Ramsar's statement to the BirdLife International World Conference, Malaysia, October 1999


Text of the statement by Dr Bill Phillips, Deputy Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands to the BirdLife International World Conference, Malaysia.

Delivered on Friday 15 October 1999

birdlife.gif (3697 bytes)Mr Chairman, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great pleasure to be here with you during this meeting, and thank you for the opportunity to this make this presentation, which I have called ‘Ramsar and BirdLife -- Further strengthening the partnership’.

For the benefit of those of you who may know little about the Convention on Wetlands, I will very quickly describe what it does, before addressing the theme of this talk today. Put simply -- the Convention promotes the conservation and wise use of ALL wetlands by supporting and catalysing appropriate actions from hands-on local activities, through national policies, laws, institutions and programmes to regional, inter-regional and international cooperation.

The Ramsar Convention has three main pillars -- and these are, first, wise use, or sustainable use, which promotes a range of actions to protect wetlands - actions that are needed to support the millions of people who rely upon them for their survival, through to actions such ecotourism associated with birdwatching.

Secondly, biodiversity conservation -- and central to this is the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, about which I will say more shortly. In addition, Ramsar has a Memorandum of Cooperation, and a Joint Work Plan, with the Convention on Biological Diversity under which it is formally recognised by the CBD as the lead ‘partner’ for wetland-related activities.

As some of you may know, CBD’s Fourth COP, in Decision IV/4, opened the way for Parties of both Conventions to seek GEF funds for Ramsar-related activities for inland water ecosystems. This is a tangible product of the close working partnership between Ramsar and CBD.

And thirdly, international cooperation -- and under this theme the Convention works to support and promote multilateral cooperation and agreements for the conservation of migratory species, such as the Afraican-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) and the Asia Pacifiic Migratory Waterbird Strategy.

birdlife1.jpg (7763 bytes)In the area of international cooperation, the Convention is also active in promoting cross-border cooperation between countries that share wetlands or river basins, and is helping to mobilise funds for on-ground projects as well as the sharing of knowledge, training and other similar activities. Ramsar also has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Convention on Migratory Species under which a JWP is being developed at present.

Again, for those of you who don’t know -- Ramsar has a unique partnership with NGOs. As Ramsar is a product of NGO efforts, this is not surprising. In fact, Ramsar’s NGO partners are BirdLife, the IUCN, WWF, and Wetlands International. These Convention Partners have Memoranda of Cooperation with the Ramsar Bureau, they have full membership in our subsidiary advisory body the STRP, and they are our partners and collaborators and provide an invaluable extension service for the Convention.

Ramsar today -- 28 years after its signing in the city of Ramsar in Iran -- has 116 Contracting Parties, with the main gaps being in Africa, central Asia and the Middle East, and the Small Island Developing States. I’m pleased to say that there around 20 countries progressing toward accession - and this will soon start to fill in those gaps on the map. The Convention has set the ambitious target of 150 signatories by the time of the next Ramsar COP in Spain in 2002.

The Ramsar Convention is synonymous with the List of Wetlands of International Importance - or the "Ramsar sites", as we know them. There are at present 1005 and again the Convention has set the ambitious target of doubling that number by the time of 9th COP in 2005.

Which brings me back to the theme of this talk - further strengthening our partnership. Earlier this year the Ramsar Parties and partner organisations, including BirdLife, met in San José, Costa Rica, and assembled through their decisions what we are calling the Ramsar ‘toolkit’. It includes guidance under the three pillars of the Convention relating to:

policy development, reviewing laws and institutions, integrating wetlands into river basin management, empowering local and indigenous people, communication, Ramsar site selection, management planning, monitoring, threatened sites and Ramsar’s Montreux Record, risk assessment, and under international cooperation - shared species and wetlands, partnerships, sharing knowledge, development assistance and international investments.

This ‘toolkit’ will be published in December this year as nine integrated Handbooks which I hope BirdLife will adopt as its own - you should, many of your members contributed strongly to the development of this ‘toolkit’.

Today I want to focus on just one element of this ‘toolkit’ which I am urging you to help us see applied - and that is Ramsar site selection and designation. In this area I feel we can be working together more systematically to progress our common goals by establishing closer links between BirdLife’s Important Bird Area (IBA) programme and Ramsar site selection. I see these two activities as being natural partners which we are yet to unite fully as operational tools. In fact, we have an advantage already in that BirdLife cleverly modelled the IBA criteria on the Ramsar site criteria.

Let me explain further….. At Ramsar’s COP7 the Parties adopted a vision for the future development of the List, Objectives, Targets and a Strategic Framework for delivering this vision. The Vision agreed to by the Parties 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 ecological and hydrological functions they perform".

The COP also adopted targets and a strategic framework, and these together provide us -- you, me, the governments of the world -- with a responsibility and a mandate to apply the best science and information we have in order to identify sites for designation to the Ramsar List to allow the Convention to achieve this vision.

It has for the first time given legitimacy to applying a strategic framework to move us in a more systematic way towards this vision of a global network of wetland sites supporting biodiversity conservation and human life. This is the opportunity for us to move from being reactive to proactive, and the expertise of BirdLife and its partners can be used to fuel this process so that we both work more rapidly toward achieving our global missions in this area of site recognition and conservation.

Of course, I am aware that in parts of the world -- Europe notably -- there is already evidence of such linkages between the IBA programme and Ramsar site designation. We now need to see that happening all around the globe.

Before concluding I want to make a plea for us to shift the paradigm of the present which sees many people ignoring the importance of wetlands -- in all their forms -- for birds which are non-migratory or non-waterbirds. I fear that due to its history we have neglected the potential of the Convention to serve the needs of these other groups -- which in many ways are just as reliant on wetlands as are the migratory waterbirds.

Before we explore this idea a little further, let us refresh our memory about what Ramsar calls ‘wetlands’. And as we do this, give yourselves the mental exercise of thinking of sedentary waterbirds and species not classified as waterbirds, which are living around or near these wetland types and are reliant upon them in some way.

Under Ramsar, coral reefs and seagrass communities are wetlands, flooded forests in all their forms are wetlands; peatbogs are wetlands; ephemeral systems such as this in the arid inland of Australia and this from north Africa are wetlands. Add to this mangrove and other intertidal wetlands, traditional floodplain wetlands, and even subterranean karst systems - and you can see the potential for considering the importance of wetlands to a whole range of these non migratory and non-waterbird species. Because we have had this mindset that Ramsar equals waterbirds, the three site criteria which could apply to these species have been sadly neglected.

Under the Ramsar Convention there are now eight criteria: One deals with unique or representative wetlands type, 5 & 6 are the waterbird criteria, and 7 & 8 consider fish habitat importance. This leaves two which seek to have listed sites of importance as habitat for vulnerable or endangered species, three - which is about sites that help to conserve biodiversity at the bioregional scale, and four – which is about sites that protect species at critical stages in their life cycle or provide refuges during adverse conditions. It is in applying these three criteria where I think we can work together - in addition to our traditional focus on migratory waterbirds- to see more of the IBA sites recognised by the Ramsar Convention.

This then brings me to my take-home messages, of which there are five.

1. We have a strong partnership -- so

2. Let’s build upon it and especially through stronger links between the IBA-Ramsar site designation processes.

3. As I’ve said, I think it time to shift the paradigm and consider the importance of wetlands for birds in the broader context - beyond simply our old friends the waterbirds.

4. I urge you to adopt the Ramsar ‘toolkit’ as your own -- it is -- so treat it as yours to use, apply, modify to national needs, etc. - but let us see this invaluable package put to work, and

5. I think we need to work together to achieve global membership -- we cannot have global action without full participation. I sense that in many of the countries yet to join Ramsar - many of you people here in this room could hold the key - if so - please use it.

In conclusion, let me close by passing on our thanks to you as the united BirdLife for your continuing enthusiasm and support for the Ramsar Convention. I would especially like to thank two of your number who are among the unsung heroes of the Ramsar cause - namely John O’Sullivan and David Pritchard. Let me assure you that you have the most dynamic and effective representatives within the workings of the Convention in these two. The legacies of their work, in consultation with many of you, are now enshrined in the Ramsar ‘toolkit’. You and we owe them our thanks.

That leaves me with just a final word. Let us build on our already strong partnership, for as partners we can be stronger, and this will be vital as the threats to our ecosystems and habitats escalate daily. I wish you well for the rest of your meeting and look forward to receiving the final report and the Birdlife 2000 Strategy. Thank you.

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Number of » Contracting Parties: 168 Sites designated for the
» List of Wetlands of
International Importance
2,186 Total surface area of designated sites (hectares): 208,674,247

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