Saving Valdivia’s wetlands: An interview with Fundacion Plantae

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Photo: Marcelo CárcamoPhoto: Marcelo Cárcamo
By Antonia González

The city of Valdivia, located in the Los Ríos Region of Chile, has more than 10,000 hectares (almost 25,000 acres) of wetlands, making it the city with the second-most urban wetlands in the country, after Coronel, in the Biobío Region. This extensive network, which is mostly found in the southern part of the city at the confluence of the Cruces, Calle Calle and Valdivia rivers, are riverside wetlands, marshes and swamp forests.

These ecosystems are not only home to a great diversity of plants and species, but also stand out for their great environmental variability, fulfilling important ecological functions such as flood control, improving water quality, mitigating climate change and offering wonderful places for recreational activities and environmental education.
Unfortunately, today they are severely threatened by urban growth and are subject to strong man-made pressure from pollution, drainage, replacement and filling. Between 2000 and 2019, surveys carried out by the Municipality of Valdivia reported a decrease of 510 hectares (1,275 acres), that is, more than 26 hectares (64 acres) per year, which is concentrated in the southern area of the city, where the greatest population growth has occurred.
We spoke with Bastián Oñate, project director of the "Agua es Vida" program, and Javier Salvatierra, executive director of Fundación Plantae (a Valdivia non-profit dedicated since 2016 to the conservation, access and responsible use of natural places in Chile), who clarified the current situation and the main threats to these wetlands, along with the future challenges faced by their foundation and other governmental organizations to conserve them.
An key action, says Salvatierra y Oñate, and one which was completed at the end of 2021, is that the wetlands of Krahmer (9 ha), Catrico (30 ha), Angachilla (126 ha), the Bosque-Miraflores-Mulatas-Guacamayo system (373 ha), and the wetlands of Isla Teja (387 ha) were officially declared as urban wetlands. Now, the public is waiting for nature sanctuary declarations for the Llancahue wetland, the Cutipay river wetland and the Angachilla river wetland, altogether totaling more than 2,100 hectares (5,190 acres).
Moreover, one of the greatest threats to these wetlands are the landfills carried out by property developers and private individuals in order to build on them. "Illegal takeovers of wetlands, which the State does not seem to be taking care of, have emerged as an emerging problem in recent years," he said.

"Once this is achieved, it would mean a citizen achievement, but, in addition, a transversal challenge, since it is necessary to articulate a governance that will take charge of the management and guarantee financing for the administration of these areas," says Salvatierra.

Photo: El robledalPhoto: El robledal
They also add that recently, property development and agricultural companies are seeking to block the declaration of nature sanctuaries and the official recognition of urban wetlands within the framework of Law 21.202, even filing claims to annul the declarations, as in the case of the wetlands at Valdivia’s Isla Teja, Miraflores, and Angachilla.
In an interview with Patagon Journal, Salvatierra and Oñate of Fundación Plantae tell us how they see the way forward for the protection of one of the region's most important ecosystems. Excerpts:
What are some of the current challenges faced to conserve wetlands?
Although the government has developed a successful National Wetlands Plan through international agreements, it has not been able to allocate a permanent budget for their adequate management and conservation. A greater allocation of resources from the national government and regional and municipal governments for the administration, management and monitoring of these ecosystems is urgently needed.
But it is also necessary to advance in the challenges proposed by the new Law 21.202, officially recognizing a large part of the remaining urban wetlands, creating communal wetlands committees, and elaborating municipal ordinances that contribute to their protection in each of the country's communities.
The challenge for the National Wetlands Protection Plan is to continue supporting the process of declaring sanctuaries for prioritized wetlands and implementing governance models for the nature sanctuaries that are being created and the urban wetlands that are being recognized.
Finally, due to the lack of state oversight, it is necessary for civil society and its organizations to bring to light the actions and impacts of real estate and private companies in general on all wetlands, whether protected or not, as well as to bring to public view the landfills with debris, in which even public agencies are involved. Likewise, illegal seizures and state inertia and bureaucracy are also relevant issues that need to be addressed.
Cleanup of the Krahmer Wetland, Valdivia. Photo: Fundación PlantaeCleanup of the Krahmer Wetland, Valdivia. Photo: Fundación Plantae 
Within these challenges, are there, for example, environmental education plans for conservation?
Few educational institutions include wetlands in their environmental education plans. Most of the plans are focused on recycling and topics related to waste and gardening, but also with the traditional educational approach that scarcely includes outdoor activities. However, there are very good examples of environmental education programs in some schools, municipal programs and organizations that support them, as well as citizen training programs in urban wetland protection, definition of pedestrian routes, and community conservation of wetlands.
The lack and/or limited focus of school environmental education and outdoor activities is not only insufficient for children, but also for public officials, who have not been trained or had the opportunity to see and understand the importance of wetlands and other ecosystems, often making it impossible to implement coordinated actions among the various departments and institutions of the government.
On-site activities in wetlands and the outdoors offer transforming experiences and build an appreciation and love for nature. It is a main cornerstone for a harmonious relationship between human beings and the ecosystems of which we are all a part of, and resolving this should be part of the mission of a government that is supposed to be concerned with our socio-environmental wellbeing.
Have local communities shown commitment to protect these ecosystems?
Thanks to a citizenry committed to environmental issues, neighborhood councils, ecological committees, various groups, such as the citizen network for the wetlands of Valdivia, foundations and study centers, there has been considerable progress in the protection of urban wetlands during the last decade.
Paddling for wetlands, year 2022. Photo: Fundación PlantaePaddling for wetlands, year 2022. Photo: Fundación Plantae
At the same time, committed authorities such as the Regional Governor Luis Cuvertino, mayors such as Carla Amtmann, Senator Alfonso De Urresti and the Seremi of Environment Daniel del Campo and his team have demonstrated a real commitment to the conservation of these ecosystems.
Several wetlands were officially recognized as urban wetlands and others are waiting to be declared nature sanctuaries. The regional government, for its part, has been a pioneer in beginning work to prioritize a group of rural wetlands to develop strategies to promote their conservation.
How do you see the future of wetlands in the region?
Real estate and private pressures continue to be a huge problem. Pollution, land seizures, draining, replacement and filling of wetlands is a daily occurrence, and the lack of control due to lack of resources and professionals is undeniable. Changes in climate and rainfall are also factors that add pressure and uncertainty to these ecosystems. In addition, defining environmental quality standards for the Valdivia rivers and wetlands, we hope that will be an open process and sufficiently involve all stakeholders, and that it will have a positive impact on Valdivia's wetlands.
We are making progress in creating new nature sanctuaries and officially declaring urban wetlands, but we are concerned that these actions do not guarantee protection over the long term. Instead, it may just result in paper protection areas without sufficient administration or funding. There is still time, it is hoped that a more conscious and visionary State will take action on these issues.

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