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"Ramsar in the Mediterranean"

Delmar Blasco, Secretary General, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

The Convention on Wetlands is very pleased to have been associated with MedWet, the initiative that has brought together, in its initial phase, the Mediterranean countries of the European Union, the European Commission and a number of NGOs in order to work towards the goal adopted by the Grado Conference in 1991: "To stop and reverse the loss and degradation of Mediterranean wetlands." The Conference of the Parties to our Convention has on two occasions, at its meetings in Japan in 1993 and in Australia earlier this year, welcomed the MedWet initiative and acknowledged its value, not only for this region of the world, but also as a model for other regions.

Significant progress has been made through this innovative partnership, where each one of the actors has contributed its particular "comparative advantage" to generate the expected outputs. It is extremely encouraging to see that the initiative has so matured that it is now ready to reach out to the wider Mediterranean region. I am personally very gratified that this Conference in Venice is of a pan-Mediterranean character, and that it will be discussing a strategy to address the conservation and wise use of all Mediterranean wetlands. International cooperation on wetlands issues is one of the key components of our Convention, and I am extremely encouraged to see emerging here a magnificent example of joint action and mutual support.

This would not have been possible without the support and dedication of all partners in the MedWet initiative, and in particular of our host, the Italian Government. Once more Italy is playing the role that constitutes one of its best attributes as a nation: bringing people together and creating the space for open and frank dialogue towards cooperation and constructive action. And what better environment for doing so in the field of wetlands than this extraordinary city of Venice, so intimately associated with its wetlands, and such a brilliant example of success and endurance throughout the centuries! In addition, we have the great privilege of meeting in thiswonderful building, the Scuola di San Giovani Evangelista. We are most grateful to the Italian Government, and to the MedWet Secretariat, also supported and financed by Italy, for having worked so closely and so efficiently with our secretariat in Switzerland in arranging this Conference. But our gratitude also goes to all the other partners in MedWet, the Governments of France, Greece, Portugal and Spain, and the NGOs: the Station Biologique de la Tour de Valat, Wetlands International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Finally, our gratitude also to the European Commission, and particularly to the DGXI, which has recognized the importance and potential of this initiative and has provided most of the funding for it. There is also one individual whose contribution has to be publicly acknowledged: Thymio Papayannis, the President of the Coordination Group of the MedWet initiative. His dedication and commitment, that goes much beyond than the call of duty, has been a source of inspiration and encouragement to all of us. Thank you very much, Thymio.

The Ramsar Convention is already well established in the Mediterranean region. Out of the 24 Mediterranean countries listed in the draft Mediterranean Wetlands Strategy, 17 are Contracting Parties to our Convention, and we look forward to having very soon a Mediterranean-wide coverage in our membership. We understand that Israel has finalized the preparation of the accession documents, and we look forward to receiving them anytime now. These 17 Contracting Parties have so far nominated 147 wetland sites for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. As you are aware, the List is open to all sites in Contracting Parties that meet the Ramsar criteria, a set of criteria that has been expanded at the recent Conference of the Parties to include a new criterion based on fish, and that will be further revised, and quite possibly expanded, at the next Conference of the Parties in Costa Rica in 1999.

Of the sites listed by the Mediterranean countries, 25 have been included, with the agreement of the countries concerned, in the so-called Montreux Record, a record kept by the Convention of those sites whose ecological character - or more simply, their "ecological health" - have deteriorated, is deteriorating, or is likely to deteriorate as a result of technological developments, pollution or other human interference. The Convention, through the mechanism called the Management Guidance Procedure, can provide advice, at the request of the country concerned, on how to address the problems faced by sites included in the Montreux Record. We have been encouraged by the announcements made by most Mediterranean countries at the last Conference of the Parties concerning the measures being taken to address the problems of their Montreux Record sites.

In addition, some countries in the Mediterranean are making progress in the other important requirement of the Ramsar Convention -- the establishment of national policies or plans aimed at ensuring the wise use of all wetlands within their territories, and not just the listed sites. There are also good examples in place or being developed of the third important component of the Ramsar Convention: cooperation on shared wetlands and wetland species.

We very much hope that the Contracting Parties in the Mediterranean region will set a high example in the implementation of the Strategic Plan adopted by the Ramsar Conference of the Parties in Australia in March of this year. As you are aware, the Mediterranean Wetland Strategy that will be discussed at this meeting has been largely based on the Ramsar Strategic Plan.

The Strategic Plan does not add, of course, new elements to the Convention, but develops its basic tenets into a much more modern and holistic approach to wetland conservation and wise use, as does the draft Strategy submitted for discussion here. I would like to review briefly what in my view are the major thrusts of the Plan when developing the three essential components of the Convention on Wetlands:

1) Listed sites: the Strategic Plan encourages countries to make a much more active use of this mechanism under the Convention, by considering listing all wetlands that meet the criteria, and especially by using the List to provide initial protection for sites that for various reasons are not, and most likely will not, be included under the protected areas system of the countries concerned. There is also a renewed emphasis on the need to maintain the ecological character of listed sites by ensuring that the essential data about them is collected and updated regularly, and by establishing appropriate management plans. Community participation in preparation and application of management plans is seen as a crucial component for success.

2) Wise use of wetlands: the Plan encourages countries to develop national wetland policies or equivalent plans, and to ensure the full integration of wetland issues into all national planning concerning land and water use. A renewed emphasis is placed on the need to consider each wetland site within the broader context of catchment area and coastal zone planning. The importance of undertaking effective environmental impact assessments of all projects that could affect wetlands is also fully recognized, again, not only in relation to particular sites but within the context of Integrated Environmental Management and Strategic Environmental Assessments. Crucially important, in my view, is the thrust to consider wetland conservation and wise use within the context of water resources management, which thus moves the Ramsar Convention from the restricted realm of nature conservation to the much wider area of natural resources planning and management.

3) International cooperation: the Plan wants the Convention to play a much more active catalytic role in working with the development assistance community in ensuring a sufficient flow of resources, in relation to wetlands conservation and wise use, towards developing countries and countries whose economies are in transition. Cooperation on transfrontier wetlands and wetland species also receives considerable emphasis, as does the need for more synergy among the environment-related conventions and agencies, in particular those that have emerged from the Rio Conference on Environment and Development.

In summary, the Ramsar Convention is taking an important step forward on the occasion of its 25th Anniversary to become a more useful tool to Contracting Parties, local communities and NGOs to work for wetlands conservation and wise use, and to encourage and facilitate international cooperation.

We are ready to continue to support, to the best of our abilities, the MedWet initiative, and in particular its expansion to the wider Mediterranean. In doing so, we look forward to renewed cooperation with the Barcelona Convention and with the European Commission, the other two key international institutions that are well suited to contribute to the success of the initiative in a very significant way.

I very much hope that by the end of this Conference we will have improved the proposed Venice Declaration and the draft Mediterranean Wetland Strategy attached to it, so that we can offer to the Governments and other institutions in the Mediterranean region a useful tool for making progress towards safeguarding a significant component of the natural and cultural heritage of this Mare Nostrum that is so significant in the history and current development of modern civilization.

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