Wetlands – People – WWT – WWN – Ramsar
Interview with Chris Rostron, Chair of the World Wetland Network
Peter Lengyel, Q1: Dear colleague and friend, Chris Rostron! What is your opinion on wetland conservation in the United Kingdom, and the public support for bird conservation, specifically waterfowl?
Chris Rostron: The UK has a long history of nature conservation, and it is part of the British character to enjoy nature and the countryside. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of people live in towns and cities, wildlife programmes on the television are still hugely popular, and people will still encourage wildlife in their local parks and gardens, and visit local wetland reserves.
Although we have lost 95% of our wetlands to agriculture and development, the UK has the largest number of Ramsar sites of any country, indicating the value we put on our wetlands. As part of the European Union, we are also bound by the environmental laws and designations that form the Birds and Habitats Directives, adding to the protection of our remaining wetland sites. The historical loss of wetlands means that for many bird species, particularly wetland birds, the lack of habitat is one of the main limiting factors to their survival. However, many wetlands are currently being restored or recreated to provide a resource for birds at strategic sites.
In general, the public strongly supports the conservation of birds in their local areas. They put up bird feeders, go bird-spotting at nature reserves and join bird conservation charities such as the RSPB and WWT. We also have a much lower number of people involved in hunting, compared to other European countries, which makes life a lot easier for waterfowl. Overall, the combination of legal protection and public support mean that birds, including waterfowl, are respected and protected.
Q.2 Who are the major wetland conservationists from UK and what they have achieved?
This is a tricky question as most wildlife and habitat conservation has been done under a general banner, not specifically for one type of habitat. For example, John Muir was born in Scotland, and went on to set up a new approach to wilderness conservation in the States. His work led to the designation of huge parks such as the Yosemite and founding the Sierra Club. This approach was emulated throughout the world, and helped people to understand that nature is not just there to be mastered and exploited, but needs to be conserved on a large scale.
Much of the current wetland conservation work in the UK started out through an interest in birds, for example through Sir Peter Scott’s early work in setting up the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Scott’s change of approach from hunter to educator led to wetland education centres, one of the first television series based on wetlands and birds, and his important role in helping to set up the Ramsar Convention, WWF, Wetlands International amongst others. It could be said that his influence sparked the global movement of wetland conservation, although of course he is one of many that allowed it to flourish.
In terms of communicating the messages of wetland and wider conservation, Sir David Attenborough has had a huge influence in inspiring and informing the general public through his programmes. In an age of mass entertainment, his programmes have moved from purely wildlife interest, to including man’s influence and wider subjects such as climate change.
Q3: How can you describe today the work of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust?
WWT has been running since 1946, and carries out wetland conservation work both in the UK and across the world. Our focus in the UK is through our 9 wetland visitor centres, managing the sites and carrying out wetland education and awareness-raising work. We welcome around a million visitors to our centres every year. In addition we run projects off-site to advise farmers and landowners, survey and monitor wetland birds and wetlands and work with schools and local communities.
Internationally, we run both biodiversity and community engagement projects. For example, recent projects working with partners in Madagascar and Myanmar involve a mix of community development work, captive breeding and survey work to support bird species in danger of extinction. We recognise that we must work with local partners and stakeholders if we are to support the protection of biodiversity. WWT is heavily involved in long-term monitoring of a number of wetland birds species, working with other international partners and conventions. WWT also runs community-based projects, for example in Laos and Cambodia, working with local people to find sustainable ways of managing wetlands for the both livelihoods and people.
Finally, WWT hosts both the Wetland Link International and the World Wetland Network initiatives. WLI is a support network for those working in wetland centres delivering education and engagement. The network offers advice and support, tools and resources for use at wetland centres, and regular news and updates. The World Wetland Network is aimed at smaller NGOs that deliver wetland conservation at local level, working to raise the recognition of their work, particularly through the Ramsar process, as well as supporting them to protect wetlands sites through international lobbying and campaigning.
Q4. Which have been the best moments you’ve experienced that have justified a lifetime invested in wetland conservation? Any other interesting issues you would like to mention?
I have experienced many truly astounding views of nature, diving in Australia’s barrier reef, tracking tigers in India and seeing glaciers in Patagonia. But some of the best experiences are closer to home; witnessing the change of the seasons, an unexpected view of a barn owl hunting, or coming across a snake basking in the sun. We need to learn to appreciate the wetland wildlife that lives in our own towns and cities, and to start to value it and protect it, rather than seeing nature-protection as something that should happen in the Amazon or on the great plains of Africa. Until we start to live in balance with wetlands at home, we can’t expect a sustainable future for wildlife or for ourselves.
Whenever I visit our London Wetland Centre I am reminded of the great opportunities that WWT provides for people to learn about wetlands, that they would otherwise not have. It’s particularly rewarding to see school children from densely urban areas doing some pond-dipping and looking in wonder at the small creatures that they have caught; it’s an activity that I used to do a lot as a child growing up in the countryside, but most Londoners never get the opportunity. This experience of nature at an early age is so important in giving people an understanding and a love of wildlife, and our wetland centres play a key role in nurturing this.
Like most things in life these days, wetland conservation is not something that can be worked on at just a local scale. In some respects, issues around migratory birds mean that you have to tackle conservation issues at an international level – migratory birds will only thrive if the chain of wetlands exists to support them. More broadly, increasing globalisation means that we must start to think about how we can work together to tackle some of the world-scale issues that are impacting on wetlands, such as climate change, economic development, and agricultural impacts.
Wetland NGOs depend on local support and the enthusiasm and energy of people working in paid and voluntary capacities. Often they have limited resources, and they are focused on local delivery. It’s therefore even more important that an international network exists to provide them with support and communication networks, and to support the delivery of their messages about the importance of wetlands at international conventions, to national governments and to share their common experiences between each other. Our message will be much stronger if we work together, rather than individually.
WWN Meeting, Spain
Long term, WWN aims to offer a forum that can support NGOs working on wetland conservation at local, national or international level, when no one else is there to help them. Whenever governments or big businesses are damaging wetlands or putting wildlife at risk, WWN can act as a champion for the NGO sector, raising awareness of the threats, and stepping in to offer its support. Ultimately, we would like to see much more active and funded regional and sub-regional posts that can really push work forward and provide more support to NGOs in their regions.
World NGO Conference at the Ramsar COP -Republic of Korea 2008
Q.6 Can you see a way of improving the capacity of wetland NGOs to influence the decisions made in the Ramsar C0Ps?
Decision-making in the COP comes down to how the Contracting Parties vote, based on recommendations from the secretariat and various working groups. Contracting Parties are made up of the governments that have signed up to the Ramsar convention, not the NGO representatives, and so civil society has very little direct influence on the voting.
There are already 5 major International Organisation Partners (IOPs) that include WWF, Wetlands International, Birdlife and IUCN. These international NGOs work closely with Ramsar to influence resolutions and decision-making from the point of view of these conservation NGOs. They have an official capacity within the Ramsar process, and tend to address globally relevant issues.
Smaller NGOs often have a more localised view point, and should be recognised as the delivery agents for a huge amount of wetland protection at local level. They are also more independent from the Ramsar process, able to work in different ways, and not afraid to challenge either the Ramsar Secretariat or individual Contracting Parties.
In order to influence the Ramsar COP, we must firstly be better organised, to decide which issues we think are most important, and need our input. Gaining agreement between the members of WWN and other small NGOs is important to show that we have their support. Secondly we have to approach Contracting Party and IOP representatives to persuade them to put forward our point of view. Finally, we should find alternative ways of impacting on the proceedings such as demonstrations, campaigns or other events outside the main proceedings that will bring attention to the issues we feel are important.
Thanks for your answers!
© dr. Peter Lengyel