Wetlands are some of the world’s most economically valuable ecosystems and essential regulators of the global climate, which are disappearing three times faster than forests, according to the United Nations.

The international community established the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention) in 1971 to protect wetlands through improved management. The Ramsar Convention is the first multilateral environmental treaty and the only one that specifically protects wetlands.

The Convention has resulted in the designation of Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites), but these sites and other wetlands continue to face a variety of natural and human-caused threats, including development pressure.

As a result, wetlands have continued to decline worldwide—from 1990 to 2015, approximately 64% of the world’s wetlands disappeared.

Wetlands are critical to human and planet life. Directly or indirectly, they provide almost all of the world’s consumption of freshwater. More than one billion people depend on them for a living and they are among the most biodiverse ecosystems. Up to 40% of the world’s species live and breed in wetlands, although now more than 25% of all wetlands plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

– United Nations

A Rhode Island Sea Grant Law Fellow via the Rhode Island Sea Grant Legal Program produced a study to provide an overview of the three mechanisms to address wetland degradation provided by and developed under the Convention.

The Convention creates no enforcement mechanisms and few explicit obligations on member nations. However, a few mechanisms do exist under the Convention to avoid degradation, including compensation for loss of wetlands, listing of threatened wetlands on the Montreux Record, and scientific and technical support through Ramsar Advisory Missions,” says Read Porter, former senior staff attorney. “These mechanisms largely support conservation through diplomacy, but may provide development-focused governments with incentives to avoid, minimize, and mitigate losses of wetlands.”

As the Ramsar Convention provides limited mechanisms for legal intervention, community members and organizations seeking to support conservation or restoration of a Ramsar Site may best use the Convention’s mechanisms as tools to bring expertise and resources to a threatened site.

Several avenues remain, especially for developing nations seeking to access financial resources for conservation and scientific and technical expertise to identify management practices to avoid degradation without undermining other government priorities. Communities may be able to communicate these benefits effectively to even a skeptical government, resulting in a resolution to ecological threats that would not otherwise be possible, according to the study.

This guide is a product of the Marine Affairs Institute at Roger Williams University School of Law and the Rhode Island Sea Grant Legal Program and was produced in partnership with Maine Sea Grant. Gabrielle Benjamin, Rhode Island Sea Grant Law Fellow, authored this fact sheet under the guidance of Read Porter, Senior Staff Attorney. All errors and omissions are the responsibility of the Marine Affairs Institute. This study is provided only for informational and educational purposes and is not legal advice.

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