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Published July 30, 2008 08:59 AM

Wetlands 'must be preserved' say experts

by Catarina Chagas

Participants in an international wetlands conference have issued a declaration urging recognition of the importance of wetlands and calling for basic wetlands research.

Around 700 experts from 28 countries met in the city of Cuiaba, Brazil, on the edge of the vast Pantanal wetland, to discuss the importance of wetlands and strategies for their preservation and reconstruction at the 8th International Association for Ecology (INTECOL) International Wetlands Conference last week (21—25 July).

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The Cuiaba Declaration, issued on the final day of the conference, emphasises wetlands' importance for humans and biodiversity worldwide.

"The current lack of basic knowledge regarding the global extent of wetlands is unacceptable," says the declaration.

Scientific data, such as remote sensing to identify and characterise wetlands, is needed, and new preservation policies based on scientific research that unite economic development, environmental protection and social welfare should be put in place, it says.

Wetlands cover six per cent of the Earth's surface and consist of different ecosystems that are permanently or seasonally wet, like mangroves and salt lakes. They work as sponges, absorbing water during rain seasons and liberating it slowly during dry periods. Wetlands also stabilise local climates, purify water and provide around 25 per cent of the food we consume — such as meat, rice and fish.

Rising global temperatures are damaging wetlands due to evaporation and decomposition of organic materials, alongside human activities such as drainage for agriculture, pollution and urban development. Half of the wetlands worldwide have been destroyed in the last century.

The declaration says that this is a "consequence of inadequate national development policies, lack of implementation of existing laws, and the lack of long-term land use planning".

"The destruction of wetlands has caused an increase of heavy floods during the rainy season and a lack of water during droughts, accompanied by a slow lowering of the water table," co-chair Paulo Teixeira, coordinator of the Pantanal Regional Environment Program in Brazil, told the conference.

Experts believe that it is important to attract public attention and stimulate research to preserve wetlands. "Humanity needs a wake-up call to fully appreciate the vital environmental, social and economic services wetlands provide," said Teixeira.

"We have to prepare wetland inventories and elaborate international and local laws to guarantee preservation and sustainable use of these areas," he added.

Positive measures have already been taken. The Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology announced the creation of a new research centre to study the Pantanal at the conference.

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