Today marks the United Nations Ramsar Convention’s 18th annual World Wetlands Day. From the Everglades in Florida to the Okavanga Delta in Botsawana, people are celebrating wetlands as one of the most biodiverse and productive ecosystems in the world. Wetlands help support a clean water supply, flood regulation, fisheries, agriculture, wildlife resources, and many other ecosystem services that benefit human health and well-being.
Here in El Salvador, the mangrove forests of the Bay of Jiquilisco have been recognized by the U.N. Ramsar Convention as a Wetland of International Importance. Mangrove forests, often found in estuaries and coastlines where freshwater and saltwater tidal flows converge, are central to the country’s strategy to combat global warming for their unique ability to sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Due to their capacity to absorb and disperse tidal surges, the mangroves of the Bay bring resilience to a coastal zone prone to natural disasters and flooding. Rich in natural resources including wood, fish, crab, shellfish, and birds, the mangroves provide livelihoods to thousands of families and hundreds of rural cooperatives that farm, fish and steward Central America’s most prominent coastal ecosystem.
However, increased global demand for land, water, and other natural resources, as well as the effects of global warming, have intensified pressure on these vulnerable ecosystems and increased the rate of loss and deterioration of wetlands worldwide. This is particularly true in El Salvador, where the country has lost 60% of its mangrove cover since 1950. To exacerbate matters, according to the Global Climate Risk Index, El Salvador suffered most of any country from extreme weather events in 2009, and fourth most in 2011.
In the Bajo Lempa and the Bay of Jiquilisco, local wetlands rangers are at the forefront of efforts to stop the degradation and exploitation of mangrove forests and promote the sustainable use of its natural resources. José Horacio Soreano was elected by his community to be a wetlands ranger in 2010, volunteering as an apprentice, without pay, for more than a year before joining the team of five rangers that works in the western zone of the Bay of Jiquilisco. “I feel a love for the mangrove forest,” he explains, “so I feel obligated to look after it, so it will be here for my children and future generations.”
José Santos Lisandro Hernandez is also a wetlands ranger. He remembers, “In these communities when I came here 20 years ago, they were communities rich in flora and fauna. Before, there were many animals and natural resources, but since that time the number of species and amount of mangroves has continued to decline. Floods keep getting worse and it’s harder to live off the land. It makes you ask the question, why don’t we do something to change the situation?”
Mangrove forests face many threats, including commercial pressures from salt and shrimp farms, agricultural expansion, contamination from agro and industrial chemicals, unsustainable extraction practices, and overexploitation of resources by both outsiders and local communities. Together with local communities, community organizations, and government agencies, the wetlands rangers work to educate and raise awareness about the importance of the mangroves, support research and restoration projects, and patrol the mangrove forests daily.
Lionel Antonio Rivas Ruiz, a wetlands ranger from the community of San Juan del Gozo, enthusiastically elaborates, “The role of the wetlands rangers is the protection and restoration of the mangrove forests. But at the same time it is to encourage community participation, to raise awareness about what is happening because of global warming and overexploitation, and to inspire action.” Lisandro adds, “Our most important task is environmental education. We must talk about the services that the environment gives us to help people understand that without these natural resources we couldn’t live.”
The efforts of the wetlands rangers and local communities are beginning to come to fruition. Thanks to sound local organization and their ability to engage international expertise from practitioners at the Mangrove Action Project, EcoViva and the Mangrove Association have instituted a new way to conduct mangrove restoration in El Salvador, now adopted by government authorities and prominent environmental donors. Communities have lead the way in restoring over 70 acres of degraded mangrove forest and priority crab habitat, while implementing the country’s first legally-backed, community-based forest regulations, protecting approximately 4,735 acres of wetlands from unfettered development and overexploitation. Wetlands rangers are also forging priorities for community policing and violence prevention programs, working with EcoViva, the national police and environmental officials to enforce local rules against timber poaching, blast fishing, and unsustainable resource extraction practices throughout the Bay.
Recently, these efforts culminated in a national forum hosted by the Ministry of the Environment, EcoViva, and the Mangrove Association, in which government officials met with over 200 coastal community leaders from across El Salvador’s coastline to discuss successes and challenges to the inclusive conservation and restoration of mangrove ecosystems. Though much has been achieved by local communities and wetlands rangers to protect and restore the mangrove forests, they recognize there is still a long way to go. Sitting in the watchtower overlooking the expansive swaths of mangrove forest that surround his community, Lionel concludes, “Taking care of our natural resources is a big job, but our lives depend on it. I’m making a call to everyone to collaborate to protect and restore wetlands.”