrous outcomes for people and nature, he made it his mission to raise awareness across generations and help foster sustainable development in his community.

Youssoupha has since been teaching at Mbam school alongside 12 other teachers, giving the 420 students a broad education, as well as delving into environmental issues such as waste management and biodiversity. The school forest, introduced a number of years ago, offers habitat for birds, insects and other animals, which students can study first-hand.

Students at the Mbam school have a ‘school forest’ where they can study birds, insects and other animals first-hand.

But, for two years now, school is regularly interrupted, due to the salinisation of the water systems. The lack of freshwater supply has led to the death of many banana plants and forced the shutdown of the school garden. A more systemic approach is needed, and that involves helping local communities make the connection between human actions, disasters and the ways that maintaining the ecosystem can help prevent these disasters.

With this in mind, the Mbam 2 Environment Club, coordinated by Youssoupha and which brings together 30 students every year to explore the mangroves, spot wildlife and count waterbirds. By putting their knowledge into action the children learn the complex co-dependencies between the ecosystem and their communities.

“It’s vital to prepare the children for a climate that might threaten their way of life.”

It’s vital to prepare the children for a climate that might threaten their way of life and equip them with the knowledge and actions to protect their environment, says Youssoupha. Ideally, everyone would have access to their own green energy and know how to mitigate the effects of natural and anthropogenic environmental change.

Youssoupha hopes their enthusiasm will help raise awareness among their parents on the importance of the environment, contributing to an increasing focus on sustainability in their region. “They’re awakening the environmentalist fibre,” he says.

More #PowerofWetlands stories...

Alexander Watson, Putting wetlands on the map

As natural buffers against storms and floods, nursing grounds for fisheries, sources of wood for fuel and timber, and hotspots of biodiversity, mangroves are a

María Elisa Sánchez, Thinking like a mountain

Wetlands high up in mountains are often remote and harsh places, blasted by wind and rain, with all seasons possible in a day. But while their social sparsity m

Youssoupha Sané, Awakening to the bond between people and nature

Wetland wildernesses are all too often lost to the march of development — industrial infrastructure, the encroachment of the city, clearing for agricultur

Hugo Ferreira, Taking flight with the flamingos

When we think of spectacular nature, our minds perhaps turn to the dusty savannahs of Africa or the vast wilderness of the Pantanal, where jaguars roam and caim

Tell us your story →

Hugo Ferreira, Taking flight with the flamingos

When we think of spectacular nature, our minds perhaps turn to the dusty savannahs of Africa or the vast wilderness of the Pantanal, where jaguars roam and caiman lurk. We seldom think of Europe, with its formidable autobahns and bustling cities.

But, for Hugo Ferreira, a 27-year old from Portugal, Europe has some hidden gems, wetland gems to be precise, and more people need to know about them. For the past two years, Hugo has been volunteering at France’s largest wetland, the Camargue.

Nestled between France’s cosmopolitan cities of Montpelier and Marseille, the Camargue stretches nearly 150,000 hectares between two gulfs, forming a triangular delta with the Mediterranean Sea at its base. These wetlands are home to 75 species of fish, 15 amphibians, six reptiles, 32 mammals, and 412 birds, with 111 regularly nesting species. And, more than 1,500 of France’s 4,700 flowering plant species are to be found here. The Camargue also supports species like the Greater Flamingo, the Glossy Ibis, Eurasian bittern and more.

27-year-old Hugo from Portugal has been volunteering at France’s largest wetland, the Camargue, for the past 2 years.

Hugo has been volunteering in fieldwork, monitoring and studying the ecology of the wetlands, as well as doing workshops and talks for kids, students and other audiences. He says: “I fulfilled my kid´s dream of doing what I saw every Sunday morning in nature programmes on the TV. I’ve been in a natural reserve studying wild animals like spoonbills, flamingos, ibis, gulls, boars, coypus, marmots, parasites mosquitoes, coleoptera, eels, fish.. I was so happy and motivated that I would just help in every project I could!”

“I fulfilled my kid´s dream of doing what I saw every Sunday morning in nature programmes on the TV.”

But it wasn’t always so. Although Hugo had studied ecology (algae macroinvertebrates communities), after university he found it difficult to find related work in Portugal. He took a job at a hotel in the Algarve, where he gave presentations on local biodiversity. However, he wanted more and felt unfulfilled. “Despite meeting amazing people there, I was quite depressed, feeling that all my hard work in my studies were in vain. It was definitively not the life I imagined for myself and not fulfilling my urge for adventure and discovery.”

Following his passion, he found an opportunity in the framework of the European Solidarity Corps programme, plucked up the courage to move to a different country, learn a new language and started with Wetlands International partner, Tour du Valat, a research institute for the conservation of Mediterranean wetlands.

Work on reviving these wetlands has involved bringing a variety of stakeholders together – birds-watchers, students, bull breeders, horse-owners and fishers to share the space. There are regular talks, activities and workshops for the local community.

Now, in the early stages of a PhD, Hugo continues to introduce people to the wildlife of the wetlands and how to safeguard these gems.

“The Camargue is special to me because there I not only found a new place to call home but also the chance to live the dream I had as kid.”

Through a youth event Hugo met people in the European Commission who invited him to create a network to connect young people around Europe and to inspire them to take action. Part of this is to share his volunteering story and inspire others as to how they can get involved. Along the way at these events, he has picked up the name, “flamingo boy”.

He explains: “During my volunteering, I recorded a video about my experience and took part in a photo competition. I was selected as one of the volunteers of the year and for the best magical moment volunteering for nature. Since the highlight was the flamingos, I started to be internationally known at youth events as the ‘flamingo boy’. The best skill I learned during my project was how to dance and sing like a flamingo. Maybe next time I can show it to you!”

Now, in the early stages of a PhD, studying migration of spoonbills from Camargue, Hugo continues to introduce people to the wildlife of the wetlands, and gives talks on the importance of wetlands and how youth in Europe can get involved to safeguard these gems.

Hugo picked up the name “flamingo boy” after sharing his volunteer stories at international youth events, where he tended to show videos of flamingos.

More #PowerofWetlands stories...

Alexander Watson, Putting wetlands on the map

As natural buffers against storms and floods, nursing grounds for fisheries, sources of wood for fuel and timber, and hotspots of biodiversity, mangroves are a

María Elisa Sánchez, Thinking like a mountain

Wetlands high up in mountains are often remote and harsh places, blasted by wind and rain, with all seasons possible in a day. But while their social sparsity m

Youssoupha Sané, Awakening to the bond between people and nature

Wetland wildernesses are all too often lost to the march of development — industrial infrastructure, the encroachment of the city, clearing for agricultur

Hugo Ferreira, Taking flight with the flamingos

When we think of spectacular nature, our minds perhaps turn to the dusty savannahs of Africa or the vast wilderness of the Pantanal, where jaguars roam and caim

Tell us your story →