Why conservation of wetlands is vitally important

Wetlands are an integral part of environment. (File)

As a signatory to the Convention on wetlands, popularly known as ‘the Ramsar Convention’, Rwanda conserves swamps, also referred to as wetlands, which are among the most productive environments in the world.

They are considered as biodiversity cradles of the earth. By providing water and primary breeding ability, they play an important role in the survival of unlimited species of plants and animals dependent on them.

For effective management of swamps, most of which, in Rwanda, belong to the State. The government has established a list of protected and conserved swamp lands.

However, there’re also swamp lands which aren’t protected in which certain activities are permitted, given that they have no adverse effects on the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources, such as agriculture, fishing, recreation, tourism development, quarrying, research, and energy generation. The list of permissible activities provides illustrative examples but exhaustive.   

The land law of 2013 doesn’t permit to definitively allocate swamp lands to an individual, and no person can use the ground of holding it for a longer duration than that provided for by law.  So, a definitive takeover of the swamp lands is, however, not permitted.   

The central point for conservation of swamp lands stems from the Ramsar Convention. The Convention’s principal purpose is to conserve and use wisely all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.

Swamp lands are ecologically important and regulate aquatic diets and biodiversity resources at all levels, including species, production, inheritance and ecosystems. Unfortunately, despite the valuable benefits of wetlands as the most productive environments in the world, the crisis caused by natural and human factors threatens their existence.

Thus, at State level, efforts to counteract the serious damage to swamp lands and focus on the survival and conservation of habitats were the basis for the development of the Ramsar Convention.

With the progress of modern agriculture, science and technology, humans learnt to change their environment, which has in turn caused enormous environmental hazards. International and national environmental laws are vitally important drivers to cope with these threats, as well as regulating the international law enforcement bodies in the use of natural resources and the environment.

The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Environment of 1972 (Stockholm) recognized ‘the Right to the Environment’, which means that the right to a healthy environment, such as freedom and equality, is a fundamental right of humans.

Proper planning and management to protect natural resources including air, water and soil, flowers and plants, especially specific ecosystems, such as wetlands for the use of current and future generations, are the common responsibilities of individuals and government.

In fact the need to protect the environment is a common issue in domestic and international law. The Stockholm Declaration is one of the earliest texts expressly emphasizing environment protection.

The Declaration maintains that “In accordance with the United Nations Charter and the principles of international law, Governments have exclusive jurisdiction over their natural resources, including soils, inland waters such as lakes, waterways and wetlands, and the territorial sea and territorial boundaries of the territory, and are obliged to adopt arrangements to ensure that activities in their area of competence and supervision do not harm the environment of countries or areas beyond their national jurisdiction”.

Conservation of swamp lands and other features that matter to environment are equally embodied in the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and in the Rio Declaration (1992). Moreover, States are committed to working together to protect the environment.

Also, in accordance with Principle 24 of the Stockholm Declaration, all governments, small and large, should cooperate for international environmental protection and improvement of the environment, through the development of bilateral or multilateral agreements and, if necessary, for the prevention and reduction of environmental degradation caused by human activities.

The Ramsar Convention is based on the principle of states cooperation, with an emphasis on one of the principles of international environmental law, namely the principle of environmental protection.

It is, also, one of the first effective coordinating measures in protecting wetlands that was formed as a consequence of human acquaintance with the unique features of wetlands and global participation in the protection of wetlands. The Convention has enabled the international community as well as in national systems to provide the ground for further study and conservation of wetlands on the international level.

Reluctance to implement the Ramsar Convention, the protection and rational use of wetlands—accelerating sustainable development may be quite intractable, especially in the perspective of biodiversity conservation.

However, in pursuit of sustainable development, any State in the world that wishes to become a member of the Ramsar Convention is welcomed and is required to introduce at least one of its wetlands.

Given that wetlands are an integral part of environment, State parties have an obligation to protect and make reasonable use of all wetlands for its citizens’ benefits. In fact, Sustainable Development Goal 15 aims to conserve, among others, wetlands. Interestingly, today, the number of Parties to the Convention has exceeded 165 countries.

The writer is a law expert.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.


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