This awesome responsibility—for all generations to come—has arrived quickly for people living at the end of the twentieth century. It is a responsibility that some still do not acknowledge. Within the last few generations of human existence, the impacts of human activity have grown so enormous that they now threaten to erode the diversity of life on Earth, and with it the life-support systems that contribute to human prosperity in countless ways. With the loss of species, we lose medicines to treat disease and genetic diversity to improve crops—just at the unpropitious moment in geological time when our expanding human population requires infusions of both. With the erosion of ecosystems we lose the cleansing benefits that wetlands perform for water and forests for air. With the diminishment of even the most prosaic forms of life—the tiny organisms that form soil or the fungi that help crops and trees obtain nitrogen—the long- and short-range prospects for our human condition dwindle.
Stemming the loss of biodiversity and stanching the erosion of natural ecosystems thus stand linked as two of the great challenges that must be met as human society attempts to forge a sustainable future. The Foundation has chosen to work toward solutions to these problems by focusing on a limited number of sites—three watersheds and three forest ecosystems, each of global significance—and encouraging within them development of the intellectual and human infrastructure that will ensure wise stewardship of their resources. Along with these regionally based initiatives, the Foundation supports international efforts to develop intergovernmental protocols which encourage biodiversity conservation. Within the United States, the Foundation is also engaged in a long-term effort to improve public understanding of the value of biodiversity.
This report highlights the Foundation’s programs in three watersheds: the Pantanal of Brazil and its downstream watershed along the Paraguay River; the Amazon watershed, particularly its fisheries resources; and the wetlands of coastal Louisiana. Each of these natural ecosystems contributes mightily to human well-being. Each today is under dramatic assault, with its current contributions to human prosperity at risk. Each offers solutions that can preserve those contributions without imposing draconian constraints upon regional economies. Indeed, the salvation of these watersheds and the services they provide to the people within them will be essential for each region’s sustainable economic development.
Place the protection of watersheds in context: water is essential for life as we know it. Watersheds are irreplaceable components of the natural ways by which water moves through the world’s ecosystems, from mountain spring to coastal estuary, from temporary inland wetlands and vernal ponds to cataract and meandering floodplain. The biological ingredients of a watershed are themselves cardinal parts of the machinery that allows watersheds to function. No amount of human engineering within affordable reach of today’s world economy can begin to replace the natural services of watersheds in providing clean water, flood protection and fisheries.
New scientific findings published in early 1996 show that human activities now consume annually some 30 percent of all available fresh water on the planet. 1 Careless treatment of watersheds decreases the amount of fresh water available. At a time when human population growth is certain to increase our demand for water dramatically, we need all the help from natural ecosystems that we can obtain.
The folly of watershed destruction and misguided management has become ever more apparent in the 1990s. A century of conversion of the Mississippi River from natural watershed to over-engineered channels and dikes deprived towns along its length of a natural flood control system that would have averted a major fraction of the devastating floods that hit in 1995. Decades of dam construction in the Columbia River basin of the Pacific Northwest have helped push once-bounteous salmon runs to the brink of extinction. Salmon—once one of the defining biological and cultural resources of the entire region—are now in need of protection by the Endangered Species Act. Excessive and careless timber-cutting in the coastal watersheds of Oregon and Washington led to countless landslides and damaging floods during the winter of 1995-1996. The sheet flow of water over South Florida, from Lake Okeechobee southward into the Everglades, has now been interrupted in so many places that the fabulous biota of the region are at risk, and at the downstream end Florida Bay is in biological crisis.
The Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland. An enormous tropical floodplain of some 140,000 square kilometers, it stretches north to south over 400 km and is at its widest some 200 km. The Pantanal lies in the northern headwaters of the Paraguay River. From its origins in central Brazil to its outflowing into the South Atlantic, this watershed is the second largest in South America. Like all watersheds, it is comprised of a mosaic of upland, lowland, wetland and water habitats that provide sustenance and ecosystem services to diverse species and to many people. Indeed, millions of people live within the watershed’s boundaries.
With growth of the economy in the surrounding region, many factors have begun to impinge on the quality, quantity and pattern of waterflow through the Pantanal and downstream to its mouth at the Rio de la Plata. The single largest threat is a massive engineering project proposed to make navigation upstream into the Pantanal more efficient. This project, known as Hidrovia, would, in its most ambitious form, risk profound and irrevocable damage to the ecosystem and its inhabitants.
Alerted to Hidrovia planning, the Foundation initiated efforts beginning in 1992 to understand its environmental consequences. This work revealed that full-scale implementation of Hidrovia would change water flow characteristics in the downstream watershed fundamentally, with likely devastating increases in the frequency and intensity of flooding as well as major alterations in the ecological conditions to which the watershed’s fisheries—and people—are currently adapted. Studies also analyzed the underlying economics of Hidrovia and demonstrated that its benefits were likely to be far smaller than the optimistic calculations used to justify its implementation. The dramatic results of this work forced policymakers, particularly in the multilateral lending banks likely to provide financing for Hidrovia’s development, to slow down and reconsider the potential impacts of their plans.
Since that initial investment, the main focus of the Foundation’s work on the Pantanal has been to assist the formation of a regional network of scientists and environmental activists within the five-country region affected by Hidrovia planning: Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. The Foundation’s objective is to ensure that organizations based within the affected region have the technical and communications capacity to engage the public in an informed and constructive debate about Hidrovia’s implementation.
The Amazon River and its tributaries together form the world’s largest river system. As with the Pantanal-Paraguay River watershed, millions of people live within the Amazon’s reach, most concentrated in major urban centers like Manaus and Belém but also distributed broadly in towns and villages throughout the basin. Their dependence on the Amazonian ecosystem is even more apparent than that of people in the Pantanal: some 60 percent of protein consumed by people living within the Amazon basin comes from the river’s fisheries. Losing this bounteous resource would cause profound human suffering.
Humans have not shown great wisdom in their history of managing freshwater fisheries, or indeed any fisheries. Salmon in the Pacific Northwest, lake trout in the Great Lakes of the American midwest, oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, cod on Georges Bank, these and other examples from around the world provide pungent testimony to our recurring mismanagement of fisheries, forcing them into ecological ruin and fishermen into economic despair. The case of the Amazon may prove no different, although to date it lags behind the others in moving toward devastation.
Three forces now challenge the long-term future of Amazonian fisheries. One is the growing harvest. As the human need for protein expands in the basin and fishermen adopt ever-more modern technologies, they may strain the capacity of different species to maintain their populations. Already market researchers report reductions in the sizes of the most popular fish species, often a harbinger of a harvest out-of-balance with ecological systems.
A second threat is destruction of essential habitat. Many Amazonian fish species depend upon seasonally flooded forest for breeding habitat, and as a source of their food. Increasingly, these flooded forests are disappearing in the maw of development, and being cleared for grazing by cattle and water buffalo. Fewer flooded forests will mean fewer fish.
A third threat is the pollutants that come with goldmining along the river. Mercury is widely used as part of this mining process, and when released into the ecosystem it can be taken up into the food chain, pass into fish and then on to people. The human fetus is extremely sensitive to mercury poisoning, passed from the mother to the developing baby.
The Foundation funds work to develop an integrated plan for long-term management of Amazonian fisheries and related biotic resources. Part of this work concentrates on the main river course, with a special emphasis on developing the science necessary for fisheries management plans. Included within this task are studies to evaluate the threat posed by mercury in the food chain. Another element of this initiative occurs in the headwaters, areas of immense biological diversity, to assist communities within these regions to develop scientific, economic and social resources which will encourage long-term sustainability in their development planning.
The Wetlands of Coastal Louisiana
Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are the largest in the United States. Indeed, they amount to some 40 percent of this country’s coastal wetlands. But mismanagement over the last century of the wetlands and of the forces that maintain their integrity has led to the loss of an area greater than the entire state of Rhode Island, almost 4,000 square kilometers. The mismanagement and the losses continue, despite growing appreciation of the profound contributions that these habitats make to Louisiana’s and the nation’s well-being.
Those contributions are manifold. As with all wetlands, they involve the provision of ecosystem services and of well-endowed fisheries that put crabs and redfish and shrimp on the country’s plates. For people living within the wetlands themselves, and for residents of New Orleans and other coastal cities, the wetlands’ services are even more palpable: they provide a buffer against the hurricanes that lash Louisiana’s coast with regularity. If the loss of wetlands continues, New Orleans will suffer devastating storm floods.
The great works of civil engineering that have led to the current predicament were undertaken to advance economic progress in the region and to provide for flood control along the Mississippi River. Canals cut through the wetlands to provide access to oil-drilling rigs expose the marshes to erosion and alter their salinity, leading to changes in vegetation less able to resist erosion. Dikes built along the river mean that sediment essential to maintaining wetland soils flows instead out into the Gulf of Mexico. Well-intentioned efforts at "marsh management" through impoundments and damming may also inadvertently increase the rate of loss by interfering with sediment flow.
Whatever the causes, the cold reality that now confronts southern Louisiana is that its wetlands loss increased dramatically during the second half of this century. While recently slowed, some 65 square kilometers are still inundated by an encroaching Gulf each year. Unless the means are found to restore sediment flow over broad areas, the disappearance of precious wetlands will continue.
Ultimately, stemming this loss will require a public commitment, first within the state and then nationally, to redirect current management priorities on the Mississippi River and to fund recovery projects in the wetlands themselves. Toward that end, the Foundation’s efforts since 1991 to restore these coastal wetlands have embraced a range of activities in science, law and advocacy, each contributing to advancing public understanding of the issue.