The Secretary General's Report on the Brisbane COP

The Secretary General's Report on the Brisbane COP

17 October 1996

6th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Brisbane, Australia : 19-27 March 1996

"The 6th Meeting of the Parties: a True Watershed"

This is a brief report on the results of the 6th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties, held in Brisbane, Australia, 19-27 March 1996. It was, in my view, an extremely significant event for wetland conservation, in terms of both the tangible results that were accomplished there and the renewed commitments to support, implementation, funding, and cooperation that were so enthusiastically pledged there.

First, the attendance. Out of the 93 Contracting Parties, 91 were present, many of them represented by powerful delegations – in several cases headed by ministers or deputy ministers. In addition to these, we had observers from 30 countries that are not yet signatories to the Convention, a good number of whom indicated that they are about to accede or seriously considering it. Equally important, to my mind, was the presence of almost 90 international and national non-governmental organizations, some of them like the WWF family, IUCN, and Wetlands International with delegations of more than 20 members. The presence of the NGO community was vitally significant, I believe, because any convention or international instrument is only as important as the recognition and support it receives from civic society. In our world, the commitment of governments is is much more significant if it reflects the concerns and support of civic society.

Second, the Brisbane Conference was significant because of the decisions it took. The most important was the adoption of a Strategic Plan for the next six years. The adoption of the Plan is very relevant, first, because it includes a genuinely important Mission Statement – "The Convention’s mission is the conservation and wise use of wetlands by national action and international cooperation as a means to achieve sustainable development throughout the world". This acknowledgment that Ramsar’s mission is to contribute to achieving sustainable development places the treaty squarely within the context of Agenda 21 and the post-Rio frame of mind, with conservation and development being perceived as two sides of the same coin.

With the Strategic Plan, for the first time the Conference of the Parties has adopted a clear path for the implementation of the Convention. The treaty’s very general objectives have now been translated into eight practical objectives, these in turn expressed in 29 operational objectives and 124 concrete actions assigned to the Contracting Parties, the different bodies of the Convention (Standing Committee, Conference of the Parties, Scientific and Technical Review Panel, and the Bureau), and the NGO community engaged with the Convention.

In addition to the Strategic Plan, the Conference adopted a series of 23 resolutions and 18 recommendations for improving the application of existing mechanisms under the Convention, such as:

  • working definitions and guidelines for interpreting change in the ecological character of Ramsar sites;
  • a fourth criterion for identifying wetlands of international importance based on fish, and guidelines for its application;
  • subterranean karst wetlands as a wetland type under the Ramsar classification system; and
  • the recognition of the importance of peatland conservation and the conservation and wise use of coral reefs and associated ecosystems, such as mangroves and seagrass beds.

The Brisbane Conference also broke new ground by adopting a resolution on Ramsar and water and a recommendation on toxic chemicals in wetlands. The resolution on Ramsar and water is of particularly high significance, because for the first time the Conference of the Parties is addressing the question of "the important hydrological functions of wetlands, including groundwater recharge, water quality improvement and flood alleviation, and the inextricable link between wetlands and water resources". While these concepts can be found in the text of the Convention, the treaty has developed mainly around the species that live in wetlands or use wetlands in their life cycles -- very little has been done so far to address the issues related to the element that constitutes the prerequisite for the very existence of wetlands: water. The world is becoming aware with disturbing speed of the worldwide scarcity of fresh water. In a single generation, the world’s net renewable fresh water resources per capita have almost halved, and, if we continue on the same path, in another 30 years many countries will reach such low levels of availability that water could easily become not only a source of social tensions and instability, but also a matter of national security and international confrontations. The extent and health of wetlands are among the keys to preventing these catastrophes, and the Convention must be ready to meet that challenge.

Also for the first time, this COP included a Technical Session devoted to community participation. As a result, the Conference adopted a recommendation calling upon Contracting Parties to make specific efforts to encourage active and informed participation of local and indigenous people in wetland management. The recommendation also instructs the Convention secretariat, in cooperation with NGOs, to evaluate the benefits derived from community involvement and to prepare guidelines to facilitate that involvement.

The Parties also endorsed the Bureau’s efforts to continue working closely with the secretariat of the Convention of Biological Diversity and invited the next Conference of the Parties to the CBD to consider a special report to be prepared by the Ramsar Bureau on conservation of wetland biodiversity, as the basis to further promote synergy between the two treaties..

Thirdly, the Brisbane Conference witnessed a renewed commitment from Governments and NGOs. Apart from approving a Strategic Plan that puts the onus for implementation of the Convention mainly on the Parties themselves, a number of governments responded positively to the Australian pledging initiative to pledge, on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary, additional resources for the implementation of the Strategic Plan – Australia itself, of course, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, France, Ghana, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Financial pledges were also announced by a number of NGOs, including WWF, Ducks Unlimited, the Australian Wetlands Alliance, BirdLife/RSPB, and the Caddo Lake Institute.

Forty-two NGOs present at Brisbane also signed the "Brisbane Pledge of Support for the Ramsar Convention", committing themselves to work in partnership with the Ramsar secretariat and the Contracting Parties in implementing the Strategic Plan. Wetlands International signed a formal pledge of support to the Convention at a public ceremony in Brisbane, and the WWF family has since already been in active discussions with the Bureau on its role in carrying out the Brisbane resolutions and Strategic Plan, to which they plan to assign substantial resources.

The Brisbane Conference received, for the first time in the Convention’s history, invitations from two developing countries to host the next Conference of the Parties in 1999: India and Costa Rica. The two countries came to an agreement by which the next Conference will be held in Costa Rica, while India maintains its offer to host the Conference in 2002. Siting such an important gathering as Ramsar’s 7th COP in the developing world will truly be a significant innovation.

Taken all together, the Brisbane Conference marked a watershed in the history of the Convention – the affirmation of a shared commitment to a newly energized and much more focused programme for achieving the sustainable use of our natural resources around the world.

Delmar Blasco, Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands