New Zealand will join 160 other countries, some as far flung as Botswana, China and Iran in marking the occasion, with a dawn celebration on the shores of Lake Ngatu in the Far North.

This year’s World Wetlands Day on February 2nd marks the 40th anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, an international agreement to promote and protect the planet’s wetlands.

Since the agreement was signed in 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar, more than 186 million hectares of wetlands have been protected across the entire globe, through becoming Ramsar sites of significance. This includes 55 thousand hectares in New Zealand.

New Zealand will join 160 other countries, some as far flung as Botswana, China and Iran in marking the occasion, with a dawn celebration on the shores of Lake Ngatu in the Far North.

One of the organisers of the event, the Far North Environment Centre’s Richard Robbins, says that as the first country in the world to see the dawn, New Zealand’s launch will be the catalyst for festivities around the globe. 

“As the sun rises, a special ceremony incorporating waiata, mihimihi and karakia will be conducted by members of Ngai Takoto, the iwi affiliated with the lake. The Muriwhenua kapa haka group will give a performance. The ceremony will also include a song written and performed especially for the occasion by local artist Brit Rolo,” explains Mr Robbins.

Ngai Takoto elder, Mangu Awarau, says it’s good for the iwi to be involved, as in his opinion, caring for the environment is more important than anything.

“When I was a boy growing up near the Waimanoni wetland the frogs were our dawn chorus. Now we can’t hear them anymore. And the eels are becoming more scarce. These things tell me that Mother Earth can’t take too much more.  

If we look after our environment, we look after ourselves and our future,” Mr Awarau points out.

A very special guest will also make a surprise appearance, although organisers are keeping tight-lipped on who that will be.

“Let’s just say he’s very flamboyant, and is a freshwater fanatic!” says Mr Robbins.

And to ensure the whole country is represented at the Far North festival, a collection of whimsical wetland creatures, including a flax sculpture, created by children across the country, will frame the shoreline of Lake Ngatu. Mr Robbins says the children were invited to take part via the OSCAR holiday programme.  

“A special webpage featuring poems, photos and video clips by the children has been set up for the anniversary.  

Although not a Ramsar site, Mr Robbins says that Lake Ngatu was chosen as the venue for the celebration because of its excellent example of wetland conservation achieved through community commitment and collaboration; the ethos of Ramsar’s global vision.

Lake Ngatu is a recreational reserve administered by the Department of Conservation.  Since 1980, Bushland’s Trust, a voluntary community trust, has worked tirelessly to re-vegetate the area surrounding the lake in native plants and grasses, transforming it into one of Kaitaia’s most popular parks. 

Trustee and local wetland enthusiast, Kevin Matthews also attributes its success to local schools, in particular Paparore and Awanui, along with hundreds of people from the local community, who have assisted through annual Arbor Day plantings and working bees.

“The result is an outstanding place to visit, as well as the protection of a pristine dune lake,” says Mr Matthews. 

Mr Matthews says some people may be surprised to know that dune lakes also come under the wetlands heading.

“People often assume a wetland is a technical name for a muddy swamp,” explains Mr Matthews. 

“Actually wetlands cover a variety of habitats, including lakes, mangroves, tidal forests, marshes and peat bogs.”  

For the last century, New Zealanders have been taught that draining wetlands to make productive farmland and to help with flood control has been positive for the country. New Zealand now has less than 10 per cent of the wetlands that were present in pre-European times with subsequent loss of biodiversity.

The organisers of New Zealand’s Ramsar 40th anniversary and World Wetlands Day want 2011 to become the year that New Zealanders take hold of this issue and take a stand to care for what’s left. 

“We can change our attitudes to wetlands. View mangroves as allies that protect our coasts from storms. Marvel at peat bogs and swamps as efficient carbons sinks. Enjoy the rich bird and marine life that thrive there. A wetland is just as amazing and important to our well-being as a forest,” says Mr Robbins.

The Lake Ngatu National World Wetlands Day Celebration is open to everyone. To promote RAMSAR’s 40th anniversary a series of events are planned across the country throughout the year. 

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