"Working Together for Wetlands" - 25th Anniversary Celebration for the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Washington, D.C., April 25, 1996
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Address by Marshall P. Jones, Assistant Director for International Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
"New Developments in International Wetland Conservation and Their Meaning to the United States"
Thank you. It is a great honor to be sharing the podium with the four previous speakers. Tim Wirth, Don Henley, Paul Johnson, and Delmar Blasco are four very tough acts to follow, and there are many more excellent speakers to come on the program today and tomorrow -- including my boss, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mollie Beattie, who will open the session tomorrow morning to talk about FWS wetland conservation programs and the threats which these programs are facing.
My role today is talk to you about some new and exciting developments in the Ramsar Convention -- developments which took place last month at the 6th Conference of the Contracting Parties in Brisbane, Australia, where I had the privilege of leading the U.S. delegation.
The Ramsar Convention is now a quarter century old, and during those 25 years there have been five previous conferences of the contracting parties, each one of them important in its own right. But I believe it is fully justified to say that what took place in Brisbane, last month, marked a major milestone in the history of the Ramsar Convention and thus in international efforts to protect what has become an endangered global resource -- our precious and fast diminishing wetlands.
This morning I'm going to try to summarize those new developments that took place in Brisbane which are of special importance to all of us in this room, and I hope to a growing number of people throughout the U.S. over the coming years.
First -- no organization-- governmental or nongovernmental, national or international -- can hope to succeed without a clear statement of its mission and a coherent set of objectives and strategies about how to achieve that mission. In Brisbane, for the first time, Ramsar parties and their NGO partners adopted a Strategic Plan -- a guideline of where we want to go in wetland conservation over the next six years, and what strategies will be used to get there. The Strategic Plan includes a clear statement of the Convention's mission and eight specific objectives, all designed to foster the achievement of this mission. The U.S. delegation -- accompanied by a tireless US NGO representative from the World Wildlife Fund -- participated actively in a marathon drafting session, starting early on a Saturday afternoon and lasting far into the night, in order to produce the final text of this new plan. During the conference, the U.S. also strongly articulated our belief that the greatest priority should be given to those objectives of the plan which are most directly focussed on the actual conservation of wetlands, including direct wetland management actions, education and public awareness programs, training and capacity building, and involvement of local communities.
The adoption of the Strategic Plan was a significant step, but it was accompanied by more than just marathon negotiations and a round of applause when the text was finally approved. The United States participated with the government of Australia and 15 other parties and partners in a pledging session, designed to produce special commitments of support to achieving the objectives of the new Strategic Plan. The U.S. pledged our best efforts to contribute an additional one million dollars over the next six years to the Ramsar Small Grants Fund for Wetland Conservation, to help developing nations with wetland conservation projects. This was in addition to the U.S. 25th anniversary contributions already made, through the Wetlands for the Future program which Under Secretary Wirth announced a few minutes ago -- a program which had its inception two years ago, when the Department of State, the Department of the Interior, and the Ramsar Bureau first began efforts to create a special fund for wetlands training in Latin America.
So -- we have a new Strategic Plan, and we have pledges of future financial support to implement it. But what about the immediate budgetary situation? Ramsar parties took a third significant step when they adopted a new budget for the next three years authorizing a 25% increase in expenditures by the Ramsar Bureau. Frankly, this budget increase was not a U.S. initiative -- in fact, we were opposed to any increase in the current budget, due to the uncertain budget climate in the U.S. right now -- we did not want to make short-term commitments which we're not sure we could keep. But the U.S. is in a unique position, since legally all of our contributions to Ramsar are voluntary, not mandatory, and so on that basis we did not try to block the consensus of other countries regarding the 25% authorized increase.
However, I've used the word "authorized" very deliberately here. Authorization sets a target level of spending, but it is not until actual appropriations are made each year that we know how much money will actually be available. This year, unfortunately, it appears that the U.S. voluntary contribution to Ramsar may be less than that of recent years, due to the reduced Congressional appropriation to the State Department's International Organizations account, and it is likely that some other countries may find it hard to fulfill their financial obligations. Thus we think it is more important than ever that we work closely with the Secretary General over the next 3 years to prioritize the objectives of the Strategic Plan and the work program of the Bureau, to ensure that the most important work items are accomplished whatever the final budget level.
These current budget problems do not diminish our resolve to make good on our pledge of increased future support for the Ramsar Small Grants Fund over the next six years -- but the current situation also warns us how hard we are going to have to work -- together, with everyone in this room having a possible role to play -- to make this pledge a reality by 2002.
A fourth major administrative decision in Brisbane will put the U.S. in a special position to help guide the Ramsar Bureau in prioritizing its work. Between Conferences, Ramsar Convention policy is guided by the Standing Committee, a body of representatives from each of the seven Ramsar regions and key partner organizations, which functions very much like a Board of Directors. For the next three years the U.S. will be the North American representative on the Standing Committee, with Canada as our alternate. And, in a new move, Mexico will serve as the coordinator and reporter of North American regional Ramsar activities -- a unique situation among Ramsar regions, one which emphasizes the commitment of all three countries to work together towards the conservation of our North American wetlands.
Beyond our role as a member of the Standing Committee, however, the U.S. will fulfill what may turn out to be an even more important function over the next three years, for the U.S. also agreed to assume the chair of the Ramsar permanent Subgroup on Finance. This means that we will have a special role and responsibility to provide advice and guidance to the Secretary General on financial matters and to report to the Standing Committee at its next regular meeting -- now scheduled to take place in Switzerland at the end of October. We plan to fulfill this function in close consultation with the other members of the Financial Subgroup and also with many of the agencies and organizations represented in this room.
So -- I've spoken of plans and budgets and committees and subgroups, but what of the resources themselves? Let me give you some examples of what was done to enhance the effectiveness of Ramsar at directly addressing wetland conservation needs.
First, and probably most important, was a key recognition that wetland conservation cannot stop at the boundary of the site. One of the old ideas in conservation was, in order to protect an area, to build a fence around it and keep people out. But experience has shown all around the world that conservation works best when we are tearing fences down, not putting them up. We now recognize that no wetland area can be conserved in isolation from the watershed in which it is found -- the ecosystem approach, or even the entire landscape, must be taken into account if our efforts are to succeed.
Ramsar parties also recognized the principle that Ramsar must be more than just a network of 800 -- or even 8000 -- protected sites. Ramsar parties and partners must work on rational ways of conserving all of their wetlands. The U.S. currently has only 15 designated Ramsar sites. There should and probably will be many more in the future, but there can never be enough formally designated sites to satisfy the myriad local, regional, national and international conservation needs which all of you in this room represent..
There was also encouragement for increased attention to non-traditional, but vitally important members of the wetlands family -- coral reefs, peatlands, mangroves, and seagrass beds. It was especially gratifying to see the response of Ramsar participants to the International Coral Reef Initiative, a U.S.-led international effort dedicated to conservation of these magnicent and fast-disappearing wetland resources.
The importance of involving the local populace in conservation of wetlands was also strongly endorsed. The Caddo Lake Institute, for example, was recognized as providing an excellent model of how to involve educators and the whole community in the wetland conservation effort. Caddo Lake breathes new life into the maxum that we must think globally, but act locally. I also urge you to think carefully about Paul Johnson's thought-provoking message about the critical importance of involving farmers and the agricultural sector in wetland conservation.
Another important decision was that wetland values extend to, and must be measured by, much more than the health of waterfowl populations. Ramsar is now more than just for the birds. It's not that waterbirds are not still important to Ramsar -- rather it's that they must take their place beside the importance of wetlands as fish and shellfish nurseries, as refuges for our disappearing frogs, as homes for all kinds of species endangered and common which together make up the ecosystem.
But, just to remind us that, in the hearts of so many of us, birds are still special, there was the establishment of an East Asian/Pacific shorebird reserve network, designed to link breeding, migration, and wintering sites from Siberia and Alaska through Indochina to Australia and New Zealand.
Finally, at Brisbane I believe we saw that no organization can be stronger or more effective than the people who lead it and make it work -- but only if they work in partnership with one another. In Brisbane, the United States developed a series of new partnerships which I believe served us well and which will keep paying dividends.
--They began with our new secretary general. I believe we are incredibly fortunate to have a man of his calibre to lead us into the future. At a time when international organizations in general are under intense scrutiny and criticism -- for being run either by impractical dreamers, with no management sense, or by faceless bureacrats, with no vision of what they are doing and why -- Ramsar parties are incredibly fortunate to have a Secretary General who is both a visionary and a hard-headed manager. Delmar, you will face enormous challenges, but you showed in Brisbane that you are more than up to the job.
--Secondly, in Brisbane we saw a new stronger relationship between the U.S. Government, States, and U.S. NGOs. A representative of the States, through the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and the Caddo Lake Institute were integral members of our delegation -- and in a fair trade, a retired government employee [Larry Mason], one of the true experts on Ramsar conservation, was a member of the Caddo Lake delegation. Who got the better end of that deal? The answer is simple -- wetland conservation did!
But our relationship with US NGOs extended far beyond just the Caddo Lake Institute. Connie Hunt of WWF US acted as our conscience on many occasions. Alan Wentz of Ducks Unlimited, Steve Parsells of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund also worked energetically with us throughout the Conference. We hope that this will carry over into a revitalized U.S. Ramsar National Committee.
--And these new partnerships continue right here in this room. Over the next two days, I hope that all of you will be able to be reinvigorated with the same sense of mission and excitement which we on the US delegation got from our stay in Brisbane. And then it will be up to you to go home and convey that sense of purpose to others in your local communities using Ramsar as one of a myriad of tools in your own personal efforts to foster wetland conservation.
And that's what it will take to turn these encouraging developments from Brisbane into actual benefits to wetlands in this country and around the world. As a very wise member of my staff remarked the other day, there is no such thing as "virtual conservation". It will take hard work and wet feet from all of to make this happen. And wetland conservation programs will not succeed if the only ones with wet feet are the ducks.
This address was delivered by Mr Jones on 25 April 1996 at the "Working Together for Wetlands" conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. The text was scanned in from hard copy and posted here on 24 December 1996. For further information about the Ramsar Convention, contact the Ramsar Bureau, Rue Mauverney 28, CH-1196 Gland, Switzerland (tel +41 22 999 0170, fax +41 22 999 0169, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
See also, from the same conference: