Source: A Haskell Indian Nations University production for NASA's Where Words Touch The Earth
This video segment explains why Native people regard wetlands not only for their important ecological function, but for their spiritual value as well. For many tribes, wetlands represent life. They consider wetlands to be sacred places that must be protected from external sources of pollution, such as runoff from landscaping businesses and municipal discharges. The video segment was adapted from a student video produced at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.
Wetlands, which include marshes, swamps, and bogs, are found inland as well as along coastlines. Some contain fresh water, others salt water. Of all of Earth's ecosystems, wetlands contain the greatest variety of life forms. Their abundant vegetation and undisturbed stretches make them ideal spawning and nursing areas for invertebrates and fish. They also serve as stopovers for migratory birds. But wetlands do more than offer plants and animals a place to live. They protect property from flooding by buffering land from ocean storm waves and by providing natural reservoirs where floodwater can collect. And, by trapping sediments and giving plants and microorganisms a chance to biodegrade pollutants, they filter and purify the water that passes through them.
Despite their ecological importance, about 60 percent of global wetlands have been destroyed over the past 100 years. The main threats to wetlands include draining or filling associated with agriculture, land development, and construction projects; pollution from upstream activities, which kills vegetation and contaminates water; and damming and other alterations to stream channels downstream, which changes water flow upstream. Earth's warming atmosphere is emerging as another critical threat. Already it has produced visible changes in the quantity and quality of water in many wetlands.
An increase in atmospheric temperature disrupts plant and animal distribution in wetlands and produces ecosystem-wide changes. Hotter air temperatures increase water temperatures, which in turn causes evaporation and a drop in water supply. This adversely affects plants and animals. Warmer water also causes bacteria to increase, releasing nutrients that allow algae populations to flourish. The metabolic activities of algae rob the water of vital dissolved oxygen, causing other aquatic organisms to suffocate. But perhaps the most daunting consequence of climate change to consider is this: The world's wetlands are estimated to hold nearly 800 billion tons of greenhouse gases. In other words, they are a major carbon sink for 10 to 20 percent of the Earth's terrestrial carbon. If allowed to degrade, they threaten to release this carbon back into the atmosphere, further accelerating global warming.
To be certain, wetlands protection is critical to maintaining ecological balance. But there's another reason to protect wetlands, apart from ecology. Native peoples live their lives conscious of their relationship with the natural world. Because this relationship is interdependent, they honor and respect nature as a complex system in which everything—plants, animals, wind, water—is believed to possess spirit. Natural resources are viewed as gifts, and Native peoples honor these gifts through rituals, ceremonies, and art. For most Native peoples, all land is sacred, yet much of their ancestral land has been despoiled by cities, highways, clear-cut forests, and strip mines.
Supporting conservation of places that have historical and, for some, sacred significance is therefore not just about saving nature. It is also about ensuring that nature can continue to teach and save humans.
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