Stories|Part of The Root of the Matter


What does the word ‘wetland’ mean to you? Many of us don’t encounter wetlands at all, and at best we might think of a muddy, boggy marshland. But these landscapes, and the plants that thrive in them, are crucial for ecological health, biodiversity, and capturing carbon. In this episode, JC and her contributors invite you to see these misunderstood spaces in a new light.

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Photograph of a turquoise-toned photogram. The light-sensitive emulsion has been roughly spread onto the textured watercolour paper leaving brush marks around the edges. Vertically crossing the turquoise colour of the emulsion is the white silhouette of a three wetland reeds with thin stems and long straight leaves.
Wetland. © Faye Heller for Wellcome Collection.
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Ecologist and writer Mordecai Ogada talks about the cultural and ecological significance of Nam Lolwe (also known as Lake Victoria) to Luo peoples who live on its shores.

Diana Umpierre, of the USA’s Sierra Club, explains the impact that human interventions have had on the Everglades in Florida, and the indigenous communities that call it home. 

From the other side of the Pacific, Professor Dan Friess shares how mangrove swamps are crucial to both human and environmental health, and why they have been misunderstood in the past.

Finally, we hear from the Wilder Landscapes Advisor for Sussex Wildlife Trust, Fran Southgate, about how we need to pay more attention to our own wetlands in the UK.

Presented by JC Niala
Lead producer Alannah Chance
Produced by Mae-Li Evans
Music and sound design by Alice Boyd

‘The Root of the Matter’ is a Reduced Listening production for Wellcome Collection.

Audio transcript

JC Niala (00:00): When you hear the word ‘wetland’, what do you imagine? A group of mangrove trees? Clumps of papyrus along the River Nile? If you’re like most people who live in cities, it’s normal if an image doesn’t immediately spring to mind.

What about if I say the word ‘bog’ or ‘marsh’ or ‘swamp’? It’s more likely to conjure up images and probably not good ones. Bogs are liminal places – not quite water, not quite land. They can be difficult to walk in and you are more likely to have been told a story when you’re a child about a monster in a marsh than given a book entitled ‘My First Wetland’. This is because wetlands have a tendency to remain uncontrollable or ‘wild’.

Living on wetlands requires special skills which not everybody has. You can take a beautiful selfie with a tree in a forest but on a peat bog, if you lose your concentration or footing, it can swallow you up in seconds.

In the first three episodes of this series we have been moving from the cultivated to increasingly wild spaces, from the garden, farmland to woodlands. We have deep emotional connections to these spaces, and we try to look after them in various ways. But how do we treat places we barely think about, and understand even less? In this episode of ‘The Root of the Matter’ we look at wetlands.

Wetlands are varied spaces and can include anything from lowland fens and salt marshes to mangroves and peatlands. They are vital landscapes on which numerous plants and animals depend for survival. They are brilliant carbon sinks, burying carbon from decomposing plants in their soil before it can be released into the atmosphere. But despite all this, they are in decline all around the world. Why is that? Maybe it’s got something to do with their reputation.

Even though I live in a city, when I hear the word ‘wetland’, I think of home. Being Luo, I am a daughter of the Nile. My ancestors, over millennia, followed the River Nile along wetlands to its source, Lake Victoria. Even our name comes from this history – luo means to follow.

Mordecai Ogada (02:38): Especially in areas where precipitation is limited or temperatures are higher, like in the tropics, wetlands are extremely important. Ancient civilisations all grew round river valleys, lakes, etc – the Indus Valley in India, the lower Nile.

JC Niala (02:54): That’s Mordecai Ogada, an ecologist and writer involved in conservation policy and practice across Kenya. He describes how Luo peoples used papyrus swamps as an indicator for settlement.

Mordecai Ogada (03:05): There’s a swamp where we’ll get some papyrus for mats. Papyrus, that wetland is an important fish-breeding area. They probably knew that there’s good fishing around where you see papyrus swamps, where you see lots of fish, eagles, kingfishers, etc. These are all indicators of a healthy and productive ecosystem. So people would settle around there, and they’d look after it.

JC Niala (03:27): And one plant found here that traces a long lineage is papyrus.

Mordecai Ogada (03:32): All the way from the far north in Egypt, where it was used to make paper for the hieroglyphic scripts in ancient Egypt. Coming down to Lake Victoria, there’s a cultural importance around the use of papyrus to make mats. Mats which are used for sitting on, sleeping on, drying grain, drying fish, and even partitioning houses.

JC Niala (03:56): I work with clay, I make pots. And so papyrus, we use it to fire traditionally. It’s been something going back centuries. The papyrus leaves, when you use them to fire pots, it gives a completely different experience to the clay, and so we use the papyrus for that. So I was wondering if you had any other thoughts about the cultural significance of wetlands and how people who have lived intimately with wetlands; there’s a stewardship or a guardianship of those places.

Mordecai Ogada (04:31): The wetlands defined origins, where Luos are called “people from the lake”, or even when you’re talking, talking of specific areas. Rivers form the division between one area and another. Sometimes they’re the intra-ethnic boundaries, sometimes the inter-ethnic boundaries, and they are places where either war or peace occurs, or trade. And that’s the difference between Africa and the Global North. We are people who are indigenous to the place where we live; we didn’t come from anywhere.

So these features, they define us and it’s even impossible to fully describe the importance of the lake to people who live around it. They’re pretty much the lifeline in terms of ecosystem services – water itself, biodiversity, fisheries, as Lake Victoria is. Even recreation, whether we are talking about swimming, and transport, people sailing on boats from one place to another, it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of these wetlands because we live off them, really.

JC Niala (05:35): Even though I don’t live by the lakeside, I feel like the lakeside is in me. It’s always there with me, that sense of that connection. A lot of it, actually, funnily enough, is with dragonflies. Whenever I see dragonflies, I feel like there’s the lake.

Mordecai Ogada (05:53): If you look at Luos who live in Kenya, in Nairobi, for example, you see that exodus that happens in December. People going home. Dala.

It’s like something many other people, other ethnic groups make fun of like, “What are you guys going to do at home? Why don’t you go to Samburu for a few days as a holiday or something?” But very few Luos can explain to you why it is they go home. It’s the same thing when people die, that imperative to go and bury him in Nyanza.

JC Niala (06:25): Dala is the Luo word for ‘home’, and home means the wetlands on the shores of Nam Lolwe, which is what we have always called Lake Victoria. Historically, we based the rhythms of our lives around a wetland ecology.

Wetland soil is highly fertile, which is why it got drained for agriculture, but our traditional management systems mean that we farmed for part of the year, had a fishing industry for a different season, and then moved along the Nile with our cows for another part of the year.

JC Niala (06:55): Because I’m an anthropologist, when I look at it from the cultural perspective, I surmise that when there was much more of a mixed economy, life was good in Luo wetlands. Because if I look at music, for example, and the vast number, I think we’ve got between 14 or 16 traditional instruments. We have many, many different words to describe music, and our musical culture and our poetry and our theatre is incredibly rich. So that speaks to me as people who had time.

Mordecai Ogada (07:32): You’re absolutely right. It’s a rich culture. And even if you talk about a word for eating. How many different words are there in Luo for eating, depending on what it is we’re eating?

JC Niala (07:41): There are so many. If you Muodo, nyoyo, if you…

Mordecai Ogada (07:46): Muodo Bang’o kuon hadho ringo. This is richness, you’re very, you’re absolutely correct.

JC Niala (07:54): But there are increasing pressures to develop wetlands, to farm them intensively or to drain and build on them for so-called development. In the areas where this has happened, communities have witnessed the environmental destruction that has followed. It has affected not just their livelihoods, but also their lives. With less time on their hands, people are not able to have the cultural festivals and engagement that they normally do with Nam Lolwe. This has had a devastating effect on their way of life.

A few years ago, a multinational organisation wanted to build a factory for agricultural processing in a wetlands area in Kenya.

Mordecai Ogada (08:36): They said, “We are giving you jobs, we are piping water to your homes,” but they made the crucial mistake of blocking people from the lake. Some say, “Okay, I’ve got a water tap at home, but hell, you’re not blocking me from the lake.” And it all went pear-shaped. It all went wrong.

JC Niala (08:53): Those who were critical of the local community’s response didn’t understand the wider context, where the offer came in and threatened to fracture a culture that is a few thousand years old.

Mordecai Ogada (09:07): We are now doing engineering solutions to what we perceive as human problems. When what we should be doing is improving the resilience of people who have lived with those things we think are problems. We are trying to look at it as a resource. It’s not a resource to be exploited. It is a jewel to be revered, to be used, to be lived with, to be looked after. We shouldn’t see ourselves as its owners – we should see ourselves as its stewards.

Diana Umpierre (09:48): Ever since I’ve been working on Everglade restoration issues, I’ve been intrigued by the history, particularly because of the concerns that we might be using the same mentality of the past, and not learning from those mistakes.

JC Niala (10:02): Diana Umpierre, who is based out of Florida, works as an organising representative for the Sierra Club, which is a non-profit grassroots environmental organisation. She’s a big advocate for the restoration of the Everglades wetland and, in particular, keen to ensure that the voices of those most impacted by environmental issues are part of the conversation.

 ne issue within the Everglades is toxic algae bloom. Starting in the 1830s, canals and dredges were put in different parts of the Everglades, in an effort to drain them for agricultural use, and also to create towns. In the process, Lake Okeechobee, a large waterbody in southern Florida, ended up being connected to the ocean.

Diana Umpierre (10:47): It meant that every time that water flows into Lake Okeechobee, if there’s no outlet, if there’s no way for that water to flow south, the only place that then that water can go is east and west. And what happens, you have this huge amount of water, right, that comes, especially if you have a big rain event, you know, or a storm that comes in and that brings a lot of water into Lake Okeechobee…

JC Niala (11:10): And this freshwater with a different salinity level rushes toward estuaries and the coast. Add into the mix the runoff from nearby cattle ranches, septic tanks and agriculture, and you’ve got nutrient-laden water, rich in excess amounts of phosphorus or nitrogen. This results in cyanobacteria, an avocado-coloured toxic algae which sits like a carpet along the watercourse.

Algae blooms are naturally occurring, but the scale and rate of growth of the blooms that appear is much faster than normal, and can produce toxins that can have severe impacts on health.

Diana Umpierre (11:48): The air that you breathe may carry some of those toxins. Some of the water that you drink or where you swim could potentially enter your body through the skin. There are some animals, some types of fish that sometimes retain those toxins more. So hypothetically you know, some of those toxins can end up in the food that we eat.

JC Niala (12:10): But human health is more than just about what we eat – it encompasses livelihoods and access to adequate shelter, free from pollutants.

For a group of people that had already been displaced from other parts of the United States, the Everglades served as a place of refuge.

Diana Umpierre (12:27): The Seminole tribe and the Miccosukee tribe, who refer to themselves, and rightly so, as the unconquered people because they never surrender. They made the Everglades their home. The Miccosukee tribe, they live very deep into the wetter parts of the ecosystem. Both tribes are very much connected to the ecosystem; they depend on the wetlands for traditions that are culture.

JC Niala (12:55): One space within the Everglades that is key for the culture of the Miccosukee tribe is called the tree islands.

Diana Umpierre (13:01): And they’re parts of this ecosystem where water is flowing, where you have a higher elevation. And that small difference in higher elevation means areas where they’re able to cook, or they’re able to sleep, or they’re able to have ceremonies, and where they’re able to bury their dead.

We have lost a significant number of them because we have overflooded some parts of the ecosystem. If we put too much water in that ecosystem, it ends up drowning those tree islands. That means that they have less access or no access at all to the areas where they practise their ceremonies, or they cook or where they sleep and bury their loved ones.

JC Niala (13:44): Though this is happening less today, it is still an area of concern.

Diana Umpierre (13:48): How do we make sure that we don’t keep making mistakes that keep on destroying their culture, that keep on destroying those things that are important to their culture, such as the tree islands? And so a lot of the fight now is to protect what they still have.

JC Niala (14:01): One of the challenges with helping people to understand the importance of wetlands is our lack of ability to read landscapes and ecosystems holistically. When we see a landscape full of water, we treat the water as a problem and want to get rid of it, to get to the soil underneath, which we see as valuable.

Diana Umpierre (14:18): When people talk about draining the swamp, it’s a term that we hate because that’s the opposite of what we want to do here. We want to rehydrate this land.

JC Niala (14:27): We are now seeing the catastrophic effects of trying to break up the ecosystem by removing a key element of it.

JC Niala (14:46): Take a cluster of mangrove trees on the shore of the sea. They are trees that live in saltwater – and mangrove is a generic term for different species of trees that have similar features, which are multiple branches and shallow, twisted roots. These roots have to partially grow above ground because the soil they grow in is waterlogged. Looking at them is like something out of a science-fiction film.

So how have mangroves been perceived historically? And what’s been the impact on the landscape?

The largest and most diverse mangrove forests can be found in Asia, with those in Indonesia being some of the tallest in the world, reaching about 45 metres in height.

Dan Friess (15:31): Imagine that you are in West Papua, in Indonesia. And these are some of the most pristine undisturbed mangroves in the world. If you were stood in the middle of that mangrove, you wouldn’t be able to see outside of the mangrove – it just goes on for miles and miles and miles. You would notice really deep mud, because this mangrove is at the entrance of several rivers. That substrate gives the foundation for a really rich mangrove ecosystem.

JC Niala (15:59): That’s Dan Friess – he’s an associate professor at the National University of Singapore. He’s interested in researching mangroves: why they’re important to us, the benefits they provide, and the threats that they face.

Dan Friess (16:12): There’s a saying that’s attributed to a Thai fisherman called Mad-Ha Ranwasii. And he said that, “If there are no mangroves, then the sea doesn’t have any meaning. It’s like having a tree without roots, for the mangroves are the root of the sea.” Mangroves are a key foundation for so many things and they’re really at the root of many interactions between the environment and people. Mangroves are really resilient: they start out as this kind of tiny seedling trying to survive in this very dynamic coastal environment. But then they grow and they’re able to give that resilience to others, by protecting coastal communities, for example.

JC Niala (16:48): Mangrove coastlines protect local communities from natural hazards such as storms, and their sophisticated root systems help to improve water quality. But during the colonial era, Europeans saw mangroves as reservoirs of disease:

Dan Friess (17:03): They were thought to produce bad air or ‘miasma’. And it was thought that this bad air was caused by decomposing vegetation and animals in the mangrove forest. Malaria was thought to come from this bad mangrove air – and before we knew anything about mosquito-borne diseases, you see these perceptions as reservoirs of disease written in ship logs from colonial ship captains around that kind of period.

And it was only after that miasma theory was disproved, but even then mangroves were still really strongly associated with mosquitoes and mosquito breeding. That led to huge areas of drainage and conversion of mangroves along many of our coastlines.

JC Niala (17:47): This is one of the legacies of colonialism that has gone on to have a huge ecological impact around the world. In places like Indonesia and parts of East and West Africa, the colonial imagination of mangroves led to their destruction.

Dan Friess (18:03): These are ecosystems that have had coastal communities associated with them for thousands or more years. If we look at traditional ecological and indigenous knowledges – it’s been known for a very long time, the real benefits that mangroves provide in terms of food and fuel and traditional medicines. But also in terms of other benefits and livelihoods that are associated with mangrove products.

JC Niala (18:26): Thankfully, some of this knowledge is starting to become more widely understood, and the perception of mangroves has improved.

Dan Friess (18:33): Now the perception of mangroves is as a nature-based solution to climate change, or to help mitigate or offset our climate emissions by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and trapping it within the ecosystem. So certainly, we have a number of much more positive perceptions of mangroves now, particularly related to these benefits. But certainly, some negative perceptions still remain. And they can still influence how people view this really important ecosystem.

JC Niala (19:13): To me, wetlands are some of the most magical places that exist. But they matter much more widely. They are an important part of nature for the whole world. Even in different climates like the UK, they are crucial ecosystems. They filter water, and act as natural flood defences. But because they haven’t been recognised for what they can provide, they’ve faced destruction.

Fran Southgate (19:42): If you destroy a massive reedbed, are you just destroying a bit of bog? Or are you destroying the water purification, the carbon storage, the access to nature, the biodiversity, the genetic diversity, the medicines it might hold in things like the willow.

In the UK and globally, wetlands are in a very bad place. We probably don’t know how bad because we simply don’t know what we’ve lost. The best guess for Sussex is that we’ve lost at least 80 per cent, it’s probably more like 90 or 95 per cent of our original wetlands.

JC Niala (20:13): Fran Southgate is the Wilder Landscapes Advisor for Sussex Wildlife Trust. And spends most of her time advising people on restoration projects.

Fran Southgate (20:22): So Sussex is quite unusual, in as much as it has this band of green sand geology going through it, which is really acidic. And then it has another band of chalk, which is internationally rare and also very alkaline. And there’s actually places in Sussex where those interact, so you have really incredible sort of acids or alkaline springs coming into the same place and you get these wonderful fens and things.

This wonderful little valley, I won’t give the name away, it’s got all these lovely chalk springs popping out into it. It is kind of like the land that time forgot. It feels prehistoric. It’s got all these amazing dipping ferns and just the sound of bubbling water flowing over rocks, and it’s got all these incredible bright red lichens, and creepers and vines and trees that have fallen over and it just looks really Jurassic, almost.

And in particular, things like floodplains, big floodplains where the water can sort of flatten out and slow down. That allows things like silt to drop out of the water column. And you’ve got other things like reedbeds; their root systems trap soil and sediment anyway. But also they have lots of natural microbial action in their root systems, which helps to break down some really quite serious pollutants.

JC Niala (21:38): Wetlands are a great defence against flooding because they store huge amounts of water that stops it from surging inland. Thing is, without being valued, they got dug up, drained and built over. Leaving the houses that were built on them defenceless against flooding.

More than five million homes, or one in six households in England, face this risk of flooding.

Fran has been carrying out work that mimics natural flood management, and has learned a huge amount from the process.

Fran Southgate (22:08): I think it’s taught me to accept change, which is something that as human beings, we don’t like change particularly, but everything changes on a daily basis. And in a wetland, if you’ve got a really good dynamic wetland, it literally changes by the second, and you can watch it change before your eyes. Using water in your landscape, you can change something for the better overnight. But if you give it a hundred years, you’ll get something incredible.

Diana Umpierre (22:47): They may not be as flashy as, you know, as the Grand Canyon. But these wetlands here have biodiversity, and we just can’t afford to lose them. Our future depends on them.

JC Niala (22:57): Because of the ever-enduring negative associations of them, when we think about the benefits that nature has to offer, wetlands don’t immediately spring to mind. So we need to change this view with the wider public, and help to shape their understanding.

Mordecai Ogada (23:17): They’re not jars of preserved jam to be kept in the larder. They’re living; they need to produce and renew and be stewarded. The biggest problem with the way we manage wetlands is that we try and manage them as something separate from people. Wetlands need to be managed holistically. We think we want to manage wetlands as discrete sort of chunks of something, yet water itself is a flowing medium. We need to revisit it in a way that is not about commerce, not about tourism, just a way that’s about life. We must protect life, not biodiversity, not nature, we just protect life, which encompasses all that.

JC Niala (24:01): And it turns out that wetlands have the potential to protect all of life. The people who live in harmony with them are not just supporting their own lives and livelihoods, they are in effect supporting us all.

Next week, in our final episode, we look at landscapes that human beings have ruined and abandoned. The wasteland. Are they really worthless and empty? Or, left to her own devices, does nature return and flourish? It appears nature does, and often in the most surprising ways.

Thanks to all our contributors: Mordecai Ogada, Diana Umpierre, Dan Friess and Fran Southgate. And if you’d like to dig deeper into the ideas we’ve covered here, go to the Wellcome Collection website, where you can also find a transcription of this episode. And if you’re in London, head to the ‘Rooted Beings’ exhibition, which is on until the end of August 2022.

‘The Root of the Matter’ is a Reduced Listening production for Wellcome Collection. The producers are Alannah Chance and Mae-Li Evans. Our music and sound design is by Alice Boyd. And I’m JC Niala.