Ramsar and the Small Island Developing States

The Convention on Wetlands
(Ramsar, Iran, 1971)

A special publication for the Small Island Developing States


What is the Convention on Wetlands?

In 1971, the representatives of 18 countries went to the small town of Ramsar in Iran to put their signatures to the Convention on Wetlands, or the Ramsar Convention as it has become known. The architects of the Convention had the foresight to recognise the importance of wetlands as key elements of inland waterways and coastal systems.  They also recognised the many services, functions, and behefits that wetlands provide and formulated the concept of "wise use" with which the Convention is synonymous today.   As of May 1998, there were 109 signatory countries to the Convention.

Ramsar promotes the integrated approach to managing wetland systems so that human uses of these areas are undertaken in such a way as to retain their natural "capital" for future generations. This is "wise use" and Ramsar is now a leader in its implementation globally.

Perhaps the best known aspect of the Ramsar Convention is the List of Wetlands of International Importance, or "Ramsar List". The List includes sites which the countries concerned have determined meet the Ramsar criteria as "internationally important". They are sites which at the global, regional and national scale contribute to maintaining biodiversity and the natural functioning of our precious water ecosystems. 

The Ramsar Convention also encourages and supports countries to develop and implement national policy and legislative frameworks, education and awareness raising programs, as well as inventory, research and training projects. Cooperation between countries for the management of shared wetland systems or species is also a Ramsar priority.


What are wetlands?

Under the Ramsar Convention "wetlands" have a very broad definition. They are defined as "areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent of temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres".  The Convention also provides that they "may incorporate riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six metres at low tide lying within the wetlands". The Convention also recognises human-made wetlands such as fish and shrimp ponds, salt pans, reservoirs, gravel pits and sewage ponds.  So, under Ramsar, wetlands are everywhere, and it is probably simplest to think of the Convention as having an interest in the management of all water ecosystems (whether permanent or temporary) that are not deep marine waters.


Why do countries join the Convention on Wetlands?

There are many reasons but a few of the most important are:

1. To safeguard the wetland resource

First and foremost countries join the Ramsar Convention to ensure that the vital services, functions and benefits provided by their wetlands are maintained. Membership in Ramsar gives countries a focal point and direction for the actions necessary to ensure that these critical elements of the total environment are protected and managed for sustainability.

Fly River floodplainLake Pangua on the Fly River floodplain, Papua New Guinea (Photo: Roger Jaensch)

2. Greater access to expertise and training opportunities

Membership in Ramsar brings with it increased opportunities for seeking expert assistance and support. The Convention itself has developed many "tools" to assist countries with meeting the modern challenges to the conservation of wetland areas. Ramsar has four official NGO "partner organizations" (BirdLife International, IUCN - The World Conservation Union, Wetlands International, and The World Wide Fund for Nature - WWF) and through the extended networks provided by these organizations and the Convention Bureau itself, signatories have access to a major international community of experts in wetland conservation and wise use.

Increasingly, the donor community and private sector are supporting Ramsar signatories in their actions to improve the management of wetlands. This trend is expected to continue with the Bureau expanding its contacts and partnerships with the World Bank, the regional development banks, the Global Environment Facility and bilateral assistance agencies. Ramsar also has its own Small Grants Fund from which annual allocations are made to developing countries for projects related to implementation of the Convention.

In 1998 the Bureau of the Convention on Wetlands is developing a catalogue of training courses for wetland managers and planners – this will show the range of training venues and courses that are available around the world. On World Wetland Day (2 February) 1998, the Bureau launched its "Wise Use Resource Centre".  It includes a database of nearly 400 wetland experts who can be consulted for advice and a growing library of wetland management manuals and other resource documents to assist those people on the ground dealing with   real management problems and issues.

3. A voice on the international stage

As signatories to the Ramsar Convention, countries will be better placed to tell the global community of their special concerns and problems. It is important for the long-term future of the Small Island Developing States that wetland issues, such as protection of coral reefs, seagrass beds and storm-buffering mangroves, are brought to world attention and adequately considered in global environmental planning and support programs.

4. Regional solidarity and cooperation

The saying "there is strength in numbers" applies under Ramsar, too.  At present there are only a few Small Island Developing States that are members of the Ramsar Convention. One of the strengths of the Convention lies in the regional-level dialogue and cooperation that it has fostered in other regions. As more and more Small Island Developing States join Ramsar, the Convention will further develop its support "tools" for their special wetland ecosystems and problems.

5. Synergy with other Conventions

The Convention on Wetlands recognises, and strongly promotes, a partnership approach to doing business with its counterpart environment Conventions, be they international or regional. Further details are given below.


Common misunderstandings about joining the Ramsar Convention

1. We don’t have any wetlands!

This is the reaction of some Small Island Developing States. BUT - yes, the small island states do have wetlands in abundance. As indicated above (see What are wetlands?), Ramsar employs a very broad definition of "wetland" which involves promoting the management of whole water systems, including the inshore areas of coastal environments. Under the Convention’s system for classifying wetlands, it recognises types such as "sea-grasses, coral reefs, rocky marine shores, sand, shingle or pebble beaches, estuaries, intertidal mud flats, saltmarshes and mangrove swamps." In other words, the ecosystems that characterise island countries.

2. Ramsar is only interested in the conservation of habitats for migratory waterbirds, and this is not a major issue for the Small Island Developing States

Ramsar has always taken a keen interest in the protection of habitats for migratory birds, but from the very beginning the text of the Convention recognised the many values and functions of wetlands and promoted the "wise use" of these areas by human populations. The development of the Wise Use Guidelines, the addition of fish habitat criteria for identifying Wetlands of International Importance, and the efforts to encourage the designation of mangrove, seagrass and coral reef sites are clear signals that the Convention on Wetlands has an interest in all wetland types, and especially those found in abundance in the Small Island Developing States.

little fish in BelizeThe Belize Barrier Reef in the Caribbean (Photo: James Beveridge)

3. If we join Ramsar, some people sitting in Switzerland will tell us how we must manage our wetlands

Not true. While the act of becoming a signatory to the Ramsar Convention requires the country to agree to take certain actions as set out in the text of the Convention (see below), it does not diminish or remove the exclusive sovereign rights of the member state. The Bureau of the Convention on Wetlands, based in Switzerland, is an advisory and support body and has no executive powers.

The Convention text sets out five primary obligations for signatories:

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)to designate and promote the conservation of at least one Ramsar site (although members are encouraged to designate all of their sites that are "internationally important");

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)to formulate and implement planning for the wise use of all wetlands in their territory;

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)to establish conservation areas and promote training in wetland research and management;

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)to cooperate internationally on transboundary wetlands, shared wetland species and development aid for wetland projects; and

dotbluedark.gif (919 bytes)to contribute to the Convention budget.

Over the nearly 30 years that the Convention has been operating, there have been six Conferences of the Contracting Parties where these obligations have been further elaborated by the member states. While these guidelines for interpreting the Convention text do not impose additional "obligations", they do provide detailed information on how countries can be more effective in implementing the Convention. 

4. The Ramsar Convention is only about managing protected areas and these are already taken care of in our country

The Ramsar Convention recognises the intrinsic functions and services that wetlands provide for human populations and encourages their "wise use". While many Ramsar listed sites are also protected areas, many are not, and the Convention gives high priority to the development of consultative and inclusive management practices for these sites. Ramsar also aims to provide the "tools" for involving local people and stakeholders in the development of management plans for wetlands sites whether they are recognised under the Convention or not.

5. We don’t need to join Ramsar because we are members of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, etc.

While it is true that the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has a broad charter which also includes wetland ecosystems, the two Conventions are now cooperating closely on a wide range of issues under the Memorandum of Cooperation which is in place between the secretariats. The two Conventions are developing a joint work plan under which Ramsar is to take the lead role in encouraging the implementation of appropriate actions at wetland ecosystems.

In a similar way the Ramsar Bureau is presently pursuing collaborative activities with both the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification. It also has in place a Memorandum of Understanding with the secretariat of the Convention on Migratory Species. Ramsar is a natural partner with these Conventions and is seeking to ensure that there is no duplicated effort which would impose an added administrative burden on the signatory states.

6. We will have to contribute to the annual operating costs of the Convention and we cannot afford to do this.

Yes, your country will be expected to contribute to the Convention’s annual operating budget. But the contribution for most Small Island Developing States at present is on the order of US$ 300 per year. The annual contribution levels are fixed by the signatory countries for the three-year periods between Conferences of the Contracting Parties, based on the United Nations scale of assessments.

7. The procedure for joining Ramsar is too complicated.

No, joining Ramsar is procedurally very simple. But as with any international treaty, Ramsar urges that within the country there be widespread consultation to ensure there is support for, and an understanding of, what is expected of the country once it joins.

To join Ramsar requires only a short letter to UNESCO from the Head of State or Minister of Foreign Affairs, with parliamentary ratification if necessary, declaring that the Government will implement the Convention fully. This should be accompanied by the necessary documentation for designating at least one Wetland of International Importance. Designating a site requires the preparation of a site description ("Ramsar Information Sheet") and map according to the guidelines prepared by the Convention. This is not an onerous task, especially if there already exists a description of the site in a national or regional Directory of Important Wetlands. If the site proposed for designation includes areas under customary or private ownership, it is recommended that the understanding and agreement of the landowners is gained. The formation of site management committees in the local communities is advisable and encouraged under the Ramsar Convention.

To obtain further assistance, please contact:

The Secretary General, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Rue Mauverney 28, CH-1196 Gland, Switzerland (Tel: +41-22-999 0170, Fax: +41-22-999 0169, e-mail: ramsar@ramsar.org, Web: http://ramsar.org/)

or the closest office of one of the Ramsar "International Organization Partners":

  • BirdLife International

  • IUCN - The World Conservation Union

  • Wetlands International

  • World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)


See also the case study Implementation of the Ramsar Convention in Trinidad & Tobago.

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Number of » Contracting Parties: 168 Sites designated for the
» List of Wetlands of
International Importance
2,181 Total surface area of designated sites (hectares): 208,545,658

Ramsar Secretariat

Rue Mauverney 28
CH-1196 Gland, Switzerland
Tel.: +41 22 999 0170
Fax: +41 22 999 0169
E-Mail: ramsar@ramsar.org
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