Guest Article #1

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands: 40 years of biodiversity conservation and wise use

For the last 40 years, the Ramsar Convention has been a leader in the conservation of wetland biodiversity. On 2 February 1971, 18 countries signed the first global intergovernmental treaty for the environment, following nine years of diplomacy that brought together nations of diverse backgrounds in recognizing the importance of wetlands for the conservation and wise use of natural resources. This was an extraordinary success story especially because it took place during the Cold War, with its continuing state of political tension and economic competition following World War II. One year before the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the founders of the Ramsar Convention were showing the way for international cooperation to care for the environment, valuing all types of wetlands as a set of assets that connect us all.

A second great success of the foundation of the Ramsar Convention was the adoption of the “Wise Use Principle” to recognize ‘the interdependence of Man and his environment, the fundamental ecological functions of wetlands as regulators of water regimes and as a resource of great economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value, the loss of which would be irreparable', in the words of the treaty text.

The keystone of the Convention was the establishment of a network of protected areas (Ramsar Sites) under the List of Wetlands of International Importance to conserve and sustainably use the great ecological and ecosystem values of wetlands. Today this “Ramsar List” constitutes the world's largest network of protected areas with 1,915 sites, covering 187 million hectares. In our Strategic Framework's “Vision for the List”, the chief objective of the Ramsar List is to ‘develop and maintain an international network of wetlands which are important for the conservation of global biological diversity and for sustaining human life through the maintenance of their ecosystem components, processes and benefits/services'.

As a matter of fact, all nine of the Criteria that are used for identifying Wetlands of International Importance contribute to maintaining biological diversity through the designation and management of appropriate wetland sites. Over the past 40 years, the Convention has been reviewing the development of the Ramsar List and refining the Criteria to best promote the wise use of wetlands at the local, national, and international levels, and the Contracting Parties continue to improve the conservation of biological diversity by:

a)       managing wetlands included in the List that host threatened ecological communities or are critical to the survival of endemic species identified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered under national legislation or international frameworks, such as the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List or the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) or the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS);

b)      managing listed wetlands that provide important habitat for plant and animal species at critical stages in their life cycle or during adverse conditions; and

c)       managing wetlands that are significant for waterbird and fish species or stocks, as well as other taxa.

Despite the Convention's encouraging achievements, there are still many challenges to be faced. Most notably, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, inland and coastal wetlands are still being lost at a rate faster than that of any other ecosystem, thus requiring our redoubled efforts. Secondly, after 40 years, the Convention on Wetlands has yet to reach universal membership, and continued efforts are needed to bring the remaining 32 countries to accession. The Middle East, Caribbean, Pacific Islands, and Horn of Africa are subregions that continue to require special attention.

To contribute successfully to biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, wetland management must play a significant part in economic development, poverty reduction, and improving people's livelihoods – we live in a globalized world with interdependent elements, and the Convention must address many existing and emerging issues that connect wetlands and human life, issues of water and food security, urban development, human health, energy, extractive industries, tourism pressures, and perhaps most famously, climate change adaptation and mitigation.

And finally, to meet all of these challenges, we must address urgent needs for capacity building and training throughout the Ramsar community around the world. Only through our collaboration with the multilateral environmental agreements at the global level and the dedicated efforts of government and non-government practitioners everywhere can we hope to reach the ambitious goals we have set for ourselves.