Australia enacts landmark legislation to protect Ramsar sites and migratory birds
In July of this year Australias national government brought into force landmark legislation the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 which for the first time in this country gave special legal status to Wetlands of International Importance and migratory birds. The Act superseded (and repealed) several previous pieces of legislation, although notably none of these applied to Ramsar sites or migratory birds.
Under the Act, Ramsar sites and migratory species (plus World Heritage properties, threatened species and communities and more) are declared of "national environmental significance" and are given protection through the legislation. With respect to Ramsar sites, Schedule 6 (attached) sets out the legal obligations which include describing and maintaining the ecological character of the sites, formulating and implementing planning to conserve the sites and promote wise use, preparing a suitable management plan and the standards of impact assessment which will apply should this be required. The Act also enshrines what have been called the Australian Ramsar Management Principles (also in Schedule 6) which give guidance in terms of what is expected in the management plans for Ramsar declared areas.
Perhaps one of the most innovative aspects of the new legislation is that it gives the Federal Minister the option to declare any wetland providing he/she is satisfied that it "is of international significance because of its ecology, botany, zoology, limnology or hydrology", and where the ecological character of all or some of the site is threatened. This new power means that any wetland worthy of Ramsar-listing, and which is facing threat, can be protected by the Federal Government.
With respect to migratory fauna, the new legislation recognises that certain listed species are of national environmental significance and should therefore be protected. Those species listed include all of those covered by Australias bilateral migratory bird agreements with Japan and China which includes all of the migratory shorebirds that traverse the East Asian Australasian flyway. Further details are given in the extract of the Administrative Guidelines attached.
So what is it makes this piece of legislation so special? First, it gives Ramsar sites and migratory birds a much higher and more rigorous legal protection than they have enjoyed in the past. Second, the legislation enshrines Ramsar concepts such as ecological character in law. Thirdly, the law requires that all Ramsar sites have their ecological character benchmarked, have management plans prepared for each site (and these plans must meet certain standards). Fourthly, the law provides a mechanism for protecting any wetland which meets the Ramsar criteria, even if the site has not yet been designated under the Convention. Fifthly, the new Act places great emphasis on managing threats external to the actual sites, such as those threats which may result from poor water management decisions somewhere in the catchment of the site, or the potential impact of an invasive species on the site. And, finally, the Act also seeks to promote the involvement and consultation with stakeholders.
The new Australian law is worthy of closer examination for those countries that are contemplating following the mandates contained in Resolution VII.7 (and the Ramsar Strategic Plan) that all Parties undertake reviews of their laws and institutions to ensure that these are assisting their efforts to implement the Ramsar Convention. In Australias case, the new national law has made a major step forward in this regard and the Federal Government deserves credit for its adoption. One of the spinoffs, which is not to be underestimated, is that the enacting of such a piece of legislation is a key part of mainstreaming wetlands as an issue in your country. Not only does the law make the Environment Ministry (or equivalent) responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law more prominent, but most importantly it also makes all other Ministries answerable to them. This provides significant influence in broader decision-making by Government than was ever the case before.
If you would like to look at the details of the Act in more detail you can do so through the web at http://www.environment.gov.au/epbc/ Unfortunately, this information is only available in English (Australian !!). I would also be happy to answer any questions regarding the EPBC Act from interested persons.
Dr Bill Phillips, Director, MainStream Environmental Consulting, email: Bill.Phillips@bigpond.com