This investigation looked into how commercial interests backed by public money are decimating Europe’s remaining wetlands, as national authorities ignore this ongoing exploitation.

WICKLOW / LONGFORD / CERVIA / ORISTANO / LOWER SAXONY

Wetlands – such as lagoons, swamps, and peat bog – are a distinct ecosystem saturated by water and are vital CO2 emissions sponges, capable of locking up carbon for thousands of years. It is for this reason that, in 1971, the UN Ramsar Convention was signed by countries to conserve our wetlands. Yet, wetlands remain one of the most threatened ecosystems in Europe as countries actively encourage exploitation, supporting intensive agriculture, industrial extraction and mass tourism. The majority of wetlands in Europe – the bloc’s greatest carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots – are exploited beyond repair due to decades of industrial activity.

Our team of reporters are based in the EU countries with the greatest loss of wetlands: Ireland, which has lost 90% of its wetlands, Germany (80%), and Italy (75%).

In Ireland, the investigation exposed how two semi-state bodies that control 20% of Ireland’s peatlands continue to exploit them for commercial gain. We revealed the direct impact of poor climate policy: putting plantation forestry and wind farms on peatlands – highlighting resulting water quality impacts and continued draining of peats for speculative planning applications.

In Germany, we revealed how politicians circumvent urging climate issues by opposing the Nature Restoration Law. We showed in Germany how conservative political inaction and lobby work is not only postponing essential steps toward landscape restoration, but also leaving farmers with no answer to their questions about the social-economic consequences in the case of a large-scale rewetting of agricultural peatlands.

In Italy, our investigation combined scientific literature, satellite data, and field reporting to identify some of the most degraded or yet unknown Italian wetlands. We focused on Sardinia and Cervia as emblematic cases, demonstrating how a proper wetland protection is impossible without detailed scientific knowledge and an integrated management of these vital ecosystems.

The project received support from several financiers:

  • The “Environmental Investigative Journalism” program of Journalismfund Europe, which provided a grant for the Wasted Wetlands investigation carried out in several countries, together with other European colleagues (Maria Delaney and Steven Fox, Ireland; Guillaume Amouret and Swantje Furtak, Germany).
  • Giulia Bonelli’s work started from a project developed within the Climate Arena Fellowships 2023, supported by Arena for Journalism in Europe.
  • Elisabetta Tola’s work is further supported by the Data Journalism grant from the SISSA Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Trieste, with the collaboration of the SISSA Data Science group, for the development of the project across the entire Mediterranean area, the development and application remote sensing technologies and AI tools for satellite image analysis.
Photo: Wetland in Oristano, Sardinia. The Gulf of Oristano boasts 7,700 hectares of Ramsar wetlands of international importance (over 60% of Sardinia’s entire heritage). Credit: Giulia Bonelli

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