Volume 1, No. 1

It might seem that only a small minority of people have an interest in conserving wetlands and coastal zones, for purely environmental or preservationist reasons. In reality, however, the importance of maintaining these ecosystems is fundamentally economic.

Some of the major wetlands with recognized national and international value in Central America are:

  • In Guatemala: Laguna del Tigre, Machón-Guamuchal, Bocas de Polochic Wildlife Refuge
  • In Honduras: Barra de Cuero y Salado, Jeannette Kawas National Park, Punta Izopo Wildlife Reserve
  • In Nicaragua: Los Guatuzos
  • In Costa Rica: Caño Negro, Gandoca-Manzanillo, Northeast Caribbean Wetlands, Palo Verde, Tamarindo, and Térraba-Sierpe
  • In Panama: Gulf of Montijo, Punta Patiño, and San San-Pond Creek

These freshwater wetlands provide countless important goods and services for local populations and society as a whole.This is, of course, why the different peoples of Central America originally made their settlements along the banks of important rivers and lakes. Water is a key factor for social and economic development in any region, now as well as in the past, and wetlands play an important role by providing fresh water. Even today, better quality water means lower treatment costs, and that translates into savings for society in general.

In addition, inland bodies of freshwater trap nutrients, dilute pollutants or serve as vehicles for disposing of liquid waste¾ once again, substituting costly water treatment technology. Part of the nutrients captured by wetlands can be managed and reused in the form of fish, aquatic plants, wood products, and other goods for direct consumption. This productive potential is perhaps one of the most well recognized values of wetlands.

Benefits derived from wetlands include a large number of goods and services that are used either for direct consumption or in the form of hydrological services. This may possibly lie at the root of their destruction, for the following reasons:

  1. Goods are normally utilized by local communities and frequently ignored in national accounting (i.e., GDP), and thus have very limited market value.
  2. Their hydrological services are recognized and important, but little understood. This is especially true in Central America, where the hydrological and hydrographic network is very restricted and very few studies of this type exist.

Nonetheless, the region is very dependent on these resources. At least 50% of the population consumes water from natural primary sources, in many cases mostly untreated. Overall, the general public does not recognize the majority of the services we receive from wetlands as such.

For their part, coastal zones also provide innumerable goods and services essential to the regional economy:

  • Fish products generate at least $250 billion annually.
  • Fisheries provide direct employment for some 250,000 people in the region.
  • At least 250,000 indigenous people in Central America live in coastal zones and depend directly on their management.
  • The world's second largest coral reef barrier is located in Central America.
  • Tourism is one of the two primary sources of income for three countries in the region.
  • In all of the Central American countries, tourism is principally developed around coastal marine resources or wetlands.
  • This region possesses 8% of the world's mangroves, and they represent 7% of Central America's natural forests.

Despite these facts, a large part of the wetlands and coastal zones is being destroyed. The cities of Belize and Panama are built over mangroves. Guatemala has lost 60% of its original mangrove cover, and in many of the region's countries tourism development has been one of the major causes for the destruction of coastal ecosystems.

An estimated 40% of the shrimp farms in the Gulf of Fonseca have been constructed on mangroves.

Large extensions of floodplain on the Caribbean coasts of Costa Rica and Honduras have been destroyed when drained for agricultural activities.

These conservation problems are reflected in the increased frequency of floods, deteriorated water quality, accelerated mortality of coral and the disappearance of tourist attractions.

The loss of wetlands and coastal zones is clearly an economic as well as an ecological problem. This is why we decided it was important to find a way of communicating with the entire public in order to help people understand why wetlands and coastal zones are so important.

An instrument is needed to help build public awareness of both the value of these ecosystems for society, and the personal responsibility of each individual in achieving this objective.

We hope this bulletin from the IUCN/ORMA Program for Wetlands and Coastal Zones Conservation, published with support from the Norwegian Agency for Development (NORAD), will help achieve this important objective.