Ramsar Sites (Wetlands of International Importance)
Global list of internationally recognised wetlands
Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance, recognised globally due to the Ramsar Convention, which is an international treaty for the conservation and wise use of wetlands. Upon joining, each Contracting Party is obliged to designate at least one wetland site for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance (often called “Ramsar Sites”). The main objective of this key obligation is “ to develop and maintain an international network of wetlands which are important for the conservation of global biological diversity and for sustaining human life through the maintenance of their ecosystem components, processes and benefits/services ”.1 There are currently 160 Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention. The Convention uses a broad definition of wetlands that includes lakes and rivers, swamps and marshes, wet grasslands and peatlands, oases, estuaries, deltas and tidal flats, near-shore marine areas, mangroves and coral reefs, and human-made sites such as fish ponds, rice paddies, reservoirs, and salt pans.
The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention)
Year of creation
Global network of over 1800 wetland sites within 160 countries.2
Sites are selected by the Contracting Parties for designation under the Convention by reference to the Criteria for the Identification of Wetlands of International Importance. Sites must meet one or more of the following nine criteria:3
- Contains a representative, rare or unique example of a natural or near-natural wetland type found within the appropriate biogeographic region.
- Supports vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered species or threatened ecological communities.
- Supports populations of plant and/or animal species important for maintaining the biological diversity of a particular biogeographic region.
- Supports plant and/or animal species at a critical stage in their life cycles, or provides refuge during adverse conditions.
- Regularly supports 20,000 or more waterbirds.
- Regularly supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of water birds.
- Supports a significant proportion of indigenous fish subspecies, species or families, life-history stages, species interactions and/or populations that are representative of wetland benefits and/or values and thereby contributes to global biological diversity.
- Is an important source of food for fishes, spawning ground, nursery and/or migration path on which fish stocks, either within the wetland or elsewhere, depend.
- Regularly supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of wetland-dependent non-avian animal species.
Responsibility for the management of Ramsar Sites is at the national level, by the officially appointed Administrative Authority of the Contracting Party. In some cases, Ramsar sites are transboundary in which case more than one Contracting Party is responsible for their conservation and management. Management focuses on the ‘wise use’4 concept adopted by the Convention, and a range of non-binding implementation guidelines have been adopted by Conferences of the Contracting Parties (COPs) to support delivering the wise use of Ramsar Sites and other wetlands.
The Convention outlines several compliance requirements for the Contracting Parties.4 In cases where changes in ecological character of a Ramsar Site have occurred, are occurring, or are likely to occur as a result of technological developments, pollution or other human interference, the Contracting Party is required to report this, without delay, to the Ramsar Secretariat (article 3.2), which is required to report all such notifications to the next Conference of Contracting Parties, which may make recommendations to each Contracting Party concerned (article 8). The Contracting Party can choose to place such Wetlands of International Importance on the so-called “Montreux Record”. Sites on the Montreux Record face concerted action by the Ramsar Secretariat, the Scientific and Technical Review Panel and the Contracting Party concerned to resolve the ecological character changes or likely changes, including through international expert Ramsar Advisory Missions. The boundaries of a designated Ramsar Site may only be restricted or deleted if the Contracting Party determines that it is in its “urgent national interest” (article 2.5), in which case the Party must make adequate compensatory provisions (article 4.2).
A number of guidelines have been prepared to support management of Ramsar sites.5 They include:
- A Conceptual Framework for the wise use of wetlands and the maintenance of their ecological character;
- Strategic Framework and guidelines for the future development of the List of Wetlands of International Importance;
- New Guidelines for management planning for Ramsar sites and other wetlands;
- Guidelines for establishing and strengthening local communities’ and indigenous people’s participation in the management of wetlands;
- Principles and guidelines for wetland restoration;
- Wetland Risk Assessment Framework;
- Guidelines for the management of groundwater to maintain wetland ecological character;
- Principles and guidelines for incorporating wetland issues into Integrated Coastal Zone Management;
- Guidelines for reviewing laws and institutions to promote the conservation and wise use of wetlands;
- An Integrated Framework for the Ramsar Convention’s water-related guidance;
- Guidelines for integrating wetland conservation and wise use into river basin management;
- River basin management: additional guidance and a framework for the analysis of case studies;
- Guidelines for the allocation and management of water for maintaining the ecological functions of wetlands.
Legal and compliance: Protection under national law is not a precondition for designating a site as a Wetland of International Importance, but legal recognition and protection is likely to be present for many Ramsar sites. There are several guidelines, which necessitate ensuring protection of Ramsar sites by the Contracting Parties. The Convention requires Contracting Parties to ‘formulate and implement their planning so as to promote the conservation of the wetlands included in the List, and as far as possible the wise use of wetlands in their territory’ (article 3.1).
As internationally recognised sites, Ramsar sites enjoy a high degree of local, national and international attention. Based on their level of visibility and importance for conservation, they are referred to in a number of safeguard standards of financial institutions, including the International Finance Corporation6, the European Investment Bank7, the Asian Development Bank8, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development9, and the Inter-American Development Bank10, whereby operations within Ramsar sites are unlikely to be funded. These standards refer to those that have been designated as well as areas officially proposed for protection. Ramsar sites are also referred to in the standards of certification schemes in a range of business sectors such as the Global Tourism Sustainability Criteria (GSTC)11 and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB)12, as well as standards such as the Climate and Community and Biodiversity Alliance standards13. For example, under RSB standards Ramsar sites are considered no-go areas, and under the GSTC these are areas that the business is required to contribute support towards.
Biodiversity: Wetlands are recognised as internationally important sites for biodiversity conservation. The criteria used for their inclusion on the list include aspects of high irreplaceability and vulnerability of species and habitats, and therefore many of these areas are likely to be of high global biodiversity value. As site-scale areas, these sites are of high relevance for business in terms of mitigating and avoiding risk from biodiversity loss and identifying opportunity associated with biodiversity conservation.
Socio-cultural: Although these sites are identified on ecological criteria, they are managed under the concept of ‘wise-use’, and therefore sustainable human activities and the involvement of local communities in management are to be expected in these areas. The Ramsar Convention has adopted ‘Guidelines for establishing and strengthening local communities’ and indigenous people’s participation in the management of wetlands’ as annex to Resolution VII.8. The Guidelines address the need for involvement of local communities and indigenous peoples in a management partnership.
- The Ramsar Sites Information Service delivered by Wetlands International provides access to information on Ramsar sites, including downloadable GIS data of the sites.
- Protected Planet is a tool for visualizing, mapping and contributing to information on protected areas. This includes information on Ramsar sites. Protected Planet brings together spatial data, descriptive information and images from the World Database on Protected Areas, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), WikipediaTM, PanaramioTM, FlickrTM, and Google MapsTM.
- The Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT) for business provides a visualisation and GIS download tool for protected areas, including Ramsar sites.
- Resolution IX.1 Annex B (2005) Revised Strategic Framework and guidelines for the future development of the List of Wetlands of International Importance.__
- An annotated list of Ramsar sites and up to date figures can be accessed on the official site for the Ramsar Convention
- The Criteria for Identifying Wetlands of International Importance. Adopted by the 7th (1999) and 9th (2005) Meetings of the Conference of the Contracting Parties.__
- Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat. Ramsar (Iran), 2 February 1971. UN Treaty Series No. 14583. As amended by the Paris Protocol, 3 December 1982, and Regina Amendments, 28 May 1987.__
- Guidance documents officially adopted by the meetings of the Conference of the Contracting Parties.__
- IFC (2006) Performance Standard 6: Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Natural Resource Management. International Finance Corporation, Washington, DC.
- EIB (2009) Statement of Environmental and Social Principles and Standards. European Investment Bank, Luxembourg.
- ADB (2009) Safeguard Policy Statement. Asian Development Bank, Manila.
- EBRD (2008) Environmental and Social Policy. European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, London.
- IDB (2006) Environment and Safeguards Compliance Policy. Inter-American Development Bank , Washington, DC.
- GSTC (2008) The Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria. Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria.
- RSB. (2009) Annex to the Guidelines for Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, Stakeholder Mapping and Community Consultation Specific to the Biofuels Sector- Ecosystem and Conservation Specialist. Version 1.0. Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, Lausanne.
- CCBA. (2008) Climate, Community & Biodiversity Project Design Standards Second Edition. The Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance, Arlington, VA.
- The Ramsar ‘Toolkit’ of Wise Use Handbooks.__
- The role of the private sector in achieving the goals of the Convention are recognised in Resolution X.12 that provides principles for partnerships between the Ramsar Convention and the business sector
- Resolution X.26 (2008) refers specifically to wetlands and extractive industries due to the particular vulnerability of wetlands to the impacts of extractive industries
- Strategy 1.10 of the Ramsar Strategic Plan 2009-2015 promotes the involvement of the private sector in the conservation and wise use of wetlands
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