Guatemalan Marsh in Distress
By Jorge A. Grochembake*
The Manchón Guamuchal marsh, Guatemala's largest, suffers degradation from human activities and contamination from the dumping of chemicals and garbage, say environmentalists.
GUATEMALA CITY - Mangroves, swamps, rivers and lakes, as well as black-sand beaches created from volcanic lava -- all of which are part of the varied ecosystems of the Manchón Guamuchal wetlands -- are suffering the gradual destruction as a result of degradation and contamination.
A fire last month threatened an area of mangroves, and focused public attention on the marshland, a protected area covering 13,500 hectares on a Guatemalan island in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of the southwestern municipality of Tilapia in San Marcos department, 270 km west of the Guatemalan capital.
The Manchón Guamuchal serves as a migratory bird refuge and, due to its vast biological wealth of such wetlands, is among the most complex and productive ecosystems.
These intermediate habitats, between land and aquatic ecosystems, provide vital environmental functions and natural wealth.
The Manchón Guamuchal is included in the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, adopted in the Iranian city of that name in 1971 and signed by more than 100 countries.
The Convention entails a list of globally important sites, particularly those that provide habitat for aquatic birds. Guatemala ratified the convention in June 1990 and in 1998 the Manchón Guamuchal was added to the list of internationally importance.
"Manchón Guamuchal was declared a Ramsar site, but the authorities still don't pay any attention to it," conservationist Ligia de León, who has spent more than 20 years working to protect the area with the local 'Amigos del Bosque' (Friends of the Forest), told Tierramérica.
De León says it is also a shame that the local press does not better disseminate the studies about the wetland, like the one published in March by Brazilian oceanographer Yara Schaeffer-Novelli, who visited Guatemala last year.
The Manchón Guamuchal, the most important protected area on Guatemala's southwest coast, is perhaps the only site that remains in the region as a resting area for migratory birds, which use the western corridor that begins in Canada and the United States, says Schaeffer-Novelli's report.
Fourteen duck species, 12 of which are migratory, and 20 species of egrets, like the 'jorojora' or tiger-heron, as well as many other bird species utilize the wetland, says the Brazilian study.
De León notes that the birds arrive from October to November, and leave in March, after wintering in the Tilapia lagoons. There are aquatic birds and even birds of prey, sparrow hawks, buzzards, falcon, and 'milanos'.
The activist questions the lack of fines against the shrimping operations near these habitats or against the owners of banana plantation, the principal source of contamination.
"Everything flows to the wetlands via the rivers. Furthermore, the advance of human settlements is another factor endangering the area," she said.
According to Schaeffer-Novelli's study, contamination from chemicals and plastic waste dumped upriver affects the entire Manchón Guamuchal wetland, as does the activities of nearby residents, who cut down the white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa) to make crafts and the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) to use as firewood.
"Unfortunately we haven't been able to establish the foundations for saving these vital ecosystems from contamination," Yadira Pereira, assistant for the wildlife department at the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP).
Nevertheless, said Pereira, the Guatemalan government is working intensely to comply with the Ramsar Convention guidelines.
She underlined the launch of training programs and efforts to limit the number of people entering the protected areas.
* Jorge A. Grochembake is a Tierramérica contributor.