Blog / 2 February 2022

On World Wetlands Day communities throughout the La Plata Basin are asking for support in their fight for their endangered wetland ecosystems

The new year has barely begun but already record high summer temperatures are being reported in parts of South America, especially Argentina, Paraguay and Southern Brazil. The latest heatwave, with temperatures of up to 45C, arrives on top of two years of severe drought which had a devastating effect on the entire region. It is a painful reminder of the immediacy of climate change and emblematic for what happens when vital ecosystems are not protected and for the catastrophic consequences as much on already endangered wildlife as on the local communities who depend on them for their livelihoods. One of the most affected areas are the regions wetlands – unique ecosystems, which are crucial ecological pressure points, vital for the regulation of river systems and huge carbon sinks. Their loss not only has ecological impacts but affects thousands of local communities which depend on their health for fishing, tourism and local agriculture. The threat to them by for example droughts and fires, can be directly linked to the large-scale production of soy, produced mainly for export. This in turn means responsibility for what is happening in the region needs to be acknowledged and shared by leaders around the world, and especially large importers such as the Netherlands.

Today, on World Wetlands Day, I would like to take the opportunity to highlight the specific importance of these wetlands for both climate change mitigation and adaptation, whilst also shining a light on the inspiring efforts by the local organisations with whom Both ENDS works to protect the La Plata Basin's unique ecosystems.

Importance of wetlands

Wetlands are one of the most unique and biodiverse ecosystems of the world. They perform two important functions in relation to climate change, as they store carbon and therefore help mitigate climate change. Wetlands also absorb abundant water and this way play a role in adapting to changing rainfall patterns. Despite this vital role in keeping the world's climate and the region's water levels in balance, wetlands are being gravely threatened by environmental degradation through human activity. And it is important to note that in the La Plata Basin, many of these threats can be directly linked to impacts caused by Dutch government policies, Dutch companies and Dutch consumers.

Dutch policy threatens the Pantanal

The Netherlands, being Europe's top importer of soy beans from South America, contributes to the ever-expanding agricultural frontier into the fragile and unique ecosystems of wetlands of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. This frontier does not only expand through slash and burn tactics of expanding fields, but also through a growing network of infrastructure projects - countless ports, roads, small and large dams - needed to transport the soy beans to the import markets. This infrastructure further exacerbates the already rampant destruction of precious river systems and natural wonders such as the Pantanal wetlands.

Additionally, climate change is already increasingly manifesting itself in the La Plata Basin. Last year, the water levels of the Parana river were the lowest in almost eighty years. This is due to the extreme drought and dwindling rainfall upstream in Brazil. Experts mention that wetlands degradation, hydroelectric dams, and deforestation on top of the climate crisis, have worsened the drought that began in 2019. Two years ago, the extreme drought and slash and burn that nearly 30% of the unique Pantanal wetland area was destroyed in completely unprecedented series of wildfires

Local communities protect the wetlands

However, many of the regions' communities have not given up the struggle yet . They are fighting not only against the loss of important ecosystems and unique biodiversity, but also against the ensuing loss of local communities' livelihoods through the destruction of valuable fishing areas or tourists spots, as well as the loss of their cultural heritage which is entwined in the health of the rivers and wetlands.

Both ENDS has since 1995 been working together with a coalition of partners towards the goal of protecting the La Plata Basin. Over the past years, in our programme 'Wetlands without Borders' local organisations have mounted political actions for the protection of the ecosystems. But they have also been busy designing methods and practices of livelihood which are in harmony with their natural surrounding. Through embracing new practices specifically adapted to wetlands areas local people are for example supported in developing agro-ecological farms in Bolivia and Brazil, or trained to produce unique 'Wetland honey' in Paraguay. This experience shows that there are plenty of opportunities to mitigate climate change and enhance the ecosystem's adaptive capacities through protection of wetlands without giving up economical or social development.

But their battle against climate change and environmental degradation can not be won in one country or one region alone. The Dutch government has been doing great strides towards climate adaptation in their own country, and it has big ambitions when it comes to supporting other countries in their plans to adapt, such as through the Global Centre on Adaptation based in the Netherlands.

So while the local communities are doing their best to protect some of the world's most vulnerable ecosystems, they and we are asking countries like the Netherlands to do much more when it comes to transforming their ambitions into tangible realities. For example we call on them to play an decisive role in ensuring that the new EU regulation on deforestation is indeed as robust as it can bee. (See statement to be released on February 3rd by civil society actors from all over Europe. )

Click here for the Wetlands Without Borders website and for the latest news of the region.

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