EXPOSED: Caño Negro Wetland In Critical State

Caño Negro was declared a “wetland of international importance” in 1991 by the RAMSAR Convention, yet despite its status, is threatened by illegal drainage, destructive agriculture, deforestation and sedimentation of upstream rivers. On a recent flight, CAVU exposed and documented the damage.

On April 1, 2009, CAVU pilot Bob Morrison and photographer/researcher Dave Sherwood flew with Andrea Corte, long-time advocate for Caño Negro and director of ASOPROCOSARENA, a local grass-roots environmental group that has been instrumental in revealing and denouncing environmental threats and degradation in the region.

Caño Negro was declared a “wetland of international importance” in 1991 by the RAMSAR Convention, a multi-national treaty that seeks to identify and protect critical wetland areas and their associated populations of birds, fish and wildlife. At 25,000 acres, or 38 square miles, it is one of Costa Rica’s largest and most important wetlands, home to remnant tropical lowland wet forest, three species of monkeys, jaguars, endangered garfish, tarpon and hundreds of bird species.

Though Caño Negro is almost entirely encompassed by a Costa Rican national wildlife refuge and the nucleus of the newly-established UNESCO Agua y Paz Biosphere Reserve, threats abound. During CAVU’s overflight, freshly-cut drainage ditches were clearly visible from the air throughout the wetland and adjacent Rio Frio river valley. Local farmers and large companies, anxious to drain and fill wetlands for agriculture, have changed the natural course of the wetland’s water flow, wreaking havoc on fish and wildlife populations and jeopardizing it’s long-term sustainability. Local businesses extracting gravel from the rivers upstream of the wetland have increased sedimentation and erosion to the point that the wetland itself is beginning to fill, leading to longer dry spells in the lagoons and leaving migratory water birds high and dry. Perhaps most alarming from the air has been the rapid expansion of large-scale, industrial agriculture – largely pineapple and orange – in the region. Additional sedimentation, erosion and the use of agro-chemicals from these large plantations, threaten to change the chemistry of the water, poison once pristine wetlands and further deteriorate the lagoons.

Working together as a team, CAVU pilot, photographer and partner were able to systematically document each of these threats from the air, using state-of-the-art GPS mapping and digital imaging technology. CAVU provided partner Corte with precise photographs and corresponding longitude and latitude, helping to establish a critical baseline for future work in the region. By week’s end, Corte had already identified a range of new trouble spots, and had included CAVU’s photographs in an upcoming lawsuit to be presented to the country’s highest environmental court, the Tribunal Ambiental.

The overflight was a success, and yet another example of the power of the aerial perspective and CAVU’s unique role as a partner in protecting and enhancing wild areas.

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