The world’s wetlands are slipping away. This vibrant sanctuary underscores the stakes.

It’s been 50 years since an international treaty to protect wetlands was created but, around the world, wetlands are still disappearing three times faster than forests.

About 60 percent of the 15,000 people living in the Agusan Marsh are Agusan Manobos, a local Indigenous group. Seen here, fog and smoke from nearby fires pollutes the air over a Manobo village. Fires have become more common as wetlands fall prey to drought or are manually drained to make room for crops like palm oil, rice, and corn.

In the lush, bright-green thickets of the Philippine’s Agusan Marsh, nestled in the country’s far south Mindanao island, children steer canoes through meandering waterways and swim in lakes.

The marsh is a playground, as well as a source of food, shelter, and culture for the Manobo Indigenous tribe that lives there in moored floating houses that rise and fall with the rainy seasons. For hundreds of years, this wetland ecosystem has been a veritable paradise for the Manobo people who make a living there hunting and fishing. The more than 100,000 inland acres is also home to nearly 200 species of birds, as well as mammals, reptiles, and fish living in the region.

The Agusan Marsh represents everything wetlands can offer—storm protection, food security, biodiversity, carbon storage—but also the large challenges they face.

Upstream pollution, climate change, and habitat destruction threaten the sanctity of this ecosystem. Pollutants from mining operations and palm oil plantations compromise water quality, and critical, carbon-rich peatlands are being drained and burned to make room for more palm oil, rice, and corn.

Fifty years ago today, on February 2, 1971, representatives of 18 nations meeting in Ramsar, Iran, adopted the Convention on Wetlands, also called the Ramsar Convention, a treaty aimed at conserving wetlands around the world. Today, 171 countries have signed the treaty. But since 1971, more than 35 percent of the world’s wetlands have been drained for urban development or agriculture, polluted, paved over, or lost to sea level rise.

February 2 remains a day devoted to calling attention to the plight of wetlands, and this year, World Wetlands Day is highlighting them as a critical source of freshwater at a time when that commodity is becoming ever more scarce.

“Wetlands and their species and ecosystems services are still in decline, and that is after 50 years of concerted international effort through the contracting parties to the Convention. Something more is needed,” says Max Finlayson, an author of a 2018 report that assessed the state of the world’s wetlands.

What are wetlands and what do they do?

Wetlands comprise a diverse array of ecosystems that are either flooded permanently or seasonally. They’re often along the coast, in the form of grassy marshes or mangrove forests, but can also be further inland, like forested swamps or peat bogs where water collects and saturates the ground. They’re often fed by rivers and tributaries and contain lakes.

In Agusan, freshwater marshes are surrounded by forested swamps, peatland, rivers, and 59 lakes.

“I think they’ve suffered for a long time from the perception as muddy, buggy areas that didn’t have a lot of value,” says Jennifer Howard, Senior Director of Conservation International’s Blue Carbon Program. “We’ve shown recently you’re very hard pressed to find an ecosystem that’s more productive, that has all the environmental and climate benefits rolled into one.”

It’s estimated that nearly a billion people depend on wetlands for a living in some way—be it farming, fishing, tourism, or transportation—and around 40 percent of the world’s species breed in wetlands or use them as nurseries.

Wetlands are also an important source of “green” infrastructure. Like a levee that shield a town from a hurricane, coastal wetlands lessen the damage from powerful storms, helping to control flooding by blocking incoming storm surges, while reducing the impact from wind. One recent study found that one lost hectare (about 2.5 acres) of coastal wetland increased the cost of damage from major storms by $33,000 on average.

While forests are often described as the “lungs of the Earth” because they’re important sources of oxygen, wetlands are described as the kidneys because they filter upstream pollutants.

When a wetland disappears, it’s like pulling a linchpin out of a healthy environment. As pollutants and sediments float downriver, “wetlands grab all that and hold onto it,” says Howard. “Sediments are a detriment to coral reefs, and when wetlands disappear, they can choke corals.”

To mitigate the effects of climate change, we need to do more than just reduce our emissions, say scientists. We also need to conserve large areas of land like forests, grasslands, and wetlands, which help remove carbon from the atmosphere by containing it in their roots and locking it in the soil. These types of environments are called “carbon sinks,” and globally, they store millions of tons of carbon every year.

Wetlands are “one of the few ecosystems that goes from being a super-efficient [carbon] sink to a source of carbon emissions if it’s damaged,” says Howard. It’s estimated that cumulatively, wetlands contain a third of the carbon stored in soil and biomass on land. When wetlands disappear, that carbon is released into the atmosphere.

Issues in Agusan

How wetlands should be conserved and what it will take to do so is no mystery, say environmentalists. The hard part is drumming up enough political will and money.

The Philippines declared the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary a protected area in 1996. It spans approximately 101,000 acres. On the international level, it’s recognized as both a “wetland of international importance” under the Ramsar Convention and Heritage Park by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Yet the last Asian Waterbird Census of the park’s birds, done in 2020, found an overall 11 percent decrease in the past year; 17,780 from 72 different species were counted, as opposed to over 20,000 in 2019. Overall bird counts had been trending up since the census began in 2014, especially as the park expanded its census staff and added new monitoring stations, but a drought in 2019 is thought to have left birds with fewer feeding grounds.

Ibonia says the park needs more resources to accurately track the marsh’s many species.

“The park lacks technical capacity to carry out all its mandate due to very limited manpower resources,” says Emmilie Ibonia, the protected area superintendent for the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary. She writes via email that only about nine employees are contracted to manage the park.

As parts of the wetland dry out from drought or from draining by agricultural companies, the park’s protectors must also now contend with forest fires. In 2019 and 2020, an estimated 240 acres of peatland and swamp forests were burned. But Ibonia says they lack the fire-fighting equipment to suppress them.

Solutions in Agusan and globally

One of the biggest hurdles to conserving wetlands is changing how people think about them, says Howard.

For example, when given the choice between turning oceanfront property into a lucrative hotel or leaving a muddy expanse of marshland untouched, it can be hard to convince people to do the latter, she says.

In a paper published last year, a group of scientists argued that wetlands should be granted legal rights.

“Recognizing rights of nature, including for wetlands, may not be conventional in the minds of some, but equally we have seen a transition in the recognition of the rights of people in recent history,” says Finlayson, one of the study’s authors. The Yurok Tribe on the U.S. West Coast bestowed legal rights on the Klamath River in 2019.

Despite little progress in the past 50 years, conservationists are hopeful that the movement to save wetlands could finally gain traction. Wetland ecosystems have become popular contenders for carbon offset programs, in which polluters offset their carbon emissions by paying to conserve stored carbon elsewhere.

“From the private sector, demand for this carbon offset outstrips supply by a lot,” says Howard. “People realize this is a good thing we want to invest in.”

Martha Rojas Urrego, who oversees the Convention on Wetlands as its secretary general, thinks that despite an overall loss in the amount of wetlands since 1971, the world could be at a turning point in its appreciation of them. The current pandemic has raised awareness of the importance of nature, she says, as scientists warn that destroying critical wildlife habitat could lead to the emergence of more viruses like the one that causes COVID-19.

“Increasingly, we have seen that there is a recognition of the link between nature and people,” Rojas Urrego says. “This is a tragic situation that we are living in, at the same time it is showing what we do to nature has an impact on us.”

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