Located in the Department of Santa Cruz, in the lowlands of Bolivia, the wetlands of Banados del Izogog-Rio Parapeti, El Palmar de las Islas-Salinas de San Jose, and 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.
These include, among others, the jaguar, the tapir, the giant river otter and the hyacinth macaw. The newly protected sites are also very important freshwater reserves for the surrounding human populations.
The Bolivian government's decision has also been recognized as a Gift to the Earth - a first for freshwater in Latin America - by WWF. On a global scale, Bolivia becomes the second country to designate such a vast area of wetlands in the Convention's 30 years of existence.
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. It means 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, which today is 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.
"Local actors, such as municipal authorities, indigenous communities, farmers and private landowners have welcomed the designation of the sites," said 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."
The Bolivian Pantanal is a mosaic of lakes, lagoons, rivers, flooded savannahs, palms, dry forests and cerrado. 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 fate of just one of these species, considered by many as the most exciting bird of the Pantanal, the Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), is reason enough for the protection of the area. Considered by the IUCN-The World Conservation Union in danger of extinction in all of its habitats, in Bolivia its distribution is restricted to the northern area of the Pantanal.
One of the major causes of the decline in its population is due to the high numbers exported by collectors to the United States. Between 1979 - 1982, 1,113 individuals found their way to the US markets -- 1,089 of these were from Bolivia.
It is now estimated that the world population of the Hyacinth Macaw in the wild reaches only 3,000 individuals. WWF believes that in order to avoid the extinction of this species conservation plans and actions which include research, communication and environmental education must be implemented and current efforts increased.
The second area, 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 ecoregion. Its surrounding landscape has been traditionally and almost exclusively used by the Ayoreo indigenous people. And thirdly, and also located in the Chaco, the Bañados del Izogog and Rio Parapeti wetlands are linked to the Amazon basin, forming a valuable biological and genetic corridor. Together, the three areas form the largest freshwater protected area in Latin America and, with the promised protection of their host of flora and fauna, truly a wonderful Gift to the Earth.
Ana Alicia Eid is the Communications Officer in the WWF Bolivia Programme Office, Santa Cruz.