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Ramsar at 50: A Conversation with Martha Rojas Urrego

“We have lost 87% of wetlands, and thus, we are losing them three times faster than forest. So wetlands are extremely valuable yet the most endangered ecosystem, that is why the Convention is so relevant.” Martha Rojas Urrego

The Center for Governance and Sustainability hosted Martha Rojas Urrego, the Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, on October 18, 2021 as part of the UNEP@50 Dialogue Series. She also served as the Executive Director of National Parks of Colombia; worked for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and later became the Head of Global Advocacy of CARE International, where Rojas Urrego worked with local communities on fighting poverty, providing development, and humanitarian aid.

Hosted by Center Director, Professor Maria Ivanova, the dialogue revolved around The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the oldest intergovernmental environmental agreement, which this year is celebrating its 50-year anniversary, as well its connection with nation-states, civil society, and the anchor institution for the global environment, UNEP. In celebrating Ramsar@50, the discussions centered around the value and importance of wetland and the role of the Convention in protecting wetlands as well as other ecosystems. Rojas Urrego and Ivanova discussed the mechanisms to implement the Convention within states as well Rojas Urrego’s vision for both Ramsar@100 and UNEP@100. The audience engaged actively in the conversation throughout the hour by sharing comments and questions in real time. Rojas Urrego shared the history of the “pioneer people” who put efforts into establishing this intergovernmental environmental treaty, and created the concepts of “networks of protected areas," (conservation) and “wise use” (sustainability). She pointed out that these ideas had a considerable influence on future environmental agreements and national law. She explained that wetlands play a critical role in water availability, climate change mitigation, and food production while also being the most endangered ecosystem today.

“Wetlands are the most effective carbon store. Peatlands cover 3% of the land area, and they have twice as much carbon as all the forest in the world. So these are hot spots of mitigation….”

While Ramsar is not administered by the UN, the accountability mechanisms and its effectiveness in influencing national and international law makes it unique. Rojas Urrego stated, "It's an instrument that is reflected at the national level and can also have consequences at an international level."

The dynamic discussion also included live Q&A with the audience asking about the nuance of Ramsar site wetlands, the nomination process for Ramsar sites, and making international agreements enforceable. Martha Rojas Urrego also addressed a question about the role of non-state actors in protecting wetlands where she emphasized the importance of holding governments accountable, as well as the construction of more effective regimes. The Secretary General stressed that the protection, conservation and “wise use” of wetlands can be significant to a country, but there are also wetlands that have an international significance, and this makes the management of these wetlands extremely critical. What makes it even more significant, as Rojas Urrego emphasized, is the fact that wetlands can absorb carbon from the atmosphere, and thus, directly contribute to the concept of “net-zero,” that is when we can continue emitting but we have natural ecosystems that absorb our emissions for us. Additionally, wetlands play a key role in food systems, and in general in the production/consumption chain, and thus, wetlands perform an important function in ensuring human survival Prof. Ivanova and Rojas Urrego emphasized the need for science-policy communication with high-level decision makers. Rojas Urrego further explained that there are many interconnections between different conventions, such as between climate, biodiversity, and wetlands.

“The key is to connect with other agenda. I think that we, environmental movements, and the convention is part of that, have been for many years so centered in our community, when what we need is to engage with other communities.”

At the end, Professor Maria Ivanova asked Marta Rojas Urrego about her vision of Ramsar@100 and UNEP@100. Her response on the future and the leadership of these institutions was very rich and full of hope. She believes that the implementation of the convention will be strengthened and become a tool for conserving wetlands. Moreover, Rojas’ future includes connecting different agendas, more collaboration with other communities, such as those in the biodiversity framework, more support for the parties, as well as more specific objectives and achievements.

In closing, Rojas Urrego stated,

“Look at the future, but learn from the past. See what works and scale that up so that we can get a better world and more sustainable and an equitable future.”

Please join us on December 2, 2021, for Maria Ivanova’s next conversation about the Elephant Protection Initiative with John Scanlon, the former Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), as well the former Principal Advisor on Policy and Programme at UNEP. 

Watch the Dialogue with the Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Martha Rojas Urrego Register for the next conversation with John Scanlon.  

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