Biocultural diversity in wetlands – new activities under the Ramsar Convention

The Ramsar Convention has been wrestling with the ideas of cultural effects on wetland formation, management and conservation since its inception in 1971. 

Moulting Lagoon, a reserve forming a Ramsar site in Tasmania, Australia.

Indeed, the Convention text has explicit reference to culture as in the preambular paragraph – “BEING CONVINCED that wetlands constitute a resource of great economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value, the loss of which would be irreparable” (my emphasis). Despite this affirmation, very little was heard of culture in the wetland context for over the next 30 years, as the main work of the Convention centered around the science and management aspects of the worlds wetlands.

But in the 2002 Conference of the Parties, however, adopted a resolution (VIII.19) “Guiding principles for taking into account the cultural values of wetlands for the effective management of sites.” Although many governments were initially reluctant to see culture as relevant to their concerns with wetland conservation and management, gradually cultural components of wetland management and conservation have become more visible in Convention matters. After the Ramsar CoP12 in Uruguay this year a Ramsar Culture Network (RCN) was established, which will deal with the subject in the round, including the whole of the human cultural endeavor. The RCN will work through a series of thematic groups and the first, which may be of special interest to CEESP members, will be devoted to biocultural diversity in wetlands.

Bio-cultural diversity refers to the continuing co-evolution and adaptation between natural environments and peoples’ ways of life. This co-evolution has generated local ecological knowledge and practices that allow societies across the world to manage their resources sustainably, generation after generation, while also maintaining cultural identities and social structures. Throughout history, the outcomes of such interactions has been critical for creating resilient land- and seascapes, resilient communities, diversifying biological and cultural resources and shaping language and other forms of cultural identity. The scientific and policy dimensions of biocultural diversity are of utmost importance in helping countries focus on ways and means to achieve conservation of biodiversity and cultural heritage. And because wetlands have played central roles in cradling and supporting centres of human of development, biocultural diversity is especially pronounced in wetland ecosystems.

The Bio-Cultural Diversity Thematic Group will be particularly concerned with the knowledge and practices, both traditional and emerging, of local and indigenous communities with strong connections to wetlands, including through spiritual values linked to water and wetlands. We aim to build expertise across all continents, wherever culture and wetlands interact.

The Thematic Group’s main foci will be:

  • Collating bio-cultural diversity information (including case studies) relating especially to Ramsar Sites but also to other wetlands.
  • Developing ‘lessons learned’ concerning the value of bio-cultural diversity in assisting management of wetlands, including suggestions on how these could be integrated into the Convention’s policy and practice.

This work under the Ramsar Convention will build on, and link with, The Joint Programme between UNESCO and the CBD Secretariat (SCBD) on Biological and Cultural Diversity (JP-BiCuD) which was launched in 2010 with the objective to understand and enhance synergies between provisions of the CBD and programmes dealing with biological and cultural diversity.

This work has obvious links to other international conservation instruments, including The World Heritage Convention, and to UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves. CEESP members who are interested in being part of, or hearing more about, this thematic group are invited to contact Mariam Ali ([email protected]) at the Ramsar Convention Secretariat or me, as the co-ordinator, directly [email protected]
The photograph accompanying this piece is of Moulting Lagoon, a reserve forming a Ramsar site in Tasmania, Australia. The site is a coastal salt marsh important for about one hundred resident and migratory bird species; especially Australian Shelduck (Tadorna tadornoides) and Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) resting and breeding. The area has been used for fishing and the hunting of waterfowl since European colonisation, and for the harvest of waterfowl and their eggs by Aboriginal groups living around the lagoon for no less than 20,000 years prior to this. On declaration of the reserve continued Aboriginal collection and use of wild eggs was prohibited, but in recent years discussions between Aboriginal representatives and Wildlife officials have relaxed the total prohibition, using population numbers and Aboriginal knowledge as indicators of the viability of egg gathering. Moulting Lagoon and the surrounding area have cultural significance for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

Peter Bridgewater, Centre for Museums and Heritage, The Australian National University, Canberra.
[email protected]

Work area: 
Social Policy
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