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Scientists warn that, by the year 2100, the sea level will rise more than six feet, progressively flooding the wetlands of South Florida. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Mario Penton, Miami, January 3, 2018 — An immense grasslands with tones of yellow and green extends up to the horizon, and Miami’s skyscrapers can be glimpsed in the distance, like blue boulders. Far from the metropolis, where more than six million people live, one of the largest and most famous wetlands of the planet crosses to the west and south: the Everglades, an immense subtropical garden that is endangered by climate change and contamination.

On board a hovercraft, thousands of toursists every day cross only a small part of the subtropical national park, which is the largest in the U.S. With its nearly 1,500 square miles, the National Park of the Everglades is approximately the same size as the province of Guantánamo, or double the size of the state of New Jersey, on the northeast coast of the U.S.

It’s calculated that more than a million people visit these wetlands every year, and they are counted by the tens of thousands as they pass through the entrances.

“The main dangers we face are the increase in sea level and environmental contamination,” explains a tourist guide, who drives the airboat, which is a peculiar flat-bottom craft that uses an airplane propeller to avoid harming animals and the ecosystem.

Scientists warn that, by the year 2100, the sea level will rise more than six feet, progressively flooding the wetlands of South Florida. A report on Univision that quotes several experts from Florida International University indicates that the Everglades is being reduced to half its former size and receiving only one-third of the fresh water it used to receive.

Declared an International Biosphere in 1976, a World Heritage Site in 1979 and a Wetland of International Importance in 1987, the Everglades is the only place in the world where crocodiles, which can reach some five meters in length and weigh 1,100 pounds, live alongside alligators and caimans. In addition, hundreds of endemic animals like manatees, deer and pumas can be found, including invasive species such as pythons, which can reach almost 20 feet in length.

The heart of the South Florida wetlands is Lake Okeechobee. Rains from the wet season make it overflow, and the waters flow south, progressively flooding large areas of terrain.

“In the first half of the twentieth century, over 1,400 miles of canals were constructed with the aim of containing the flooding from Lake Okeechobee, and, thanks to this, cities like Miami were able to grow,” explains the guide. Beginning then, there was the desiccation of large quantities of land for urbanization and cattle ranches, as well as the construction of highways, affected the wetlands.

“The construction in 1928 of the Tamiami Trail highway caused a cut-off in the flow of water coming from the lake. There are plans to spend more than 10.5 billion dollars to raise part of the highway in order to restore that flow and to intervene for preserving the wetlands, but they are advancing slowly,” he explains.

Along the Tamiami Trail, a long road that links Miami with the west coast of the peninsula, work is underway on the constrction of bridges to permit the passage of water toward the south. It’s a project that, among other things, seeks to ensure the water sources for the city.

“If you drink a cup of tea in Miami, you’re consuming the same water that we have in the Everglades,” jokes the guide. Although his statement is an exaggeration, the flow of water in the South Florida wetlands is vital for sustaining the Bicayne aquifer, which supplies the water used in the largest city of Florida.

Owing to the porous nature of the rocks under the marsh, penetration of the sea or the contamination of particular areas has repercussions for the whole ecosystem.

The tourists protect their ears from the deafening noise of the airboat propeller by using earplugs. When the motor is turned off, there is a sepulchral silence. In the middle of the wetlands, you hear only the sound of the crickets or the buzzing of the innumerable insects that inhabit the area.

“Also living here are the American Indian Miccosukees, a tribe originally from Georgia that, with the passage of time, was displaced toward the wetlands and resisted any attempt to assimilate them for more than 100 years,” explains the guide.

The Micosukees or Mikazuki, as they also are known, were recognized throughout Cuba as a sovereign country inside the U.S., from the time a delegation of the tribe visited the island in 1959. Fidel Castro personally received the delegation and acknowledged their indigenous passport, which was later validated by other nations.

In 1962, the U.S. Government approved the tribe’s constitution, and recognized them officially as an automonous indigenous tribe to which important fiscal benefits were conceded. Today, the Miccosukees are considered one of the most prosperous indigenous groups in the U.S., with their empire of casinos, restaurants and hotels.

“The wetlands of the Everglades are a treasure for everyone, which we must protect,” said the guide upon ending the excursion near the Tamiami Trail, and he said that he dreams of making visitors aware of the importance of protecting this environment, on which his family and a good part of South Florida depend.

Translated by Regina Anavy

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