Offsets for allowing wetland loss: Playing God with Nature?

14 March 2014

Can we presume to allow more wetland loss than has already occurred? (Photo: Bill Harding)

Can we presume to allow more wetland loss than has already occurred? (Photo: Bill Harding)

One of the more controversial debates in ecology in recent times centers on whether or not it is possible to find offsets for allowing the loss of natural habit, be it ancient woodlands, areas of coastline or wetlands.  Impacts on the latter are often driven by mining demands – especially for the coal seams that are commonly located beneath wetland systems.

The presumption that such give and take can even be allowed has been dubbed ‘neo-liberal environmentalism’ and a process the outcome of which will be a mediocre, middle-class environment.  I like to call it  ‘egosystem management’ – steering away from, as others have put it, the need to ‘work around nature’ rather than bulldozing right through the middle of it.

The topic is highly-controversial and, as with other approaches to try and manage remnants of natural systems and ecosystem functioning, embodies a lot of arbitrary thinking and virtually no proof that it will work.  The global jury is still firmly “out” on the issue of biodiversity offsets.  As with Climate Change, there exists argument that we know too little about the topic and its ramifications.

South African ‘wetland science’ as a scientific discipline is arguably still in its infancy, while debate on the linkages between biodiversity and ecosystem services is virtually non-existent.  I recently assessed over 150 wetlands as part of a greenfield road infrastructure project – a study that clearly showed that, due to the sheer scale of the intra- and inter-ecosystem linkages, wetland offsets would simply not be possible.  As recently concluded in a paper published in Forest and Ecology Management (Onaindia et al, Volume 289)

The link between biodiversity and ecosystem services is not well understood, and different studies have found varying levels of ecosystem services in relation to biodiversity in different habitats. Although recent research has confirmed that both biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services declines with land use intensification, there is still much discussion among the scientific community about the different strategies that may be required to protect both biodiversity and services.

The discussion they mention is not yet in place in South Africa – and don’t let the bureaucrats fool you into thinking otherwise.  As succinctly argued by Dullinger and co-workers (Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences 110) last year, mankind sits with an ‘extinction debt’ from past anthropogenic abuse.  Attempts to mitigate current and future damage may not be sufficient to balance the books.

Considerations of how to offset permitted loss of wetlands in South Africa is a recent addition to this debate.  Although I have been involved with assessing wetlands in this country for more than 25 years, I must have missed something as Version 7 (!) of a document entitled “Wetland Offsets: A Best Practice Guideline” is apparently now available for comment (comments are due by mid-April, a miserably short allowance for so important an issue).  This is not a topic that should slip quietly through the approvals process – it should be vigorously and determinedly debated by as wide a group of interested and affected parties as possible.

An area of wetland research and debate is focussed on a greater integration of agriculture and wetlands – i.e. farming in wetlands such that the wetlands are not negatively impacted on.   While this was, and to a lesser extent, has been successfully practiced by indigenous peoples possessing of an innate understanding of nature and its needs, I wonder if it is still possible today.  A recent EU report on the impacts of agriculture on aquatic ecosystems suggests that there is still a long way to go!

Agriculture is a key source of environmental stress on freshwaters.  In Europe, it accounts for around 33% of total water use (e.g. for irrigation) and is the main source of nutrient pollution in water.   Agricultural land surrounds many lakes and rivers and significantly influences the quality and quantity of water that reaches them.  As a result, there are increasing calls across the continent to devise ways that agriculture can become more ‘water friendly’.

Don’t miss the opportunity to get involved!  Your children and grandchildren might regret that you did!

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