Ramsar and the Wetlands of the Mediterranean Region


[The following is a transcript of an interview with the Bureau's Senior Policy Advisor, Mike Smart, concerning the Ramsar Convention and wetlands in the Mediterranean region, which was conducted by Maria José Viñal and published in Sehumed: Boletin de la Sede para el Estudio de los Humedales Mediterraneos, vol. 1, no. 1 (March 1997). This reprint restores some parts of the interview that had to be trimmed from the published version for reasons of space.]

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MJV: What are the most significant achievements of the Ramsar Bureau?

MS: The Ramsar Convention was adopted in 1971 and came into force in 1975. At the outset, the "bureau duties" were carried out by IUCN with strong support from IWRB (now renamed Wetlands International). A full-time Bureau or Secretariat was only established by the Contracting Parties in 1988. So the achievements of the Bureau have to be seen in the context of the earlier work of IUCN and IWRB.

The main achievement really is to have given full government recognition, through an intergovernmental treaty, to wetlands; to have made the concept of wetlands accepted at the highest level. Wetlands are still the only ecosystem to have their own convention. It should not be forgotten that the word "wetland" (in English, as well as other languages) is a new coinage which covers a very broad range of habitats - not just marshes or freshwater swamps, but also lakes, rivers, coastal lagoons, peatlands, mangroves, even coral reefs. Before Ramsar there was no coordinating conception of this type.

To be fully effective, any treaty needs a secretariat; while the practical conservation work on the ground (conserving sites, developing policies and regulations) is done by governments, the Bureau supports and encourages them to fulfill their obligations under the Convention.

MJV: What is your evaluation of the results of the MedWet project?bur_mike1.jpg (10375 bytes)

MS: The MedWet project is having the same effects on a Mediterranean regional basis; furthermore it is a very broad partnership which brings together all the different players in the wetland story: governments, non-governmental bodies and specialized technical institutions. It should be emphasized that MedWet is not simply a project, but a broader long-term initiative. There was a first MedWet project, funded by the European Commission (75%), by EU member states and NGOs, which lasted from 1992-1996; this project provided Mediterranean wetland methodologies in a number of fields (inventory, management, training, public awareness, use of research results), and developed a Mediterranean Wetland Strategy, approved at the 1996 Venice Conference. But a second MedWet project is already under way, applying these methodologies in Albania, Algeria, Croatia, Morocco and Tunisia: and there is work for at least 20 years ahead in implementing the Strategy. The Ramsar Standing Committee has agreed to the establishment of a Mediterranean Wetland Committee under the aegis of Ramsar, with a MedWet coordinator and coordination units in Greece and France; the Committee will maintain the mixture of governmental and non-governmental involvement, with the aim of putting the Strategy into action.

Mediterranean wetlands require immediate action for their conservation and wise use, because of the pressure - human, tourist, meteorological, developmental - to which they are subjected. The MedWet initiative is an essential long term instrument, both at site level and in terms of policies, to respond to the threats to which they are exposed.

MJV: Can you comment on the new criteria for designation of future Ramsar sites?

MS: The Ramsar "Criteria for Identifying Wetlands of International Importance" are an aid to governments to identify those wetlands which are of international importance, and which could therefore be designated for the Ramsar "List of Wetlands of International Importance". The criteria used until now come under three categories; rare or representative wetlands; wetlands of importance to fauna and flora in general; and wetlands of importance to waterfowl in particular. At the 1993 Conference in Japan, the Contracting Parties called for the establishment of particular criteria for fish, and the 1996 Conference in Brisbane in 1996 approved fish criteria. The real importance of the new fish criteria is to show governments, especially those in developing countries, and especially in Africa, that Ramsar is not just a bird convention, but genuinely a wetland convention, with a concern for all aspects of wetlands, and in particular for the people who live in them. It is an important message that wetlands are of value not only to wealthy people in developed regions for recreation, but also to people in developing countries who depend on wetlands for their very livelihood.

The Convention's Scientific and Technical Review Panel is currently looking into the possibility of making further extensions to the criteria, for approval at the next Conference in 1999. It is also worth mentioning that the Strategic Plan 1997-2002 calls on Ramsar Parties to designate for the Ramsar List "those wetlands that meet the criteria".

MJV: In what way does the new definition of wetlands, adopted at the last Conference, differ?

MS: There is absolutely no difference at all. The definition is contained in Article 1 of the Convention, and could not be changed without a change in the text of the Convention, which would mean first an Extraordinary Conference to agree on a new text; then that text would have to be approved individually by the parliament of each of the Contracting Parties (now 101 in number). That would probably take 25 years at least, and would distract the Contracting Parties from the more urgent task of safeguarding their wetlands.

The definition of wetlands is a very broad one, indeed its very broadness is one of the great merits of the Convention.

Perhaps what you are referring to is the passage in the Strategic Plan which calls on Contracting Parties to give greater attention to certain types of wetland already included in the definition: mangroves, peatlands, sea grass beds and coral reefs; but they were already in the definition. The Strategic Plan simply asks for them to be given greater priority for action on the ground.

MJV: What new sites are planned for inclusion in the List of Ramsar sites?

MS: Listing of new sites is the sovereign prerogative of each Contracting Party. Some states have drawn up (and published) a policy document indicating the sites they intend to list. But, as I mentioned before, the Strategic Plan calls on Contracting Parties to list all sites which meet the criteria, a massive undertaking which, if completed, would give a Ramsar List including perhaps 15,000 wetlands! The Strategic Plan also calls on states which have so far listed only one site to designate additional sites. It also calls on all states to designate a representative selection of the wetlands in their country; and it calls on states to give special attention to designating the under-represented types (peatlands, etc.) as I mentioned to you earlier.

MJV: Are states really scrupulous in fulfilling the prescriptions linked to designation of a Ramsar site?

MS: Designation of a wetland as a Ramsar site means that the state concerned accepts an obligation to maintain the ecological character of a site in front of the international community. It is therefore a serious political commitment. On the other hand, everyone is aware that wetlands are dynamic ecosystems which are naturally subject to change, and that they have multiple values and functions, inevitably related to water sources; sometimes, different individuals, bodies or administrations may have different views of how the water resource should be used.

The Convention has devoted considerable time and effort to defining the notion of "change in ecological character", and has developed a mechanism called the "Montreux Record" to list those sites which require priority attention. Sites may only be placed on the Record with the approval of the state concerned, but already over 60 of the 870 sites are listed on the Montreux Record. This means that the site can then benefit from assistance (both technical and financial) from other Contracting Parties or the Bureau. Furthermore, states provide reports to the triennial Conference of the Parties, which include details of the ecological situation of their Ramsar sites. These reports are generally very open and honest, and reveal problems in meeting the requirements under the convention. They may act as a basis for inclusion in the Montreux Record, or for offers of help from other parties. In the case of developing countries, the difficulty in fulfilling of requirements is often linked to lack of funding; for them Ramsar listing may be a method of indicating the need for finance.

An important measure of fulfillment of the obligations is that no site has ever been deleted from the Ramsar List for ecological reasons; in the few cases where a small part of a site has been reduced, other larger areas have been listed in compensation.

MJV: How do you see the evolution of Mediterranean wetlands in the last 15 years? Have their natural values really improved and have they been given greater consideration at political level, or do they continue to be threatened by economic pressures?

MS: Despite all the efforts of the Ramsar Convention and others, it is clear that wetlands are still being lost in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. At the Brisbane Conference, the French delegation made a fascinating presentation on an exercise carried out in France at official level, which showed that, in spite of the work of the Environment Ministry, public policies were still destroying wetlands in France; at a slower rate than before perhaps, but nevertheless there was still loss through official government policies. And I have no doubt that the same is true all over the Mediterranean. There are enormous efforts made, there are successes in individual sites, more and more money is being devoted by governments and private bodies to wetlands; yet there remains a great deal to do.

The French example is particularly significant, because it lays the emphasis on policy work: wetlands are being destroyed not by the administrations responsible for environmental matters, but by transport, infrastructure, housing, industry, agriculture. This is why policies are necessary, at Mediterranean or national level; these must deal not only with nature conservation, but with every aspect of national policy that affects wetlands, and must be accepted by all the ministries concerned. This is the essence of the Ramsar concept of "wise use of wetlands", a difficult concept because it requires a complete rethink by a large numbers of administrations of how they work.

A specific problem in the Mediterranean is the link between water and wetlands. Many countries have a national water supply policy. How many of these take account of the wetlands where much of the water comes from? Water will be a world priority in the next century -- the Mediterranean will be one of the first areas to experience it, and so can offer solutions to other regions.

Another problem in the Mediterranean is the lack of management measures at wetlands. Many sites have been designated as Ramsar sites, but most lack an overall management plan, which takes account of all the site's functions and values (i.e., not only nature conservation) and implicates all the administrations and actors which impact the site. Management plans are too often concerned with only one sector.

MJV: What shortcomings do you see in the mechanisms for collaboration between countries? How can the Ramsar Bureau improve these mechanisms?

MS: At national level, the Ramsar Convention has called for the establishment of national Ramsar Committees. More and more of these are being established, but there are still not enough, and they do not always include all the appropriate participants, i.e., all the wetland actors, all the administrations, all the NGOs.

At international level, the establishment of the Mediterranean Wetland Committee, in connection with the MedWet initiative, is an effort by Ramsar to develop international communications between states of the Mediterranean, and thus to promote a regional approach to implementation of the Convention. For the moment this aims to be informal and action-oriented, and not to be concerned with diplomatic issues. But this formal approach may become necessary in future, in which case the existing links with the Barcelona Convention's Mediterranean Action Plan can be strengthened.

MJV: Does Ramsar take account of the socio-economic differences between the North and South in developing protection mechanisms? Can you cite examples?

MS: Yes, of course the Convention must and does take account of these differences. That is why the Convention does not stipulate that listed sites must be strictly protected areas; Contracting Parties agree to maintain the ecological character of listed sites, and may continue to make "wise use" of them, as long as their ecological character is not adversely affected. This is why the concept of wise use is so relevant to the developing countries.

But there is no question of setting different standards for protected areas; that would be quite unacceptable. It is a question of different priorities in different states. In many cases, rich countries have already destroyed or degraded wetland functions over the last 100 or more years, and are now trying to restore or recreate these values; for them, restoration and rehabilitation are therefore priorities. In many poorer countries, wetlands are in a much more natural state; for them the priority is to use them wisely and sustainably, so that their people may reach a reasonable level of socio-economic development without destroying basic wetland functions. In order to do this, they require financial and technical help. To help provide this assistance, Ramsar has established a "Small Grants Fund" which is restricted to developing countries and states in transition, and gives grants for activities in line with the Ramsar Strategic Plan. This plan also calls on the Bureau to be much more active in seeking sources of finance from bilateral and multilateral funding agencies for developing and transition countries. The Bureau has therefore had to develop from being a technical support agency to being, in addition, a body that knows how to generate financial support.

MJV: Can you quote a particular kind of wetland management in which you are particularly satisfied?

MS: Ramsar has developed guidelines on management of wetlands, approved by the Contracting Parties. These guidelines are based on a simple theory: that first a description must be drawn up, then objectives (both short and long term) must be defined on the basis of this description; and thirdly action programmes established and implemented for achieving these objectives. A crucial additional factor is that the whole process must be "circular" i.e., after the action programmes have been carried out, a review must be made of the description, which will have changed as a result of the actions; in turn, this will result in a review of the objectives and the definition of new action programmes. Too often, management plans stop at a long and detailed description, including species lists, but not defining actions to be carried out.

Of course the Ramsar guidelines on management planning include take account of participation of local people, of all stakeholders who have an interest in a site. This aspect of management has been greatly emphasized of late, and is embedded in the Ramsar guidelines.

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