Transboundary Ramsar Sites
On 28-29 April 2004, a seminar on transboundary wetland sites took place in the town of Lida (Republic of Belarus), organized by the Environment Ministries of Belarus and Lithuania. This was the culmination of work undertaken under the coordination of Saulius Svazas of "OMPO", the non-governmental organization working for "Migratory Birds of the Western Palearctic", with support of Ramsar's Small Grants Fund. It resulted in a beautiful publication - richly illustrated and packed with information - officially launched during the meeting (cf. . The document sets a new standard on how best to make use of Ramsar's approach to collecting wetland site data for inventory and assessment, by following closely the structure of the "Ramsar Information Sheet" (RIS) adopted by the Contracting Parties.
The seminar was opened by Deputy Minister Valentin Malishevsky of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of Belarus. Following that, the authors who contributed to the publication on six important transboundary wetlands shared between Belarus and Lithuania and three sites shared between Lithuania and the Kaliningrad Region of the Russian Federation presented their experience with the management of protected areas in this region and the obstacles to overcome to work in a coordinated way at transboundary scale.
The second day, moderated by Alexander Kozulin, was devoted by the 30 participants to the preparation of a specific project for joint management activities for one of the first transboundary Ramsar Sites: the Cepkeliai-Kotra wetland complex, situated on both sides of Kotra (Katra) river that forms the border between Lithuania and Belarus. The Ramsar area includes Lithuania's largest peatbog (Cepkeliai Strict Nature Reserve), extensive swamp forests, fens, small lakes and ponds, seasonally flooded meadows and fens, as well as extensive fish ponds. It hosts a distinctive flora and fauna, including numerous rare and endangered species. The Lithuanian Ramsar Site covers 18,150 ha and was designated in 1993, followed by the designation of the adjacent Kotra Wetland Complex in Belarus in 2002 (10,463 ha). During the meeting, local experts and stakeholders, protected areas staff, foresters, and representatives of regional and municipal authorities underlined their strong wish for increased transborder cooperation. Together, they visited the secluded Kotra river floodplain: an important excursion given the administrative difficulties to cross this national border - even for local officials. A border that is now marking the frontier between the European Union (of which Lithuania became a member on 1 May 2004) and the Republic of Belarus.
In this region of Europe, for centuries, impenetrable bogs and waterlogged forests were places to install borders, only to be crossed by wild animals and possibly some smugglers. But nowadays, these wild places receive increasing attention in their own right, for the ecological functions that their ecosystems perform and for the natural heritage they contain. This is usefully illustrated by another transboundary Ramsar Site farther north: Nigula Nature Reserve-Northern Bogs, shared between Estonia and Latvia, designated in 1997 (Estonian part of 4,651 ha) and in 2002 respectively (Latvian part of 5,318 ha). This transboundary area is currently benefiting from a development and conservation project, initially facilitated by Wetlands International, with financial support from the Dutch PIN/MATRA programme (cf. www.north-livonia.org). The project has already yielded some important lessons to be learnt: a) protected area boundaries and surrounding drainage schemes need to be based on the hydrology of the wetland site concerned to avoid ecological problems, b) visitor trails need to avoid sensitive habitats to prevent disturbance of rare breeding birds, and c) locally applicable regulations for hunting, fishing or berry collecting need to be made consistent on both sides of the border to avoid over-exploitation of natural resources.
Transboundary wetland areas formerly inaccessible to the general public are coming under pressure with the increased mobility of modern people. Gennady Grishanov illustrated this point by focusing on unique coastal wetland sites shared between Kaliningrad and Lithuania at the Baltic Sea: the Kuronian Spit and Nemunas (Neman) delta with its coastal lagoon, fens and mires. The participants in the seminar hope that the important transboundary wetlands in this area of Europe will rapidly receive increased attention to ease their joint management and conservation efforts, despite the existing international borders that are sometimes difficult to cross.
The Lithuanian part of the Ramsar Site: here are some views of Cepkeliai raised bog, a strict nature reserve.
Cepkeliai bog lake
Cepkeliai grasses and water
On the visitors' tower next to the Ramsar sign are standing Guy-Noël Olivier, secretary general of OMPO, Eugenijus Drobelis, deputy director of Dzukija National Park (with the telescope), and Saulius Svazas, OMPO's regional coordinator (facing away).
Adjoining the Cepkeliai Strict Nature Reserve and Ramsar Site is Dzukija National Park which holds a number of outstanding wetland habitats that should be included in an extension of the existing Ramsar Site . . .
notably the traditionally farmed Gruda valley (and others) . . .
and the Ula river valley with its thermal springs, crossing sandstone landscapes.
Zervinos is a Latvian village at the edge of Dzukija National Park that has kept its traditional forms of life and agriculture alive and is one of the visitors' attractions in the National Park. The latter is well equipped (hotels, guest houses, museums, trails) to receive a substantial number of visitors that will, no doubt, increase with the recent entering of Lithuania in the European Union.
The Grybaulia fishponds surrounded by extensive boreal forests of Dzukija National Park provide outstanding breeding, feeding and wintering habitats for a number of waterbirds and should definitively be included into an extended Ramsar Site.
Guy-Noël Olivier and Saulus Svazas, guided by Eugenijus Drobelis of the National Park, are experiencing the stunning view of two white-tailed sea eagles soaring over the ponds in search for dinner.
The Belarus part of the transboundary Ramsar Site was visited by the participants after the seminar on 29 April. They started their visit by crossing a part of the extensive forest swamps.
Then they visited the memorial that commemorates war-time killing of the inhabitants of a secluded village in the Kotra river floodplain, now no longer in existence.
Since the abandonment of traditional agriculture in the floodplain of the slow-flowing Kotra (Katra in Belarus) river, marking the border, vegetation succession is slowly closing the former open areas. Thus, management measures are urgently needed. It is hoped that the transboundary project in preparation will be able to raise the necessary funds for them.
Every successful meeting in Belarus ends with a banquet and several toasts. This one was set during a warm spring afternoon right on the banks of Kotra river, in the heart of the transboundary Ramsar Site.
-- report and photos by Tobias Salathé, Ramsar