Wetlands champion looks back 40 years



Posted on 11 February 2011  | 
Denis Landenbergue, freshwater manager for WWF International, is also an avid photographer.
© Phil DickieEnlarge

Gland, Switzerland: Over the last decade, WWF's Denis Landenbergue and water team members of WWF's global network have played a pivotal role in the protection of over 100 million hectares of wetlands on all continents, except Antarctica.

Here he reflects to Gretchen Lyons on the 40th anniversary of the framework for all this conservation, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. This convention, one of the original international agreements on the environment, is more usually known as the Ramsar Convention after the Iranian city where it was signed in 1971.

A international celebration of the convention is to be held in Ramsar in early March.

Q: You have dedicated yourself both professionally and personally to wetland conservation. What is it about wetlands that inspire you?
A: I was born on the shore of Lake Geneva, the biggest lake of western Europe. I have always lived near a lake, a large river or even occasionally an ocean, and I can’t imagine living without a body of water nearby.

Since I was small, I have had a lot of interest in nature. As a teenager, I learned about water birds on Lake Geneva, and that increased my interest in these ecosystems.

During this same period, one of my favourite places along the Rhône River became degraded by all sorts of developments. There was a wetland there that took me, with help from various local conservation associations, over 20 years to be restored and protected. I know far too well the huge amount of time and energy it takes to save a wetland.

Q: Do you have a favourite water bird?
A: Every water bird I see is my favourite! Well, maybe I have a special interest in terns. For nearly 30 years, I have been studying one of their colonies the Rhône River near Geneva. Water birds keep moving from where they nest in spring-summer to where they spend the winter. Many species move twice a year between the northern and the southern hemisphere. And therefore all wetlands along their routes have something to contribute to the survival of these species, as well as people around them.

Q: Wetlands are often overlooked landscapes. Why are these ecosystems important?
In 2011, the global population will pass 7 billion people. We hit 6 billion in 1999, the year I started at WWF. I make this reference because every second there is a need for more water for humanity, for agriculture, energy, extractive industries, and at the same time, it is fundamental that enough water remains available for all species and the functioning of ecosystems. The total water volume on the planet is fixed; it’s not going to increase, so it needs to be used more wisely.

Q: Ramsar, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and new wetlands are put under its protection every year. But they are still threatened. What more needs to be done?
A: Well, the Convention should have more staff and budget. They are dealing with 160 member countries and the total staff is only about 20 people. This is insufficient.

Education is also very important. Parents and schools need to do more to educate children about nature and wetlands, including taking children out to get wet and see for themselves. It’s striking how little people know about their environment – there needs to be more awareness. If you wait until people are adults, it’s harder for them to understand the value of nature. I know from experience, when you grow up near a lake or pond or wetland, you feel ownership. That’s very powerful.

Q: What can people like you and me do to protect wetlands?
A: Pay attention to water consumption and vote for politicians who show leadership on conservation issues. Support WWF, as I have been doing for over 35 years – I was just 15 when my parents gave me my first membership as a gift. And talk about it with your friends and family. Anyone can do this, especially if you see wasteful behaviour.

Q: For this World Wetlands Day, Ramsar has chosen to highlight the link between forests and wetlands. Can you explain the connection?
A: There are a lot of wetlands that are forests and forests that are wetlands. Think Amazon and Congo basin flooded forests – or forested wetlands, it is all the same. The divide is in the language people use, not the ecosystem itself. So it’s not enough to protect a wetland and not look at what’s happening around. Nearly any river basin will have forests on slopes or hills that are holding the soil in place. Logging for firewood or timber lets the soil runoff into the river, which can suffocate fish. That means less to catch and eat for the local populations. So human health and the intrinsic value of nature are harmed. River basins with the best protected wetlands in the world are still in trouble if the surrounding forests aren’t well managed. Focusing on one alone isn’t sufficient.

Q: We’ve mentioned Ramsar’s anniversary. 2011 is also the International Year of Forests and WWF’s 50th anniversary. Does this convergence provide any special opportunities for conservation?
A: We can use the Year of Forests to publicise the importance of good forest management for healthy freshwater ecosystems. But action needs to take place every year, all the time. Now is a good time for media and politicians to better understand this link and to talk more about it. I also hope it will make it a bit less difficult to get some good conservation decisions made during a year like this.

Denis Landenbergue, freshwater manager for WWF International, is also an avid photographer.
© Phil Dickie Enlarge
Gahr-El-Melha, Tunisia
© Denis Landenbergue Enlarge
Sebkha Sejoumi, Tunisia
© Denis Landenbergue Enlarge
Lac Mellah, Algeria
© Denis Landenbergue Enlarge
Guerbes, Algeria
© Denis Landenbergue Enlarge

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