The Role of the Ramsar Convention in Mangrove Management


by Peter R. Bacon, University of the West Indies, Trinidad

[This article is reprinted from Intercoast Network: International Newsletter of Coastal Management (Special Edition 1, March 1997, pp. 25-26), published by the Coastal Resources Management Project of the University of Rhode Island's Coastal Resources Center (Narragansett, Rhode Island, USA) and the US Agency for International Development. The Bureau is grateful to Intercoast Network and Prof. Bacon for permission to reprint it on this site.]

Much has been written about mangrove management but there is still too little positive action. This results partly from the persistence of an approach which considers all mangrove ecosystems to be similar and thus subject to generic guidelines for mangrove management (for example, Hamilton and Snedaker, 1984), and partly from the lack of a rational framework for management action, particularly one based on clearly identified objectives.

In 1971, a convention to protect "Wetlands of International Importance" was adopted in Ramsar, Iran. It was unusual because it focused on specific wetland sites which were considered to be of importance especially as waterfowl habitat. To become a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, a country had to designate at least one such site and guarantee its protection. Thus, even though it was an international convention, Ramsar stimulated national action at specified sites while providing an international framework against which local management planning could be assessed. That Ramsar is an intergovernmental treaty is significant, because successful wetland management requires political commitment in order for appropriate land-use policies, legal instruments and technical agency support to be available.

By March 1996 (when the sixth meeting of the contracting parties was held in Brisbane, Australia), 93 countries had become signatories. Some 830 "Ramsar sites" had been designated by these countries covering over 53 million hectares (ha). About a third of these contain mangroves, so Ramsar and its partners have embarked on the protection and wise use of over 15 million ha of mangrove wetland. Sites with mangroves include: 596,000 ha of the Sundarbans of Bangladesh which is one of the largest continuous blocks of mangrove in the world; the 35,042 ha Manglares Churute site in Ecuador; Coppenamemonding in Suriname (12,000 ha) and 54,400 ha in the Caicos Islands.

In 1990, Ramsar adopted a number of criteria for identifying wetlands of international importance, based on representative or unique wetlands, plants and animals, and waterfowl. An appreciation of other wetland values led to the development of further criteria in 1996 on fish and fisheries values. Spelling out criteria has not only helped define international status, but provided a means of prioritizing sites nationally. It has underlined the need to work on a site by site basis, because not all sites will meet all criteria, and some may not meet any. It has also meant that the reasons for mangrove site management have to be made explicit. Ramsar sites are not "prohibited areas" and a wise use policy is stressed at all sites. Guidelines have been prepared for wise use and management planning of sites and attention is being paid to community participation in management.

Ramsar requires further steps in developing a scientific management process for a designated site, as follows:

(a) The "ecological character" of the mangrove must first be defined, because the type of management most appropriate to that site will depend on the nature of the system to be managed. The site-specific management approach has been supported by the groundbreaking inventory work of the International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau (IWRB) (now part of Wetlands International) (for example, Scott & Carbonell, 1986; Scott, 1989) and some regional projects, for example in the British Virgin Islands (Blok-Meuwig, 1990). Although this might seem obvious, far too little attention has been paid to the ecological differences between mangrove areas. Despite earlier attempts to distinguish mangrove system types (Lugo & Snedeker, 1974; Bacon & Alleng, 1992), the tendency to generalize about structure and functions has hampered conservation efforts in many countries. Coastal managers need to understand that not all mangrove swamps serve as fishery nurseries, support high biodiversity or protect coasts from storms. Not all are worth preserving where there is the possibility of productive aquaculture development and only some have ecotourism potential. As with other natural systems, their ecological and economic values are determined by their character.

(b) Secondly, procedures have been put in place through Ramsar to identify change in ecological character. If change is taking place in a site, there are management implications. For many Ramsar sites, the nature and rate of the change determine the type of intervention required. The Ramsar Convention Bureau has therefore set up a monitoring procedure to assess and make recommendations concerning changes which the host country believes may be occurring, and it may also assist the host country in obtaining help to carry out this procedure. A host country can benefit from the tremendous pool of expertise, and possibly funding, available by networking internationally through the convention.

This approach has been very effective in defining objectives and strategies for mangrove and other wetland management. It continues to evolve as a result of feedback from governments and Ramsar Site managers and through inputs from a Scientific and Technical Review Panel of internationally recognized wetland experts. Consultations are in progress for the next meeting of contracting parties in Costa Rica in 1999. These include follow-up to recommendations from Brisbane for the use of integrated coastal zone management principles for coastal wetlands and the listing of more coral reefs and associated seagrass beds as Ramsar Sites. To benefit from 25 years of experience gained since the convention was adopted, mangrove managers are urged to familiarize themselves with the progress and methodologies of the Ramsar Wetlands Bureau.


Bacon, P.R. & Alleng, G.P. 1992. The management of Insular Caribbean mangroves in relation to site location and community type. Hydrobiologia, 247; 235-241.

Blok-Meuwig, J. 1990. Mangrove Systems of the British Virgin Islands: Resource Mapping & Assignment to Protection Categories. Conservation & Fisheries Department, Ministry of Natural Resources, British Virgin Islands. Technical Report No. 5; 45 pages.

Hamilton, L.S. & Snedaker, S.C. (eds) Handbook for Mangrove Area Management. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. UNESCO Paris & East-West Center, Hawaii; 123 pages.

Lugo, A.E. & Snedaker, S.C. 1974. The ecology of mangroves. Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics, 5; 39-64.

Scott, D.A. 1989. A Directory of Asian Wetlands. IUCN The World Conservation Union, Switzerland; 1181 pages.

Scott, D.A. & Carbonell, M. 1986. A Directory of Neotropical Wetlands. IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, UK; 684 pages.

For further information contact: Ramsar Wetlands Bureau, Rue Mauverney 28, CH-Gland, Switzerland (tel +41 22 999 0170, fax +41 22 999 0169, e-mail

Information on individual Ramsar sites can be obtained from the Ramsar Sites Database,

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