The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, Especially as Waterfowl Habitat, came into force in 1975. The treaty is commonly referred to as Ramsar or the Ramsar Convention, named after the Iranian town in which it was first signed in 1971. It is the oldest of the multilateral international conservation conventions and the only one to deal with one ecosystem type and one taxonomic group. As of December, 2006, Ramsar had 153 Parties. Moreover, 1,630 wetland sites worldwide, covering almost 1.5 million square kilometers, were designated for inclusion onto Ramsar’s List of Wetlands of International Importance, hereafter referred to as the List. The Ramsar Secretariat and Depositary are located in Gland, Switzerland and work closely with IUCN – The World Conservation Union.
Ramsar’s Preamble calls upon its Parties to recognize the interdependence of humans and their environment, and to consider the importance of the many ecological functions of wetlands, including flood control, nutrient cycling, and habitat for migratory wildlife and commercially important fish. The Preamble also suggests that wetland losses are irreparable because of their economic as well as scientific and recreational values. Parties are instructed to develop national policies to decrease wetland losses and to recognize that migratory waterfowl are important international resources because of their seasonal movements. The overall intent of Ramsar is to enhance national policies and international coordination for the conservation of both wetlands and waterfowl.
The Articles of Ramsar
The Convention is comprised of 12 articles, and several important amendments have been passed since it came into force. Article 1 defines wetlands and waterfowlThe scope of the term “wetlands” in Ramsar is relatively expansive and includes fresh, brackish, and marine wetlands (bogs, fens, marshes, swamps, etc). This clause allows for the inclusion of many near-shore areas (including some reef systems) that are permanently underwater and thus not wetlands as classically understood, but what can be very important for the conservation of waterfowl. The definition of “waterfowl” under Ramsar is also fairly broad, encompassing birds that are dependent on wetlands (as defined above) for at least part of their lifecycle. RAMSAR's waterfoul definition can encompass traditional wetland birds such as geese, swans, ducks, and their allies are included, and may also include shorebirds, herons, egrets, rails, grebes, cormorants, coots other aquatic and partly aquatic species, raptors and passerine species such as Marsh Harriers and reed warblers. This expanded definition is meant to facilitate effective conservation for the myriad avian species that may use similar flyways and stopover and staging areas during migrations regardless of taxonomic identity.
Article 2 instructs Parties to include at least one site within their jurisdiction on the List of Wetlands of International Importance, which is maintained by IUCN – The World Conservation Union. This designation is based very broadly on ecological, zoological, botanical, limnological and/or hydrological criteria as outlined in the article, but, in practice, Ramsar Parties have a good deal of leeway in proposing sites for the List. Article 3 requires Parties to promote the conservation of listed sites through national policies and to inform the Secretariat of changes in the ecological status of listed sites. Most Ramsar sites are in fact designated as some category of protected area under national law, but there are exceptions. Article 4 expands on the concept of national obligations to protect wetlands by encouraging Parties to establish nature reserves at and around important wetland sites within their respective jurisdictions, even if those sites are not listed as Internationally Important. It also asks Parties to compensate and mitigate for adverse impacts to listed sites, to share data and research with other parties, to provide training for waterfowl research, and to manage habitats to increase waterfowl populations. Article 5 instructs the Parties to consult with each other about implementation of the Convention, particularly for transboundary wetlands--an area in which Ramsar has been particularly progressive. Article 6 establishes a Conference of the Parties to convene periodically for the purposes of discussing Ramsar implementation and changes to listed areas. Conferences of the Parties have generally occurred biennially in the 30+ years since Ramsar came into force.
Bureaucratic and institutional aspects of Ramsar are considered in the remaining 5 articles. Article 7 requires that national representatives to the Conference of the Parties be wetland experts while Article 8 designates the World Conservation Union/IUCN to house the Secretariat for the purposes of maintaining the List of Internationally Important sites and convening conferences. Article 9 stipulates that the Convention remains open for signature indefinitely. Any member agency of the United Nations can become a Party to Ramsar, as can any country. As stipulated in Article 10, the Convention came into force 4 months after the accession of the seventh Party. Amendment procedures are described in Article 10 bis. Under Article 11, Parties have the right to denounce the Convention 5 years after ratification, and the Depositary is required (in Article 12) to announce new Parties, deposit all ratification or accession documents, dates of entry and any notification of denunciation, and to register the Convention with the Secretariat of the United Nations.
Only about 60 countries became a Party to Ramsar in its first 20 years of existence, but almost twice that many have done so in the last 15 years. This is in part testament to the importance of the Convention and in part due to the proliferation of countries in the post-communist era, but it also in part due to some changes to Ramsar policies. As with the worldwide movement to create parks and equivalent reserves since the 1970s, the movement to protect wetlands for their own sake did not become feasible in many developing countries until there was a concerted and deliberate effort to make conservation programs work in coordination with, and not in opposition to, local-level development. Many individuals worldwide are dependent to some degree on subsistence harvesting of important natural products, and wetlands are among the most productive natural ecosystems. With the inclusion of more Parties, Ramsar implementation policies expanded to include concepts such as “wise use” for both conservation and local development, and the sustainable harvest of important wetland products such as reeds, thatch grasses, small-scale fisheries, etc.
Many of the policy directives issued by the Conference of Parties since 1990 have been in the spirit of community-based conservation, collaborative management, and sustainable harvest. Many developing countries have since promulgated their own national wetland policies and have thus affected Ramsar in some ways that were not originally intended by the (primarily) western and medium-developed nations that first signed the Convention. Although the concept of wise use for sustainable development was incorporated early into Ramsar, it was not until the expansion of many community-based forms of conservation (largely since the 1990s) in many nations, that these concepts began to become operational within Ramsar. Nepal, for example (a Party since 1987) drafted its own community-based wetlands conservation principles in 2000, and its national Wetlands Policy in 2003, which has still not been fully passed by the Government.
The Convention was broadly drafted to be as inclusive as possible. This has included both the definitions of wetlands and waterfowl as discussed above, and in the designation of sites within countries. For example, Canada and the United States, with vast areas and large wetland resources, have relatively few, but big, sites on the List (e.g. Everglades National Park), while Greece and Italy have many sites listed, some of which are very small. The population densities and historical land uses of course are very different in the former than in the latter, but this likely also may be attributed to cultural perceptions as well as [ecological reality about what constitutes international importance. The few large North American sites are, under any definition, classified as wetlands of international importance for migratory birds, but the many small sites along the Mediterranean could also be considered as such because they are stopover areas along the European-African flyway. Similar sites also exist in North America, but they are not listed, perhaps due to the presence of other, much larger sites, which are lacking in much of Europe.
Since many wetland areas are shallow and prone to seasonal drying, wetlands can serve as natural barometers of global warming. The Parties to Ramsar from almost the outset of the Convention have actively encouraged global change research at listed sites, contributing to efforts to both assess climatic trends and impacts. As such, the Convention was quite progressive at the time it was created in 1971.
In spite of all the interest in wetlands and associated fauna and flora, and in spite of current knowledge of the ecological and economic importance of wetland resources, implementation of the Ramsar’s mandates at the national level often still remains disappointing, both in terms of inadequate national legislation in many cases and the failure to protect wetlands on the ground. Given myriad hydro-periods, surface versus groundwater connections, and the vast array of landscapes under which wetlands can form, challenges to wetland preservation exist even with a successful and widely accepted Convention such as Ramsar.