Ramsar and peatlands

This paper was presented at the Brisbane Conference of the Parties, March 1996, as Special Intervention 3b in the Themes for the Future programme. Special Intervention 3a, presented by Diane Tarte of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, concerned the coastal zone part of that presentation.

"Wetlands in the Coastal Zone and Peatlands: a Key Role for Ramsar"

Richard Lindsay,
Scottish Natural Heritage and the International Mire Conservation Group

Peatlands are profoundly important to a Convention which was created expressly to promote conservation and wise use of the world's wetland resource. Yet peatlands have a problem – they are not popular.

A Workshop held here in Brisbane on Monday, attended by representatives of government agencies, the private sector and environmental interest groups, learned that there is an imbalance in the Ramsar List. Although peatlands cover some 400 million hectares in total and represent some 50% of the world's terrestrial and freshwater wetlands, only 75 sites from the total of 778 Ramsar sites listed by December 1995 have peatland as their dominant habitat. Meanwhile the area-totals involved are even more striking, with those same 75 peatland sites amounting to a little over 3 million hectares, compared with 52 million hectares for all wetland sites listed – 50% of the world' s resource but only 6% of the area listed. It could be argued that a simple analysis of Ramsar List is quite likely to generate distortions of various types, but the Workshop felt that this was no artefact. These figures reflect a deeper, more fundamental issue.

The Workshop itself was stimulated by serious concerns voiced by two recent international conferences held in Norway and Edinburgh, and summarized in what have come to be known as the Trondheim Declaration and the Edinburgh Declaration. In the light of the concerns expressed by these two documents, and in view of the data mismatch in the Ramsar List, the Workshop felt that it had identified an area to which Ramsar can usefully devote particular attention during the next five years.

Although, after 25 years of activity, the Ramsar Convention can't be said to have failed in its objectives with regard to peatlands, it nevertheless seems to have fallen foul of one of the very problems it has spent the last 25 years trying to overcome. When the Ramsar Convention was in its early stages of development, wetlands in general were still widely seen as rather useless places, crying out to be drained and turned into productive land. Ramsar has done great things with all wetlands in the last 25 years, but the imbalanced List suggests that perhaps it has done rather better with some wetland types than with others. To paraphrase George Orwell – "All wetlands are equal in the sight of Ramsar, but some are more equal than others." Perhaps it is not surprising that peatlands appear to have lagged behind the rest of the field. If wetlands in general were unpopular in those days, peatlands, or mires, languished at the very bottom of the popularity stakes. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world it seems that they still do.

Why is this? It's almost certainly largely because a cultural antipathy which is centuries old has shrouded the world's peatlands in such obscurity that now we have a cultural blind-spot about the habitat. At its worst, it has hidden their existence entirely from our consciousness, but it hides them from our thinking in many more subtle ways. To most people, peatlands are still wastelands. They are still dangerous. They are better drained, now that we have the technology to do so, and finally turned into something economically useful.

We don't even have a vocabulary available from common usageto describe the habitat. There was even confusion in the Workshop on Monday because we didn't have adequate terms in different languages to describe certain basic types. There are times when I envy my grassland and woodland colleagues. How can you conserve something when you don't even have a word for it?

Not even the Ramsar Convention has escaped from this cultural myopia. The Workshop recognized that none of us in Ramsar has done enough to ensure the conservation and wise use of what I must re-emphasize is a type which represents 50% of all terrestrial and freshwater wetlands of the world. Furthermore, the Workshop learned that, in addition to being the most extensive single wetland type, peatlands have a functional significance far beyond their actual geographical extent. In particular:

  • they often form major components of the local or regional hydrological cycle – for example, all drinking water in Scotland is derived from catchments dominated by peat;
  • peatlands are major contributors to the biological diversity of regions in many parts of the world, but particularly in the tropics;
  • they provide functions, food and other natural resources which can be utilized sustainably to the benefit of local communities and national economies;
  • the carbon stored in peat represents one quarter of the world soil carbon pool, and between 44% - 71% of all carbon held in terrestrial biota.

These and other functions are reflected in the text of Draft Recommendation 6.1, a recommendation derived from the sentiments expressed in the Trondheim and Edinburgh Declarations, and submitted to the Conference by Canada, Norway and the United Kingdom. The recommendation highlights the fact that peatlands have, in the past, been under-represented in both the Ramsar List and actions of Ramsar, but that there is an explicit recognition, under Action 6.2.3 of the Draft Strategic Plan, of the need for greater effort in this area. This recommendation has already been circulated to you in draft form, and a final version with minor amendments will be provided prior to your opportunity to discuss the recommendation on Monday afternoon.

The Workshop went on to review some specific actions which might be taken to develop the concepts laid out in Recommendation 6.1. It is to the credit of the Draft Strategic Plan that each and every action proposed during the Workshop already fits comfortably within the various Objectives and Actions of the Plan. Details of these proposals will be provided in the published proceedings of the Workshop, but to summarize them, they consist of:

  • information gathering, under General Objectives 2 - 8, comprising traditional survey and evaluation, gathering of information about functions and services, and collation of social, cultural and hisotrical information,
  • education, under General Objective 3, of societies at all levels, from the local community to national and supra-national decision-makers,
  • communication, under General Objectives 2 - 8, including such activities as cooperation to produce an agreed glossary of peatland terms so that we can all at last be talking the same language, thereby giving our long-suffering interpreters a definitive source-book. Use of the Internet, and development of an effective cross-sectoral and multi-organizational network are also actions under this theme.

It is our hope that by adopting Recommendation 6.1 and actively pursuing the actions proposed through the measures provided within the Strategic Plan, Ramsar can play a pivotal role in finally helping to draw peatlands out from the shadows to take their place, first, as one of the most extensive wetland types around the world, and, secondly, as one of the most significant in terms of the services and functions which they provide for the living biosphere of our planet.

Thank you for your attention, and also, we hope, for your support of the recommendation when it is presented to you on Monday.

Richard Lindsay's presentation, as well as the others in the Themes for the Future programme, have been published as volume 9/12 of the Proceedings of the 6th Meeting of the Contracting Parties, Brisbane, Australia, 19-27 March 1996 (Ramsar, 1996). Posted here 3 December 1996, Dwight Peck, Ramsar.

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