South America gains its largest freshwater protected area

The Government of the Andean nation of Bolivia has designated three wetlands as protected areas under the Ramsar Convention, constituting the continent’s largest freshwater protected area, and the largest area designated in the Convention’s 30 year history.

The three wetlands, with a total area of some 46,000 square kilometres (18,000 square miles), an area larger than Switzerland, will now receive protection under the RAMSAR Convention, which recently celebrated its 30th year of operation with a spate of designations (see related story), in a part of the world traditionally under threat of deforestation and development. On a global scale, Bolivia becomes the second country to designate such a vast area of wetlands since the Convention came into being in Ramsar, Iran in 1971.

Located in the Department of Santa Cruz, in the lowlands of Bolivia, the wetlands of Bañados del Izogog-Rio Parapeti, El Palmar de las Islas-Salinas de San José, and the Bolivian Pantanal are home to healthy populations of hundreds of species of flora and fauna, which are threatened in other parts of the country and in the rest of the world, including the jaguar, the tapir, the giant river otter and the hyacinth macaw.

The Bolivian Pantanal is a mosaic of lakes, lagoons, rivers, flooded savannas, palms and dry forests. It regulates floods and droughts in a vast area of Eastern Bolivia and sustains at least 197 species of fish, more than 70 species of amphibians and reptiles, more than 300 species of birds and more than 50 species of large mammals. The Palmar de las Islas and Salinas de San José system of wetlands is the only source of water in a vast area in the Chaco eco-region and its surrounding landscape has been traditionally and almost exclusively used by the Ayoreo indigenous people. Also located in the Chaco, the Bañados del Izogog and Rio Parapeti wetlands are linked to the Amazon basin, forming a biological and genetic corridor and are a vital source of water for the Izoceña indigenous group.

The designation of RAMSAR sites implies that governments commit at both local and national level to better conservation of the wetlands and wiser use of the natural resources and that development projects such as waterways, highways, drainage and irrigation canals or oil and gas pipelines need to be carefully planned and their environmental impact thoroughly assessed. This is particularly important for the Bolivian Pantanal, confronted with various large-scale development projects, including the Paraguay-Parana waterway, the construction of which would necessitate land clearance and dredging rivers in the region.

“The inclusion of these sites on the RAMSAR list of wetlands of international importance is a huge achievement for both conservation and local communities,” commented Dr Claude Martin, Director General of the NGO WWF International. “The impressive expanse of land and water that becomes protected thanks to this move, represents close to 10% of the global conservation goal of WWF’s Living Waters Programme.”

“Local actors, such as municipal authorities, indigenous communities, farmers and private landowners have welcomed the designation of the sites,” pointed out Roger Landivar, WWF Country Representative in Bolivia. “They showed not only interest but also hope and commitment to participate in the conservation of these ecosystems while at the same time accessing natural resources in a sustainable way.”

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