"Working Together for Wetlands" - 25th Anniversary Celebration for the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Washington, D.C., April 25-26, 1996

"Working Together for Wetlands" - 25th Anniversary Celebration for the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Washington, D.C., April 25-26, 1996

6 May 1996

Address by Delmar Blasco, Secretary General, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

I am very honoured to have the opportunity to address you this morning and to share with you some thoughts on how the Convention on Wetlands can contribute to the quest for sustainable development on our planet.

But before doing that, let me express my sincere gratitude to the U.S. Department of State, the Office of International Affairs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wetlands Conservation Alliance, the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Ducks Unlimited, the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, IUCN-US, the Florida Center for Environmental Studies, and the Terrene Institute, for having taken the initiative to organize this meeting to celebrate to 25th Anniversary of the Ramsar Convention.

To have this meeting here today in this capital city, sponsored by such significant government departments and non-governmental institutions, represents in itself an important recognition of the role that the Convention has played so far, and, even more important, of the role it can play in the future.

As you will be aware, we have celebrated the 6th Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Convention less than one month ago in Brisbane, Australia. In my view this Conference was very significant for a number of issues:

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 --involving government agencies beyond the strict nature conservation realm, an indication that governments are beginning to perceive a more holistic role for our Convention. As examples, I can mention the cases of China, France, Ghana, South Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil and Costa Rica. The American delegation was also significant for the number of government agencies that were involved, again, beyond the strict concerns of nature conservation. I would like to pay tribute here to your delegation, for the very constructive role it played throughout the Conference. In addition to the 91 Contracting Parties, we had observers from 30 countries that are not yet signatories to the Convention.

They were there because they wanted to know more about the Convention, and a good number of them indicated that they are about to accede or seriously considering it. One example is the Bahamas, which has already informed us that she has now submitted the necessary accession documentation to UNESCO, the depositary of the Convention. As important as the presence of 121 countries was the presence of almost 90 international and national non-governmental Organisations, some of them like the WWF family, IUCN and Wetlands International with delegations of more than 20 members, or the Caddo Lake Institute here in the US, which sent a nine-member delegation. I am saying that the presence of the NGO community was, in my view, just as important as the presence of the 121 governments represented there, 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 no longer sufficient if this commitment does not reflect 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: 1997-2002. The adoption of the Plan is very relevant because:

a) The Plan includes a clear 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". Let me clarify immediately that the concept of "wise use" embodied in the text of the Convention is understood as "sustainable use", defined by the Conference of the Parties as "sustainable utilization for the benefit of mankind in a way compatible with the maintenance of the natural properties of the ecosystem". The 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 the two sides of the same coin. If one side is altered, the coin loses its value.

b) With the Strategic Plan, for the first time the Conference of the Parties has adopted a clear path for the implementation of the Convention. As with most international treaties, the text of the Convention is very general in relation to its objectives and the ways and means to achieve them. The Strategic Plan has now translated those general objectives into eight practical objectives, in turn expressed in 29 operational objectives and 124 concrete actions assigned to the Contracting Parties, the different bodies of the Convention -- the Standing Committee, the Conference of the Parties, the Scientific and Technical Review Panel, and the Convention Secretariat (known as the Ramsar Bureau) -- and the NGO community engaged with the Convention.

c) The Strategic Plan balanced out, by giving them equal importance, the basic functions and concerns of the Convention: i) to achieve the wise use of all wetlands in each country; ii) to raise awareness of wetland values and functions at all levels; iii) to reinforce the capacity of institutions in each country to implement the Convention; iv) to make effective use of the mechanism provided by the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance; and v) to mobilize international cooperation related to wetlands.

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

  • the adoption of working definitions and guidelines for interpreting change in the ecological character of Ramsar sites;
  • the adoption of a fourth criterion for identifying wetlands of international importance based on fish, and guidelines for its application;
  • the inclusion of 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.

In relation to this latter issue, I am eager to devote priority attention to "bringing the Convention to the sea shores", since until now we have been anchored too much on the inland wetlands. In the near future we will be approaching the countries leading in the International Coral Reef Initiative, including this country, to see how we can work together for the conservation and wise use of the wetlands in the coastal zone, so significant for biodiversity and for many societies, and yet so neglected and abused.

The Brisbane Conference also broke new ground by adopting a resolution on Ramsar and water and a recommendation on toxic chemicals in wetlands. In my view, the resolution on Ramsar and water is of 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 are explicitly or implicitly embodied 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 a 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 in 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 of international confrontations. Thus, wetlands, and the Convention that deals specifically with them, should be seen in a new light. I am personally prepared to devote priority attention to the implementation of the resolution on Ramsar and water, and to the new issues and approaches that could be derived from it.

The recommendation on toxic chemicals also constitutes in my view a ground-breaking decision, since it recognizes that wetlands are also affected by the overall development pattern being followed on the planet, and requests Contracting Parties to provide information in their reports to the next Conference in 1999 "on their efforts to remedy and to prevent pollution impacts affecting Ramsar sites and other wetlands".

Finally, also for the first time, this Conference of the Parties had as part of its programme 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, including WWF and the Caddo Lake Institute, to evaluate the benefits derived from community involvement and to prepare guidelines to facilitate that involvement, for consideration at the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties.

This country has made pioneering efforts in this area, including the recent publication of the guidebook for communities on Protecting Floodplain Resources prepared under the auspices of the Federal Interagency Floodplain Management Task Force, with funding from USAid and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the administrative support of the Wetlands Division of the Environmental Protection Agency. There are many other good examples of community involvement in wetland management in the US, and I look forward to working with the government agencies and the NGO community to derive lessons from your experience that could be useful to other countries and societies around the world.

Thirdly, the Brisbane Conference witnessed a renewed commitment from Governments and NGOs. Apart from approving a Strategic Plan that puts the onus for the implementation of the Convention mainly on the Contracting Parties themselves, a number of governments responded positively to the Australian initiative to pledge a one-time special contribution on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary. The United States pledged an additional $ 1 million contribution over the next six years, over and above its core budget voluntary contribution and the US-funded 25th Anniversary project (entitled Wetlands for the Future) for activities in the Neotropics to the tune of $ 250,000 per year. Pledges were also made by Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, France, Ghana, Hungary, Iceland, India, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The Caddo Lake Institute also pledged $ 100,000 to its Ramsar-based initiatives, and announced the establishment of the first US regional academy of wetland science education and the first US regional Ramsar centre, to be located adjacent to the Caddo Lake Ramsar site. For its part, Ducks Unlimited, on behalf of its Organisations in Australia, Canada, Europe, Mexico, New Zealand and the USA, pledged to commit at least $ 3 million in fiscal year 1996-97 for activities at 21 Ramsar sites worldwide and in support of National Ramsar Committees.

NGOs present at Brisbane signed the "Non-Governmental Organisations Brisbane Pledge of Support for the Ramsar Convention", committing themselves to work in partnership with the Ramsar Secretariat and Contracting Parties in community-based education, information and empowerment programmes, as well as to implement field-level wetland conservation, restoration and wise use projects. Wetlands International also signed a pledge of support to the Convention at a public ceremony in Brisbane, and the WWF family is already in active discussions with the Ramsar Bureau on its role in implementing the Brisbane resolutions and Strategic Plan, to which they plan to assign substantial resources.

At the Brisbane Conference, the Parties endorsed the Ramsar Secretariat's efforts to work closely with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and invited the next meeting of the Biodiversity Convention (to be held in Buenos Aires this November) to include in its agenda a report prepared by Ramsar on progress achieved and problems encountered in conserving wetland biodiversity.

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.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This country is leading the world. You are in a clear position of power, but also of extreme responsibility, because to a large degree the future of our planet depends on the wisdom of this great nation. I have read with particular interest the speech of Secretary of State Warren Christopher on "American Diplomacy and the Global Environmental Challenges of the 21st Century", delivered on April 9th at Stanford University, disclosing the four elements of a strategy at the global, regional, and bilateral levels and a partnership with the business and NGO sector. I was reassured by the clear determination of this administration to put environmental issues, in the words of the Secretary of State, " where they belong: in the mainstream of American foreign policy". I was also pleased to read the announcement that the State Department will host, by the end of 1997, a conference on strategies to improve US compliance with international environmental agreements, "to ensure that those agreements yield lasting results, not just promises".

We hope to continue counting on the US government and the US NGO community for clear support for the implementation of the Convention worldwide. We very much value that support, and regret that for the current year the US voluntary contribution has been reduced from $750,000 to $300,000. We very much hope that this will be only a temporary reduction and that the Administration will be able to find additional resources to reinstate its support to the level of previous years.

We also hope that US support at the international level will be backed by a "preaching by example" approach that would entail a renewed effort on the implementation of Ramsar at the national level in the two major domains covered by the Convention. First, through the inclusion of other US sites in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, and a decisive effort to maintain the ecological character of US sites already included in the List. In this regard, I would like to applaud the announcement of Vice President Al Gore of the Administration's intention to devote $1.5 billion to the restoration of the Everglades, one of the flagships of the Ramsar List! Second, through further development of policies and practices that will ensure the conservation and sustainable use of all wetlands in the US territory. The world is watching with interest the results of the US experience with wetland mitigation banking, as well as the initiatives to devolve to local communities a sense of ownership over the wetlands in their surroundings.

We are also looking forward to the effective functioning of a strong US Ramsar Committee involving as many as possible of the 18 or so federal agencies that I understand, in different departments and independent agencies, currently exercise responsibility for water programs and projects, in addition to the agencies that have responsibility over species conservation and protected areas, and land management issues in general, and as many NGOs as possible, not only of the NGOs specialized in wetlands issues but also the NGO networks involved with biodiversity and sustainable development issues.

Thank you again for this opportunity to address this important audience. The Ramsar Bureau is small in the number of people working there and in terms of the financial resources at our disposal. But we have something very important to contribute to the partnership with you: our unbreakable commitment to wetland conservation and wise use and our determination to make of the Ramsar Convention an effective instrument for achieving sustainable development on our planet.

Thank you very much.

This address was delivered by Mr Blasco on 25 April 1996 at the "Working Together for Wetlands" conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C.