Chile is highly diverse in limnic systems mostly recognized as wetlands and defined as ‘areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt waters, including areas of marine water where tide depth does not exceed the six meters’ (Ramsar ). This long definition includes very heterogeneous areas, such as swamps, rivers, lakes, seashores, and others (Mitsch and Gosselink ). Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems (Novitzki et al. ) characterized by multiple roles, e.g. hydrological, biogeochemical, habitat conservation, and food webs (Woodward and Wui ), as well as providing goods and services relevant to human society (Barbier et al. ). In Chile, wetlands are estimated to cover 4,498,060, 7 ha equivalent to 5.9% of national territory (CONAF/CONAMA ).
Wetlands support high biodiversity and are presently recognized as the most threatened systems by human activities (Marín et al. ). It affects various types of wetlands in Chile (Muñoz-Pedreros , Peña-Cortés et al. , Zegers et al. , Figueroa et al. ). Particularly, freshwater aquatic fauna conservation is mostly affected, such as fishes (Vila et al. ), amphibians (Díaz-Paéz and Ortiz , Veloso ), molluscs (Valdovinos et al. ), and decapod crustaceans (Bahamonde et al. , Pérez-Losada et al. ). Inland wetland conservation is a global priority (Abell , Dudley ). However, their particular territorial location and the difficulty to apply current protection categories make a difficult management as protected areas. As traditional ecosystem conservation methods are not well implemented in inland aquatic environments, different conceptual approaches are suggested (e.g. freshwater focal area, critical management zone, and catchment management zones (Abell et al. )).
Governance concept applied to natural resources, mainly in waters, has become important (Iza and Rovere ). Governance is understood as the economic, political, and administrative practice to manage every country affair. This includes mechanisms, processes, and institutions by which citizens express their interests, exercise their rights, meet their requirements, and mediate their differences. In this context, conservation of wetlands should be addressed under various environmental management tools as a permanent process, where various stakeholders and public, private, and civil society develop specific efforts to preserve, maintain, restore, and make a sustainable use of environment. Environmental management uses different and diverse origin instruments, which can be classified in four main categories (sensu Rodríguez-Becerra and Espinoza ): direct regulation, administration, economics, and education (including research, technical assistance, and environmental information). Direct regulatory tools which are also known as command and control regulations prevail in the environmental management and consist of mandatory regulations and standards, which establish environmental quality targets as well as management and preservation of renewable natural resources of environment. Legislation creates legal tools and standards to comply with principles and reach the aims (Asenjo ).
Brañes () defines the environmental regulation as a set of standards dealing with legal protection of those conditions making every life to be possible, considering for this purpose relationships among many biotic and abiotic elements in the environment, such as system or ecosystem. To Fernández (), the environmental law gathers standards, regulations, and principles recognized as legally protected, safeguarding environmental systems, in a global and inclusive perspective that differ from merely legislation of environmental incidence.
It may be understood here that legal protection of wetlands is provided by all legal and administrative initiatives aimed to protect and/or preserve them. There are many legal standards that apply to inland wetlands in Chile, many of them are sectoral standards related to their components, ecological functions, and biodiversity, which would favor or regulate their status and permanence. Selection and analysis of these regulations will allow to provide foundations, which make possible assessment of legal degree protection that they provide to these systems and to integrity as ecological systems. In Chile, regulations addressed to the conservation of water resources as a whole have been mainly aimed to develop economic activities related to the exploitation of a natural resource. Until 1994, prior to the Environmental Basis Act (Act No. 19,300) enactment, there were only sector legal standards, without global environmental protection objective, where legal rules were mainly aimed to protect health of human life and only incidental protection of nature (Olivares ). Act No. 19,300 started regulation process of environmental standards, as well as the creation of institutions providing the state of management tools in this area (Rojas ).
However, Hermosilla () estimates that while keeping current protection system and guarantees of property rights in Chile over the common well, effective protection to natural systems including wetland ecosystems will not be possible.
Prior this research, there was no compilation and analysis of rules applied to wetland systems which allows to determine real legal protection in taking care of conservation, but there are legal standards which should be assessed under this context, like those regulations enacted which damage preservation and rational use of inland wetlands. The rational use concept is defined by the Ramsar Convention as the maintenance of ecological features, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem-based approach, within sustainable development context.
Under the Chilean legal system, environmental heritage conservation is the rational use and exploitation or repair if any, of environment components, to assure sustainability and regeneration capacity (Act No. 19,300; Article 2b); however, it does not point out which are those components.
Some environmental components, those considered to be relevant issues for this study among them, are noted by Fernández (): a) land or sea waters, surface water or groundwater, streams or standing waters; b) land, soil and subsoil, including beds, bottom and subsoil of ground waters; c) flora and wildlife, land or water; d) microflora and fauna of land, soil and subsoil, streams or water bodies and beds, bottoms and subsoil of these streams or water bodies; e) genetic diversity and patterns and factors regulating flow; f) natural scenic beauty and rural or urban landscape; g) essential ecological processes. These basic components of the environment can be damaged when misused which results in extinction or serious damage, prevents regeneration, and causes environmental damage determined in law as ‘any loss, decrease, impairment, or significant impairment associated to environment or to one or more of its components’ (Act No. 19,300: Art. 2e).
Some of the elements or factors which could damage or degrade the environment are (to Fernández ): a) any kind of pollution; b) erosion, salinization, alkalinization, infestation, flooding, sedimentation, and desertification of soil and land; c) logging or unreasonable and uncontrolled destruction of trees and shrubs as well as extractive forest use and other vegetation destruction; d) monocultures, overgrazing, and, as a whole, any cultural practice with harmful effects on the environment; e) sedimentation of water streams and lakes; f) harmful alterations of natural water flows; g) adverse changes and misuse of water beds; h) wild flora and fauna over-exploitation; i) elimination, destruction, or degradation of endangered species from flora and fauna habitat; j) wetland eutrophication origins; k) introduction or distribution of exotic plants or animals coming from a national biogeographical province different to natural; l) introduction or spread of animal diseases or plant pests; m) use of non-biodegradable products or substances; n) the accumulation of waste or inappropriate waste disposal; o) visual landscape destruction or alteration, and, as a whole, any act or omission affecting negatively the basic composition, behavior, and natural potential of environment; threatening land genetic viability or affecting life, health, integrity, or development of man, plants, or animals. These environmental components and environmental degradation factors were considered in the analysis of rules to determine protection concept granted by the Chilean law to the rational use of wetlands. Thus, the aim of this work is to develop a multicriteria methodology to quantify the level of legal protection that different types of inland wetlands have in Chile.