Protected areas and the Ramsar Convention


Recently a number of leading freshwater biodiversity and protected area experts, gathered together for a summit at the Skukuza Camp in Kruger National Park to begin to tackle questions related to the efficacy of protected areas as a strategy for conserving freshwater biodiversity features. Although no-one from the secretariat was present, the issue is of great interest to parties. Preliminary notes from the meeting follow.

One of the very basic issues addressed at the meeting was the definition of "protected areas" as used by IUCN and WCPA. The group felt the existing definition perhaps reflects the neglect freshwater biodiversity has suffered. The group has proposed some changes to the IUCN definition to make freshwater areas more explicit; viz

"An area of land, inland waters and/or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity and requisite ecological processes, ecosystem services, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means."

This issue will be discussed at an IUCN categories summit in March - although in passing we should note that inland waters including saline and calcareous waters as well as simply "fresh".

Comments on this approach are welcome (to, as the secretariat is also moving ahead with a small publication for the IUCN categories summit, but aimed at contracting Parties to help clarify some of the issues surrounding the nexus between Ramsar sites and protected area status.

The Convention encourages Parties to designate and manage important wetlands in a way that does not diminish their ecological values. While many of these Wetlands of International Importance also have other protection status (e.g., are officially protected areas under national legislation, natural World Heritage sites or UNESCO biosphere reserves), there is no obligation for Ramsar sites to be protected areas as recognised by IUCN. On the other hand, the definition of protected areas post World Parks Congress in Durban 2003 would mean all of the wetlands of International Importance qualify anyway!

Previous protection status of Ramsar sites: This distinction is implied, although not often stated as baldly, in our literature. For example, the Criteria for Identifying Wetlands of International Importance makes no reference to protection status. The Information Sheet on Ramsar Wetlands (RIS) implies that protection status is not mandatory, with phrases such as: "If a reserve has been established" and "If appropriate, list the IUCN (1994) protected areas category/ies".

The Ramsar Convention Manual (2004) is explicit: "Designating a wetland for the Ramsar List does not in itself require the site previously to have been declared a protected area. In fact, listing under the Ramsar Convention, especially in the case of sites subject to intensive use by human communities … should provide the necessary protection to ensure its long-term sustainability" (my emphasis). And again: "sites designated for the Ramsar List do not have already to be established as legally protected areas before designation. Listing under the Ramsar Convention elevates the sites to a higher status (recognized as places of "international importance"), focuses more attention upon them, and should contribute to their long-term conservation and wise use - whether or not Ramsar status conveys additional legal protection in-country depends upon the national and local policy and legislation concerning Ramsar Sites... Human uses of wetlands are compatible with listing under Ramsar, provided that they are in line with the Ramsar concept of "wise use" (sustainable use) and do not lead to a negative change in ecological character."

Ramsar sites as protected areas: It is less clear whether Parties regard inclusion on the List as in effect meaning that the site becomes a protected area, whether or not it has been given an IUCN category. Some NGOs regard this as the case. Ramsar designation implies an obligation for some site protection (i.e. maintain its ecological character), which suggests protection status. Sites are listed in the World Database on Protected Areas, which also implies that they may be protected areas, but so are other designations of land use that are clearly not protected areas (for example some military lands, World Heritage sites that are not protected areas etc) and this may reflect confusion in the WDPA.

The publication envisaged from the secretariat should help resolve some of these issues and set a positive way forward both for the categories ummit and the ongoing discussions in the Convnetion.

-- Peter Bridgewater,
Secretary General

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Number of » Contracting Parties: 168 Sites designated for the
» List of Wetlands of
International Importance
2,186 Total surface area of designated sites (hectares): 208,674,247

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