Ramsar COP8 -- a summary report from the IUCN Environmental Law Programme

"Wetlands: water, life, and culture"
8th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties
to the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971)
Valencia, Spain, 18-26 November 2002

[reprinted from the IUCN Environmental Law Programme Newsletter, issue 1, 2003, pp. 28-29]

The 8th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

The 8th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties (COP) of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands took place in Valencia, Spain, from 18 to 26 November 2002.

Under the heading of "Wetlands: water, life and culture," the COP adopted 46 Resolutions that will influence the conservation and wise use of wetlands in the coming years. Guiding principles were also adopted to take account of cultural values of wetlands for the effective management of Ramsar sites (Resolution VIII.19).

Following a trend initiated some time ago by the COP towards broadening the original emphasis of the Ramsar Convention on waterfowl habitats, COP 8 adopted several resolutions on issues that emphasise the relationship of wetlands protection with water management. This is the case, for instance with Resolution VIII.1 on Guidelines for the allocation and management of water for maintaining the ecological functions on wetlands; Resolution VIII.2 on the World Commission on Dams Report; Resolution VIII.3 on Climate Change and wetlands: impacts, adaptation, and mitigation; Resolution VIII.4 on Principles and guidelines for incorporating wetland issues into Integrated Coastal Zone Management; and Resolution VIII.40 on Guidelines for rendering the use of groundwater compatible with the conservation of wetlands.

In addition, the COP also addressed other important issues, such as invasive species and agriculture. The adoption of Resolution VIII.18 on invasive species was not free of difficulties.

After difficult negotiations, where apparently no consensus was reached, the 6th Session of the Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD COP 6) adopted a resolution containing Guiding Principles on Alien Invasive Species. The main problem with regard to the Ramsar resolution on alien invasive species was that the draft mentioned the CBD COP 6, something that was not acceptable for some delegations like the Australian delegation. Thanks to the intervention of IUCN, which suggested a consensus formula for paragraph 12, the resolution was finally adopted.

The difficulties encountered in passing a resolution on agriculture, wetlands and water resources were mainly due to the relationship of agriculture with subsidies and incentives. Some delegations considered that agriculture as such exceeded the mandate of the Ramsar Convention, and should therefore be dealt with in the context of the World Trade Organisation (WJO).

The Philippine delegation made a strong statement in favour of this resolution, pointing out that traditional practices, including those relating to agriculture, are fundamental tools for the preservation and management of certain wetland types. Further, the delegation stressed that the Ramsar Convention was not subject to WTO Agreements on trade, and there was no indication in the Statutes of the International Court of Justice that "would warrant the conclusion that the Ramsar Convention is subject to, and therefore, inferior to trade-related agreements."

In 2000 the ELC prepared a legal opinion on the application of the "urgent national interest" clause in the Ramsar Convention, followed by a set of draft guidelines for determining when a proposed change of a Ramsar site boundaries would be consistent with the "urgent national interest" clause, and how to evaluate compensation for wetlands lost as a result of that change (see ELP Newsletter Issue 1, 2002).

The draft guidelines were tabled at the 26th Meeting of the Ramsar Standing Committee and their content was watered down, unfortunately. The COP in Valencia adopted Resolution VIII.20 entitled "General Guidance for interpreting 'urgent national interests' under Article 2.5 of the Convention and considering compensation under Article 4.2."

During CBD COP 6 in The Hague, the Contracting Parties adopted Guidelines for incorporating biodiversity-related issues into environmental impact assessment legislation and/or processes and in strategic environmental assessment, and Recommendations for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessment regarding developments proposed to take place on, or which are likely to impact on, sacred sites and on lands and waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous and local communities.

The Ramsar COP in Valencia adopted a resolution on the relevance of the CBD Guidelines on biodiversity-related issues and EIA. However, such a resolution only has a very weak recommendatory character, because it only urges the parties to make use of the said guidelines, when appropriate.

Finally, it is worth mentioning two further groups of important guidelines: the Principles and guidelines for wetland restoration (Resolution VIII.16), and the Guidelines for Global Action on Peatlands (Resolution VI 11.17).

The Ramsar Convention continues to be the only global treaty dealing specifically with water ecosystems and also, due to its characteristics referred above, the only global instrument which touches upon, even partially, water resources (apart from two old treaties adopted back in the 1920s). Its main challenge for the coming years will be not only to continue growing into new areas, but to complement and strengthen the existing resolutions and programmes, in order to promote their full implementation. Valencia represents a further step towards the achievement of this goal.

For further information about other Resolutions adopted at COP 8 and the Conference Report, please consult www.ramsar.org.

Dr Alejandro 0. Iza

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