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The three mangrove defenders - Mexico

Alejandro Betancourth, Juan Borges, Pilar Gómez-Ruiz – The three mangrove defenders

Stories about restoring and safeguarding wetlands are frequently about people acting on their conservation dreams of fighting for local biodiversity. They’re also often about friendship and a shared love of nature.

Alejandro Buitrago (28), Juan Borges (35), and Pilar Gómez-Ruiz (36) are three young wetland scientists and friends who have been working together to restore mangroves in the Pantanos de Centla Biosphere Reserve – a biodiversity-rich mangrove haven in Tabasco, southeastern Mexico, under threat from mining, logging and agriculture.

Covering 302,906 hectares, the Pantanos de Centla Biosphere Reserve comprises mangroves, freshwater wetlands, coastal dunes, aquatic and underwater vegetation. It is part of the largest wetland area in North America, home to species including red, black and white mangroves, howler monkeys, manatees, ocelots and alligators, as well as agami heron, the white pelican and the jabirú stork, Mexico’s largest bird.

Robin Canul - Alejandro Betancourth, Juan Borges, Pilar Gómez-Ruiz

Mangroves are essential for the communities around the Pantanos de Centla Biosphere Reserve.

But, like so many mangrove areas, this unique ecosystem is facing threats from industrial activities including mining, logging, agriculture, overfishing and urbanisation. Climate change is also a threat because of the increased impacts of forest fires.  These fires can have a severe impact, resulting in a loss of mangrove cover and causing underground fires that are very difficult to control, Paulo says.

Pilar and Paulo met first when they were doing their PhD and Master, respectively, at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México, placed in Morelia city in 2012. Then, Alejandro met Paulo working together during a consultation project for the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) in the city of Villahermosa in 2017. The group teamed up to design a project in 2019 that would restore mangroves, increase community resilience and enhance the ability to adapt to climate change.

“These are actions that promote conservation and management of ecosystems and resources considering the benefits that they provide to human societies and biodiversity. We worked with two communities in the Pantanos de Centla Biosphere Reserve to develop more understanding about the value of their wetland and how to make use of its resources in a sustainable way,” says Alejandro.

Due to the close cooperation with the local communities, the project has strengthened people’s idea about the importance of conserving and restoring their mangroves.

The trio secured funds through the Resiliencia project (a GEF fund powered by UNDP and the Mexican Governement) on behalf of Foro para el Desarrollo Sustentable NGO. Before the project started, the team did a more in-depth study of the local livelihoods and threats and defined a way to manage the mangroves and decrease vulnerability to climate change.

“It is essential to involve young people in mangrove monitoring techniques since they will be the future managers of restoration projects in their communities.”

Mangroves are essential for the communities around the Pantanos de Centla Biosphere Reserve. They act as a nursery for species like shrimps, crabs and other freshwater fishes. Naturally, fishing is a major livelihood. Pilar adds: “Mangroves are also important to protect communities against tropical storms and strong winds, it helps reduce flooding impacts.”

The project brought science into practical terms for communities, and locals have actively participated in workshops and restoration work. Pilar says: “As mangrove restoration is a very long process, it is important that the communities take ownership of the process and its monitoring. Due to the close cooperation with the local communities, the project has strengthened people’s idea about the importance of conserving and restoring their mangroves. This is important since they are the people who will benefit from a healthy system the most.”

Being taken seriously as a young project manager has been a challenge for the trio, according to Paulo. “As young people, it is a challenge to build projects and manage resources through bids. But we were lucky with the team, because we all have experience with this. Although at first, we felt that some people did not take us very seriously, especially the managers of the natural area and the people who gave us the financing, after listening to our ideas and proposals, people recognized that we are very capable.”

As a young female researcher, Pilar also faced significant challenges. “Sometimes young people do not have enough credibility in spaces traditionally dominated by older people, a situation much more evident in rural areas because knowledge is associated with age.  As a woman, I noticed a difference when I led some activities in the community where I could perceive some resistance and mistrust at the beginning.  As the project progressed, people had more trust in me,” she says.

The three mangrove defenders

For Pilar, wetlands are extra special as they have unique conditions that only certain species can tolerate.

Before this project, women and youth had very few opportunities to be involved in decision-making processes as this is traditionally done by men in the communities. The trio made extra efforts to ensure women and youth participated. “In this sense, the project was very rewarding to me. It is essential to involve young people in mangrove monitoring techniques since they will be the future managers of restoration projects in their communities,” says Pilar.

The project has now run for over a year but the last activities took place in February 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. The group will be sharing results with the local people later this year. The next step will be to strengthen sustainable fisheries to improve local livelihoods together with the communities, as well as to keep monitoring the restoration.

“We are exploring post-COVID and post-disaster recovery work, because the communities were very affected by floods during the second semester of 2020. We will work on improving food and water security by constructing agroecological orchards and water reservoirs, building firebreaks to protect mangroves and doing maintenance and monitoring of mangrove restoration process,” says Alejandro.

“I was fascinated by the idea that these ecosystems produced the freshwater for all citizens. This fascination lead me to where I am now.”

So what was it that drew them to wetlands in the first place? For Pilar, wetlands are extra special as they have unique conditions that only certain species can tolerate. “Studying them gives a great opportunity to do cool research,” she says.

Alejandro’s love of wetlands started with his childhood hikes through the paramos and other wetlands that surrounded Bogota city. “I was fascinated by the idea that these ecosystems produced the freshwater for all citizens. This fascination lead me to where I am now,” he says.

Paulo also spent his childhood in wetlands. Growing up in Merida, 30km from the sea, these were coastal. “I spent my childhood holidays at the coast. I was amazed by the big trees that grew in the water, and where beautiful birds’ nests were built. I did not understand why people said these wetlands were just breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Many years later, when I did my studies, I learned more about the fascinating adaptations and great importance of mangroves not only for the species living there but also to the people who live there and benefit from this ecosystem. This provoked in me a deep reflection on the urgent need to conserve and restore this ecosystem.”

More #PowerofWetlands stories...
The three mangrove defenders - Mexico

Alejandro Betancourth, Juan Borges, Pilar Gómez-Ruiz – The three mangrove defenders

Stories about restoring and safeguarding wetlands are frequently about people acting on their conservation dreams of fighting for local biodiversity. They’re

Chao Mei, Wetlands at the ‘water core’

When people’s livelihoods are taken away due to a change in the environment, it is difficult to help them adapt to the new situation. This was the case in

Mbaarak Abdalla, The brain behind restoring mangroves with and for the community

Tudor Creek is a unique mangrove haven, based off the Kenyan coast, where Mombasa Island splits off from the mainland. Teeming with wildlife, including monitor

Leonard Owuor Agan, Securing wetlands and livelihoods for the long-term

Across the world millions of people and animals depend on healthy wetlands. The riverine Marura wetlands, running across western Kenya, is no exception. “Many

Tanvi Hussain, Livelihoods in balance with wetlands

Healthy wetlands provide food and fodder for the species and people living around them. But over-exploiting these resources can lead to degradation, which in tu

Karol Salazar Navarro, Knowing the beauty and value of blue carbon

Wetlands adjacent to cities are often used as wasteland despite being important carbon stores. The Pantanos de Villa Wildlife Refuge in Peru is such a place. Lo

Vandandorj Sumiya, Caring for carbon and cranes

Every spring when the snow starts to melt on the Mongolian steppe, thousands of migratory birds land on the wetlands of the Khurkh and Khuiten river valle

Jayson Salenga, Reinventing wetlands as an eco-destination

When it comes to conservation, providing alternative livelihoods and getting communities involved is often the key to stopping habitat and ecosystem damage. It

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

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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 →

Chao Mei, Wetlands at the ‘water core’

When people’s livelihoods are taken away due to a change in the environment, it is difficult to help them adapt to the new situation. This was the case in Chenglong in Taiwan, where villagers found themselves surrounded by a wetland due to subsidence. Chao Mei, an artist and environmental educator from South Taiwan, took on the job to help people learn to live with their ‘new’ wetland and, through art, to begin to value it.

“ I strongly felt the people’s hopelessness because they lost the hope of land and livelihood.”

Chenglong Wetlands is an ‘accidental’ wetland of over 100 hectares located in rural Yunlin County, on the South-central coast of Taiwan. The wetland formed as a result of the low altitude of the Lower Hukou area of Kouhu Township and long-term over-extraction of groundwater, which resulted in serious land subsidence and frequent floods. Together with an encroaching sea and frequent typhoons, these factors have turned the area into wetlands unsuitable for farming.

Today, sodden land exists where the villagers’ farms were once before. According to Chao Mei, some villagers actually see water when they open the door. Crop farming has become impossible, the community economically depressed, and young people have been leaving to find jobs elsewhere in their droves.

With more water coming in every year, former rice fields have been transformed into fish farms and a nature preserve area has been created for the brimming biodiversity.

Despite the turmoil for its human inhabitants, the area’s brackish water is teeming with wildlife. Crabs, fish, and water plants like reeds, have begun to populate Chenglong – and 120 bird species, many of which are migratory birds, including the Black-faced Spoonbill, Gadwall, Oriental pratincole and Eurasian Kestrel are regular visitors. Even a new fish species was discovered here, Chao Mei says.

The Cheng-Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project is part of the environmental education program of the Kuan Shu Education Foundation that fosters environmental education. It was started in 2009 to help shift the village mindset and find a new way of life.

“At that time, I was just back from working for the Kuan-Shu Educational Foundation after doing museum studies in the UK,” Chao Mei explains. “I worked as the head of environmental educator and was asked to lead a new team to start the new project in the Chenglong Village. I strongly felt the people’s hopelessness because they lost the hope of land and livelihood.”

The project is helping locals adapt to the impacts of climate change that have been felt in Cheng Long for over 25 years, putting pressure on the local economy.

International and local artists are invited to stay in the village for about 25 days and work with children from the local elementary school to make environmental sculpture installations using locally sourced materials, such as reeds, drift woods, bamboo, oyster and clam shells, as well as recycled materials taken at the recycling centre.

Chao Mei invited the American curator Jane Ingram Allen, to come and manage the project. She was one of the first foreigners the villagers ever saw. Jane says: “We had no language in common, but I was surprised at how well we were able to communicate through art. Over time I started to notice people become friendlier towards me and the other artists. We gave them a sense of pride about the art works and their wetland.”

“We had no language in common, but I was surprised at how well we were able to communicate through art. We gave them a sense of pride about the art works and their wetland.”

The artworks are specifically designed for the outdoor sites they are located in. One example that has become well-recognised is “Water Core” by artist Roger Rigorth of Switzerland made in 2015. Using bamboos and sisal rope, Rigorth built flexible structures resembling bottles in the wetlands. The idea was to create symbolic vessels to hold water, containing the water’s spiritual soul. The shape of the vessels is that of fruit cores.

An example that has become well-recognised is “Water Core” by artist Roger Rigorth of Switzerland made in 2015. Using bamboos and sisal rope, Rigorth built flexible structures resembling bottles in the wetlands.

With more water coming in every year, former rice fields have been transformed into fish farms and a nature preserve area has been created for the brimming biodiversity. In 2018, Chenglong Wetlands was officially designated as a nationally important wetland because of its growing importance for biodiversity, research and environmental education.

Chenglong has become a good place for Taiwanese people to learn how to live with nature, how to face environmental problems and try to solve it, according to Chao Mei. The project is helping locals adapt to the impacts of climate change that have been felt in Cheng Long for over 25 years, putting pressure on the local economy.

The global attention on Chenglong has helped seed similar projects around the world, and those artists and curators who came to Chenglong have developed similar projects in their home countries.

Chao Mei hopes that through the ongoing community activities, environmental education programmes and art projects, a new generation will take up the mantle. “We hope they will develop even more creative ideas to safeguard the wetlands,” she says.

More #PowerofWetlands stories...
The three mangrove defenders - Mexico

Alejandro Betancourth, Juan Borges, Pilar Gómez-Ruiz – The three mangrove defenders

Stories about restoring and safeguarding wetlands are frequently about people acting on their conservation dreams of fighting for local biodiversity. They’re

Chao Mei, Wetlands at the ‘water core’

When people’s livelihoods are taken away due to a change in the environment, it is difficult to help them adapt to the new situation. This was the case in

Mbaarak Abdalla, The brain behind restoring mangroves with and for the community

Tudor Creek is a unique mangrove haven, based off the Kenyan coast, where Mombasa Island splits off from the mainland. Teeming with wildlife, including monitor

Leonard Owuor Agan, Securing wetlands and livelihoods for the long-term

Across the world millions of people and animals depend on healthy wetlands. The riverine Marura wetlands, running across western Kenya, is no exception. “Many

Tanvi Hussain, Livelihoods in balance with wetlands

Healthy wetlands provide food and fodder for the species and people living around them. But over-exploiting these resources can lead to degradation, which in tu

Karol Salazar Navarro, Knowing the beauty and value of blue carbon

Wetlands adjacent to cities are often used as wasteland despite being important carbon stores. The Pantanos de Villa Wildlife Refuge in Peru is such a place. Lo

Vandandorj Sumiya, Caring for carbon and cranes

Every spring when the snow starts to melt on the Mongolian steppe, thousands of migratory birds land on the wetlands of the Khurkh and Khuiten river valle

Jayson Salenga, Reinventing wetlands as an eco-destination

When it comes to conservation, providing alternative livelihoods and getting communities involved is often the key to stopping habitat and ecosystem damage. It

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 →

Mbaarak Abdalla, The brain behind restoring mangroves with and for the community

Tudor Creek is a unique mangrove haven, based off the Kenyan coast, where Mombasa Island splits off from the mainland. Teeming with wildlife, including monitor lizards, turtles, cattle egret, mangrove kingfisher, snowy egret, Lesser adjutant, Grey heron and vervet Monkey, the creek is home to eight different mangrove tree species including red mangrove, spurred mangrove and white mangrove.

“I want to create employment for the community at large through conserving our ecosystem forests, creating awareness and creating a bridge between the government, local and international community,”

Thirty-three year old Mbaarak Abdalla from Mombasa County, Kenya has been inspired to restore and safeguard these mangrove wetlands – both for the 700,000 communities that depend on them for their livelihoods, and for this unique biodiversity. The Tudor mangroves are one of a number of wetlands across the East African coastline to experience rapid loss over the last decade, and has seen a decrease in coverage from 1,641 hectares to its current state of 215 hectares – mostly due to deforestation.

Mbaarak explains that the high poverty levels have forced many locals to look for alternative income to make ends meet. “They end up destroying the wetlands just to earn a living,” he says. As the Founder of Brain Youth Group and as part of the Forest Restoration Agency, two community-based organisations in Mombasa, Mbaarak’s efforts have been focused in large part on working with the communities to develop more sustainable sources of income such as marine fish farming, bee-keeping and eco-tourism as an alternative to cutting down the mangroves.

“I want to create employment for the community at large through conserving our ecosystem forests, creating awareness and creating a bridge between the government, local and international community,” he says.

Mbaarak working in the field.

Currently Mbaarak and the Brain Youth Group, consisting of about 50 people, are aiming to restore 1,426 hectares of degraded mangroves in Mombasa County, Kenya. Mbaarak says: “To do this we need the local communities to help and support this.”

Mbaarak himself first got interested in mangroves after attending a community sensitisation workshop ten years ago. “Since restoring mangroves is not something you can do on your own, I decided to mobilize others and initiated the Brain Youth group in 2011. After that I started receiving a lot of invitations for attending different workshops, trainings and seminars. During my travels that time I visited a lot of different areas and saw a lot of deforestation,” he says.

“After founding the Brain Youth Group, I got the opportunity to meet a lot of new people and learn new things every day.”

Although Mbaarak was forced to drop out of secondary school due to lack of finance, this hasn’t held him back in pursuing his conservation dreams. “After founding the Brain Youth Group, I got the opportunity to meet a lot of new people and learn new things every day,” he says.

Mbaarak now holds certificates on Small and medium Entrepreneurship from Strathmore Business School Nairobi Kenya and on Community Based Ecological Mangrove Restoration (CBEMR) attained by Wetlands International in Rufiji Delta, Tanzania. “I hope to join classes of environmental conservation and project management to improve my skills and take my projects to a higher level. I want to empower more people with skills for conserving our environment,” he says.

Field visit with students from the local school.

The main challenges in restoring the mangroves experienced by Mbaarak and his community groups are the lack of finances for restoration activities as well as a need for greater scientific and technical skills, and more support from stakeholder government institutions. Engaging the community so that they understand the value of mangroves and learn how to develop their livelihoods with the mangroves are especially powerful.

“We have been conducting community sensitisation programmes to educate the community on the importance of mangrove conservation since most people lack the knowledge on the benefits of it. We will continue this work this year as well and involve them in the activities to be carried out just to create ownership of the project. This will contribute to the success of the project.”

More #PowerofWetlands stories...
The three mangrove defenders - Mexico

Alejandro Betancourth, Juan Borges, Pilar Gómez-Ruiz – The three mangrove defenders

Stories about restoring and safeguarding wetlands are frequently about people acting on their conservation dreams of fighting for local biodiversity. They’re

Chao Mei, Wetlands at the ‘water core’

When people’s livelihoods are taken away due to a change in the environment, it is difficult to help them adapt to the new situation. This was the case in

Mbaarak Abdalla, The brain behind restoring mangroves with and for the community

Tudor Creek is a unique mangrove haven, based off the Kenyan coast, where Mombasa Island splits off from the mainland. Teeming with wildlife, including monitor

Leonard Owuor Agan, Securing wetlands and livelihoods for the long-term

Across the world millions of people and animals depend on healthy wetlands. The riverine Marura wetlands, running across western Kenya, is no exception. “Many

Tanvi Hussain, Livelihoods in balance with wetlands

Healthy wetlands provide food and fodder for the species and people living around them. But over-exploiting these resources can lead to degradation, which in tu

Karol Salazar Navarro, Knowing the beauty and value of blue carbon

Wetlands adjacent to cities are often used as wasteland despite being important carbon stores. The Pantanos de Villa Wildlife Refuge in Peru is such a place. Lo

Vandandorj Sumiya, Caring for carbon and cranes

Every spring when the snow starts to melt on the Mongolian steppe, thousands of migratory birds land on the wetlands of the Khurkh and Khuiten river valle

Jayson Salenga, Reinventing wetlands as an eco-destination

When it comes to conservation, providing alternative livelihoods and getting communities involved is often the key to stopping habitat and ecosystem damage. It

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 →

Leonard Owuor Agan, Securing wetlands and livelihoods for the long-term

Across the world millions of people and animals depend on healthy wetlands. The riverine Marura wetlands, running across western Kenya, is no exception.

“Many people are not aware of the power of wetlands and how their lives are linked to the health state of it. This is what we hope to change.”

Long associated with the cyperus papyrus, the paper reed, originating from the Sergoit River, the Marura wetlands span an area now characterised by agriculture, block making, harvesting, fishing, livestock rearing and irrigation. Locals derive more than 50% of their livelihood from the wetland’s resources. The wetlands are also home to migratory birds including crowned cranes, water ducks, great egrets, and marsh wrens.

But, the wetlands are under coming under increasing threat as settlements of both commercial houses and homes have grown significantly along the bank. These bring more pollution and the tendency towards over-harvesting of fish, water, and papyrus.

Using these precious wetlands in ways that help sustain the wetlands is key to avoiding loss and is something that 25-year old Leonard Agan, from Eldoret, a main fast-growing town in Kenya’s Rift Valley region, is activating his community around.

Chepkoilel river

After visiting the Marurar wetlands a number of years ago, and having studied a master’s in Environmental health at the University of Eldoret, Leonard got to understand the vital role and services that the wetlands provide. “Like the provision of water, fish and herbs, or the indirect services like the potential to control floods from upstream,” he adds. Leonard wants to make sure these services will be secured for the long-term.

Leonard is developing a group of like-minded young people who want to raise such awareness among the local people. This group has been engaging the local community, schools and farmers on the important roles wetlands play in their lives and livelihoods.

Team instructions in the field

“We aim to make conservation and sustainable development a culture and attitude of people.”

Changing ingrained practices will be part of the challenge. Currently, people tend to cut a whole reed area down. This influences groundwater storage, and the fish and other aquatic organisms end up exposed to direct sunlight.

“We hope to inform and inspire people to get the products from the wetland in a way that it can be continuous without total destruction. Many people are not aware of the power of wetlands and how their lives are linked to the health state of it. This is what we hope to change,” says Leonard.

While getting access to schools or different parts of the community can sometimes be a challenge, the group has been translating information materials English to Kiswahili to reach more people with the message. “By engaging with them we hope to reduce waste in the wetlands and to stop over-exploitation, we aim to make conservation and sustainable development a culture and attitude of people,” he says.

More #PowerofWetlands stories...
The three mangrove defenders - Mexico

Alejandro Betancourth, Juan Borges, Pilar Gómez-Ruiz – The three mangrove defenders

Stories about restoring and safeguarding wetlands are frequently about people acting on their conservation dreams of fighting for local biodiversity. They’re

Chao Mei, Wetlands at the ‘water core’

When people’s livelihoods are taken away due to a change in the environment, it is difficult to help them adapt to the new situation. This was the case in

Mbaarak Abdalla, The brain behind restoring mangroves with and for the community

Tudor Creek is a unique mangrove haven, based off the Kenyan coast, where Mombasa Island splits off from the mainland. Teeming with wildlife, including monitor

Leonard Owuor Agan, Securing wetlands and livelihoods for the long-term

Across the world millions of people and animals depend on healthy wetlands. The riverine Marura wetlands, running across western Kenya, is no exception. “Many

Tanvi Hussain, Livelihoods in balance with wetlands

Healthy wetlands provide food and fodder for the species and people living around them. But over-exploiting these resources can lead to degradation, which in tu

Karol Salazar Navarro, Knowing the beauty and value of blue carbon

Wetlands adjacent to cities are often used as wasteland despite being important carbon stores. The Pantanos de Villa Wildlife Refuge in Peru is such a place. Lo

Vandandorj Sumiya, Caring for carbon and cranes

Every spring when the snow starts to melt on the Mongolian steppe, thousands of migratory birds land on the wetlands of the Khurkh and Khuiten river valle

Jayson Salenga, Reinventing wetlands as an eco-destination

When it comes to conservation, providing alternative livelihoods and getting communities involved is often the key to stopping habitat and ecosystem damage. It

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 →

Tanvi Hussain, Livelihoods in balance with wetlands

Healthy wetlands provide food and fodder for the species and people living around them. But over-exploiting these resources can lead to degradation, which in turn, affects the communities living on the wetlands.

“Conservation in rural context means creating livelihood opportunities for the poor while in urban areas it is about convincing people to be more sensible about their lifestyle.”

Getting the balance right is a major challenge for the Indian village of Hatimuria, which relies on a wetland called Bherbheri Beel in the state of Assam. Tanvi Hussain, a 29 year-old wetland ambassador, PhD student and scientist from the region works on natural resource conservation with the communities who live around this wetland.

“I am deeply moved by the wonderful balance of nature but distressed by the dilapidated condition of many such wetlands, forests and other areas. Conservation in rural context means creating livelihood opportunities for the poor while in urban areas it is about convincing people to be more sensible about their lifestyle,” says Tanvi.

Bherberi beel during sunset.

Tanvi is a Project Scientist as part of a state government organisation Assam Science Technology and Environment Council (ASTEC) which works with central and state government. She part of a project to build the resilience of the community of Hatimuria dependent on the Bherbheri beel – beel being the local term used for wetlands and ponds in Assam – and help it adapt to the impacts of climate change.

This involves making livelihood activities in the village such as farming, water harvesting, irrigation of farmland, cattle rearing, energy sources “climate friendly”. We work together with the residents of the village and help them to become aware of the impacts of climate change and prepare them for climate change induced threats, says Tanvi.

“After the fishing period harvest all the remaining fish were caught by pumping out the water in the wetland, lowering the village’s ground water table and contributing to water scarcity.”

One particular focus has been to help villagers have a better understanding of how the wetland functions and how it is connected to water availability. Tanvi explains that the auctioning off of the wetland [harvest] during the fishing season to local businessmen led to a practice that was contributing to degradation. After the fishing period harvest, all the remaining fish were caught by pumping out the water in the wetland, lowering the village’s ground water table and contributing to water scarcity.

“The auctioning off of these wetlands and diversion of water has also been putting South Asian river dolphins, migratory birds, other animals and plants at risk and locals are ill-equipped to deal with the changes. That is why we want to help them,” she says.

Local workshop to inform people about the importance of their wetland and how to keep it clean.

As part of the efforts to raise awareness, ASTEC is issuing handbooks on the local biodiversity. Children are being taught about climate change and resilient practices, while local youth are taught skills such as wild bee-keeping and honey extraction, bamboo craft and nature walks – practices that can help sustain the balance across the wetland.

Women are being supported to boost income through weaving. Creating these sorts of alternative livelihoods will helps boost villagers’ financial conditions, which avoids the need to auctioning off the wetland for monetary benefits.

“Hatimuria will serve as an example to encourage other villages to get involved with the council’s supportive measures and to become self-sufficient.”

The longer-term vision, according to Tanvi, is to restore the ecosystem and create possibilities for eco-tourism throughout the area. The village is situated just 2.5 km away from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary which houses a host of majestic animals including the one-horned rhinoceros, Asiatic wild buffalo, elephants, swamp deer and migratory birds from different parts of the world between November and March every year.

Tourists come from across India and all over the world to marvel at the area’s natural beauty. Managing the Bherbheri wetland throughout the year, particularly at the time of auction (November to March) will help make it attractive for visitors, creating both an inherent and monetary value for the wetland and its people.

Tanvi says: “I am very proud that we have been able to work with the local people and that we have reached consensus on the importance of the wetland and the function a wetland has in support the ecosystem. Hatimuria will serve as an example to encourage other villages to get involved with the council’s supportive measures and to become self-sufficient.”

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Wetlands adjacent to cities are often used as wasteland despite being important carbon stores. The Pantanos de Villa Wildlife Refuge in Peru is such a place.

Los Pantanos de Villa, a coastal marine wetland, was designated as a wildlife refuge, a natural protected area and Ramsar Site in 1997, but being so near to a fast growing urban population, this ‘special interest’ site has become a dump.

Trucks have even been known to dump construction waste there, compacting the soil, reducing flora growth and draining the flooded areas. Soil saturated with water allows the accumulation of carbon because it prevents oxidisation of the soil. In other words, when dry, the soil literally evaporates into thin air. It then loses its ability to store carbon and becomes a source of emissions.

Pantanos de Villa Wildlife Refuge in Peru

“During the day I could observe the birds and on the way home I saw the moon reflecting in the lagoon.”

Karol Salazar Navarro, 25 years old from Lima, Peru, is a young scientist researching this topic, more specifically, how much carbon is taken up from the atmosphere and stored by a native grass species of the wetland. She’s concerned that people start to see both the beauty and value of this wetland’s blue carbon.

“It is frustrating to see that the wetland has been reduced in area over the years,” says Karol. On one side the city is encroaching, a university is on the other border, it is crossed by a road and there are also private areas in its surroundings such as country clubs and recreation fields.

Her own love of the wetland started as she began at university. “Every day I passed by the wetland ‘Pantanos de Villa’ travelling to university. I discovered the landscape from this route. During the day I could observe the birds and on the way home I saw the moon reflecting in the lagoon,” she says.

On of the way to get around the wetland is by boat.

Her own love of the wetland started as she began at university. “Every day I passed by the wetland ‘Pantanos de Villa’ travelling to university. I discovered the landscape from this route. During the day I could observe the birds and on the way home I saw the moon reflecting in the lagoon,” she says.

The wetlands, composed of marshes and swamps, with both fresh and saltwater lagoons across ​​263,270 hectares, is home to more than 200 species of migratory and resident birds including the Peruvian Diving-Petrel, Guanay cormorant and Peruvian Booby. It’s also a refuge for species like Peregrine Falcon and the Black-bellied Plover.

The discovery of this wetland’s charm, even from the periphery, led her to develop her thesis about the area.

“I grew up with a close connection to nature and water since I lived very close to the beach. From a very young age, I was convinced that I wanted to study something related to the environment and science. I am fascinated by the marine-coastal systems’ capacity to capture carbon.”

Striated heron, also known as mangrove heron is one the species that can be found in this wetland.

But as a young adult, science was distant to her: she imagined it was a career for others. “My image of scientists was of people in white coats who did not seem very accessible, she says.”

At the time in Peru, there were not many opportunities in public universities to study the environment. Fortunately, the National Technological University of South Lima, a new University in Peru, was offering a program for the first time in environmental engineering. With preparation and dedication, Karol entered the program, became part of one of the first cohorts and finished successfully in 2019.

“Part of safeguarding the wetlands is raising awareness of ‘blue carbon’. People need to know the important role wetlands play in carbon storage.”

Luckily, SERNANP and PROHVILLA, two institutions with whom Karol collaborated through her project, are working on preventing the wetland from begin used as a dumping ground. “Part of safeguarding the wetlands is raising awareness of ‘blue carbon’. People need to know the important role wetlands play in carbon storage. This is why I also work on identifying the existence and feasibility of methods for determining carbon sequestration, the capturing and storing of atmospheric carbon dioxide, in wetlands.”

One of Karol’s major successes has been finding a factor for estimating how much carbon is taken up from the atmosphere and stored in the species she studied. She compared three different methods to see if they gave the same results regarding the percentage of carbon sequestration. Using different methods she surprisingly found different results for each method, with results varying between 57.94  tons of carbon per hectare to up to 181.8  tons of carbon per hectare.

“I initially identified it as an error but managed to recognise it as a motivation to continue researching it. I hope my story will motivate more young people to study science. By doing this we can help restore and safeguard wetlands and their carbon stores.”

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Every spring when the snow starts to melt on the Mongolian steppe, thousands of migratory birds land on the wetlands of the Khurkh and Khuiten river valleys in north-eastern Mongolia. Dubbed “crane capital”, the area is home to the threatened White-naped crane, the Demoiselle and the Common crane while the Siberian and Hooded cranes are also observed.

“We want to maintain its crucial property of storing carbon in its peat and methane in its permafrost.”

Wetland ecologist Vandandorj Sumiya, who works at the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia (WSCC ) and Research Fellow at the Leiden Conservation Foundation (LCF), has been managing a research project here to understand the climatic and anthropogenic impacts on the valley, and how to safeguard it for both the cranes, and the people who depend on it. He says: “we want to maintain its crucial property of storing carbon in its peat and methane in its permafrost.” Spring is when he prepares his field study with colleagues.

Vandandorj grew up in a herding family in the central Mongolian countryside, where he spent his childhood outdoors all day. “I used to try to pet chicks, fish, toads and bring them home. I would care for them, but my parents always asked me to let them go. This is when my interest in nature started and led me to studying and conserving wildlife in their natural habitat,” he says.

Khurkh and Zuunbayan Rivers.

Mongolia has a big responsibility for the conservation of the crane species, having the highest density of breeding pairs in the valleys, but there will be no success without paying attention to its habitat, the wetland.

The valleys Vandandorj works in are relatively small in size, but are internationally known for their cranes and as a carbon store, and because of this, have been designated a Ramsar site, an East Asia-Australasian Flyway Network site and Important Bird Area. More recently, the valleys were named a state nature reserve by Mongolian Government thanks to the efforts of international and national institutions, including WSCC.

Vandandorj explains that components of the wetland are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. The peat layer of partially decayed plant material on top of the permafrost acts as insultation and prevents the permafrost from thawing. In turn, the permafrost holds the water table higher in the wetland, allowing the peat to stay in good condition. But, due to overgrazing and global warming Mongolia has already lost half its peatland habitats and the valley could face similar consequences.

White-naped Crane (Photo by WSCC/Iderbat Damba).

Overgrazing, mostly by domestic livestock, exposes the soil leading to higher surface temperature and an increased evaporation rate. This disturbs the interconnectedness between the peat layer and the permafrost, with the possibility of degradation of the wetlands, setting off a negative feedback loop. Vandandorj and his team is working to prevent this from happening and that the area would become unsuitable for nesting cranes.

He frequently travels to the valleys during the year for his studies and conservation activities, even in cold snowy winters. “Our field study is not as easy as people might think. Since it is a wetland sometimes you may have to walk about 30 km a day. When you go by car you can get stuck in the mud easily. But we enjoy our field studies a lot because we truly love this place and I believe that we are doing something meaningful for our nature, for the cranes and people as well,” he says.

Apart from his academic studies, Vandandorj also organises annual training on wetland studies for young Mongolian researchers and runs an interactive summer school for local students, to help them to grow up as a nature-loving and responsible citizen. Students learn about the special birds that live in their region, how important the wetland is for the birds and local communities, and how they can help with conservation of biodiversity and the wetland.

Field practice of the capacity building training for Mongolian young scientists.

WSCC also works with herding community and provides training to diversify their source of income, so that grazing pressure in wetlands could be reduced. “Herders are starting to realise that it is hard to have a large number of livestock in the changing world and are more open to alternative livelihoods. Working with communities in wetland monitoring and wildlife conservation is important for the future of the wetland, its migratory birds and the people that depend on it,” says Vandandorj.

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When it comes to conservation, providing alternative livelihoods and getting communities involved is often the key to stopping habitat and ecosystem damage. It’s something that Jayson Salenga, a 36-year old ecotourism officer, has embraced as part of his remarkable work in Sasmuan, an area in the Manila Bay, the Philippines.

“Over the years, I observed a significant decline in fish production due to mangrove degradation, land conversion, and pollution making the area vulnerable to the effect of climate change resulting in massive flooding.”

The Sasmuan Bangkung Mapalad Critical Habitat & Ecotourism Area, lies along the banks of the Pampanga River, winding along to fringes of Manila Bay. The areas extensive mangroves and mudflats are the breeding and feeding grounds of more than 20,000 migratory birds. With an abundance of fish, crabs and shrimp, it’s little surprise that such fishing activity supports 85% of the local economy.

But, despite this natural bounty, the wetland is under pressure – from the over-exploitation of natural resources by a growing population, who are increasingly turning to cutting mangroves and using illegal fishing methods to earn a living. Deforestation, however, reduces the productivity of the natural resources base and affects food security. Pollution is also an issue since the wetlands are a dumping ground for domestic waste, which is often burned.

Bangkung Malapad the gemstone hidden in the heart of Pasac River.

“Over the years, I observed a significant decline in fish production due to mangrove degradation, land conversion, and pollution making the area vulnerable to the effect of climate change resulting in massive flooding,” Jayson says. “We often upgrade our houses, but no one notices why we still experience flooding because they see it as normal in the coastal area,” he adds.

With this in mind, Jayson became a community volunteer to help raise awareness of the importance of a healthy wetland. He has since been supporting research, bird census, and mangrove restoration projects working to protect the area.

A large bird flock in the Sasmuan area.

In January 2013, he became the tourism officer of Sasmuan. With its majestic views and astonishing wildlife, he soon saw the potential of the area as an eco-tourism destination. This led to a bold proposition. Jayson says: “Bangkung Malapad is a gemstone hidden in the heart of Pasac River draining into the Manila Bay. On the mudflat there are lots of waders resting and eating small fish and shellfish. The importance of the habitat to the birds became clear to me, so, I endorsed it to our local government official who passed a resolution and submitted a proposal declaring the area a critical habitat for migratory birds to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.”

These days, Jayson is busy working with local communities, NGOs, fisherfolk, boat operators and women’s groups to help provide alternative livelihoods to those that are damaging to the wetlands. People can get training to become tourist guides, boat operators for eco-tours or as a local coast guard. Also, people manufacture souvenirs and native products of Sasmuan.

Sunset at the Sasmuan wetland during low tide.

“We work with the local communities to provide sustainable livelihoods. Several women’s groups manufacture mangrove apple candy. Local people now work to protect the wetland against destructive activities,” Jayson shares. Community volunteers support with monitoring of biodiversity and the survival and growth of mangroves, as well as regular clean-ups of the mudflats.

After the storm Glenda.

In 2014, tropical storm Glenda struck the whole coastal area of Sasmuan with major damages to infrastructures, houses and livelihoods. This compelled Jayson to get involved in mangrove restoration to bring back this natural buffer against coastal hazards. With help from national government agencies, research bodies and companies to fund and implement restoration activities, 13 hectares of Bangkung Malapad are now once again covered with mangroves.

Jason’s remarkable work has helped inform and educate others on the importance of mangroves in the Philippines and protect people in local communities that rely on the wetlands. “There is so much beauty in conserving wetlands. My goal is that the Sasmuan Pampanga Coastal Wetland will be protected, conserved and we will maintain the coastal resources while conserving biodiversity, supporting sustainable commercial and community-based development, organising and empowering the communities. There is so much to be done in Sasmuan Bangkung Malapad and in the whole coastal area of Sasmuan,” he says.

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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.

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“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.

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