When you’re living in a desert city of 10 million people in the developing world resources are stretched tightly. There’s not much room for nature in Lima, beyond the inevitable urban pigeons and a few hardy native birds that take advantage of the artificial oases of urban parks and gardens. There’s no space for wild places within the vast city limits, with one remarkable exception: Los Pantanos de Villa.
Los Pantanos is the sole protected natural area within the Lima urban footprint. It’s what’s left of the band of coastal wetlands that first allowed people to flourish in the desert. It’s why the original inhabitants built their towns and temples here, long before the Spanish dreamt of Incan gold and conquest. Over time the urban creep of the city has consumed much of these important habitats, and now Los Pantanos is all that remains, a surprising wedge of green constrained by dusty urban development and the sea.
In a city like Lima, an urban swamp becomes a treasure. Las Pantanos is an oasis of biodiversity here in the city. It has been named a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention1, which recognises its value as habitat for waterbirds on an international scale. When I visited Los Pantanos de Villa in November, when the migratory birds were just beginning to arrive for the summer, it’s importance to waterbird conservation was immediately evident.
It’s not just the waterbirds that make this place special, however. The surprising variety of wetland types within the reserve mean it supports a diverse array of life for such a small space. There are blackwater, saline, acidic, basic, freshwater and brackish water ponds, each with their own specific biological communities, from the algae in the water that form the base of the food chain to the surrounding vegetation and the animals that call it home.
The water that feeds this complex ecosystem originates high in the Andes. Wet season rainfall slowly percolates through the subsoil and aquifers, seeping it’s way beneath the desert and reaching the wetlands some four months later. Here it interacts with the ocean currents and salinity to well up to the surface, forming this intriguing mosaic of marshes and ponds. This slow and complex fluvial geomorphology brings life to the desert.
The park buzzes with dragonflies, damselflies and other insects with aquatic larval phases, which in turn provide rich pickings to the spiders and terrestrial birds. The dense thickets of reeds and mounds of samphire provide excellent habitat for any number of small critters that would otherwise be homeless in the urban expanse of Lima. There’s even a remnant population of wild-type guinea pigs, locally extinct, surviving in the centre of the swamplands.
The birds are the big drawcard though, and in summer the migratory species descend in their thousands to feed and breed in the reserve and on the adjoining beach. On the day I visited a small ceremony was held to herald the first arrivals of the season and honour the special connection between land and sea these wetlands represent. It’s a great way to get the community involved with the reserve and build traditions that contribute to environmental education and protection, and it’s in the area of community engagement and education that Los Pantanos de Villa really shines.
I was lucky enough to meet the team of biologists and rangers who take care of this rather special place. They are passionate people who understand that real, long-term environmental protection needs the support of the community. This means helping people to understand and value the ecology of the wetlands and other protected areas, and the team are involved in a lot of outreach and communication work. They’re building a new visitors information and interpretation centre and nurturing relationships with local schools and institutions. They understand that, in the crowded suburbs of Lima, the reserve needs to be a good citizen and get along with its neighbours. The local community is learning to love what used to be thought of as wasted land, and through engagement and education activities environmental awareness is increasing.
The more people who understand the value of the wetland, the better protected it will be, long into the future. Like the ripples from the wake of an Andean Duck, these changes will fan out and build public understanding and value of the environment as a whole, from the urban fringes of Lima to the shrinking rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon. These changes are the real impact of urban national parks and wildlife reserves: they provide an opportunity to connect city-dwellers with nature and sow the seeds of change. The most important thing is to get the conversation started.
Los Pantanos de Villa
What: Wildlife Refuge and wetlands complex, listed as a Protected Natural Area by the Ministry of the Environment, co-managed with the City of Lima
Where: Chorillos, a coastal suburb in the south of Lima, Peru
How: Take the Metropolitano mainline bus to Chorillos. From the bus station catch the yellow metro feeder bus. The Pantanos de Villa bus stop is on the main trail into the reserve.
Thanks to park manager Daniel Valle Basto and his wonderful team for inviting me to visit Low Pantanos de Villa and attend the welcoming ceremony for the birds. I’ll be back as soon as I can!
1. The Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971) — called the “Ramsar Convention” — is an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the “wise use”, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories.