By Gonzalo Oviedo, Manager, Mediterranean Basin Programme (consultant)
Communities and wetland conservation – an important story to tell

In 2017 the Ramsar Convention Secretariat asked me to write a report on indigenous peoples and local communities in wetlands management, in preparation for the 13th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention (COP13, held in Dubai in October 2018). This report was one of the final activities of the MAVA-supported project “Conservation of the Natural and Cultural Heritage in Wetlands”.

Working on the report (co-authored with former Ramsar Secretariat staff member Mariam Ali-Kenza) was a refreshing experience as I reviewed first-hand information from communities and partners about their relentless efforts to conserve wetlands. Sometimes wetland conservation practitioners are not fully aware of what those ecosystems mean for communities and how much local people care about them. Wetlands are the source of life for communities in many dimensions, and also the source of cultural traditions, values, assets and practices. Indigenous peoples and local communities in all continents have extraordinary stories to tell about their struggles to conserve their precious wetlands, and the many challenges they face – essentially the same challenges and threats that conservation practitioners confront in their work in defence of wetlands.

Cultural Values in the MAVA Foundation’s work

The MAVA Foundation has a history of supporting the recognition and integration of cultural values in wetlands management, and more broadly in ecosystem conservation. In the case of wetlands under the Ramsar Convention, the Foundation has consistently supported the work of recognized champions of the integration of cultural values in wetlands, such as Thymio Papayanis – a dear friend who has ably and persistently advanced this agenda for many years. The support from the MAVA Foundation to the Ramsar Secretariat through the project “Conservation of the Natural and Cultural Heritage in Wetlands” is not accidental – it is part of the Foundation’s belief about cultural values as a fundamental part of sustainability and stewardship of the lands, waters and resources.

The Director of the Mediterranean Programme of the MAVA Foundation, Paule Gros, attended COP13 and participated in discussions on the cultural values of wetlands; she is herself a convinced promoter and leader of this topic, and thus the Foundation couldn’t have been better represented in those discussions.

COP13 was the opportunity for the MAVA Foundation to highlight aspects of its work that are not necessarily well known on the links between culture and biodiversity. For example, today the MAVA Foundation supports projects for the conservation of coastal wetlands of the Mediterranean that integrate cultural values and practices, such as traditional saltpans in places like Ulcinj in Montenegro, Ghar el Melh in Tunisia, the Gediz Delta in Turkey and the Cadiz Bay in Spain. The Foundation works with partners to implement 13 projects in 5 Mediterranean countries for the conservation of cultural practices in the region’s landscapes. The Foundation’s West Africa programme has been consistently promoting and supporting the consideration of traditional cultures’ roles and values in wetland and coastal ecosystems.

In our programmes, local communities and local actors are accompanied, motivated and supported to enhance their stewardship of the land, the water and the ecosystems under their traditional use. Civil society, including communities and associations, are supported to expand their capacities for conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The MAVA Foundation actively invests in organizations and people, respecting their own cultures, values and approaches. This is a fundamental part of the foundation’s philosophy – and will be part of its recognized legacy.

Cultural Values in the Ramsar Convention: looking ahead

At COP13, the “Ramsar Culture Network” – a group of energetic volunteers that was dynamized through the MAVA Foundation-supported project, played an important role and helped make the culture-wetlands nexus more visible on the agenda.

At the negotiating table, the experience was also a success. The Ramsar Contracting Parties adopted a Resolution on Cultural Values that encourages countries to further integrate cultural values into wetland protection and management; it also requests the establishment of an effective mechanism within the Ramsar Secretariat to enable Parties and partners to advance the integration of cultural values. The MAVA Foundation welcomed this development.

I am pleased to have been part of this process through my report on indigenous peoples and local communities in wetlands management, through my involvement in the Ramsar Culture Network and more recently through my work with the MAVA Foundation as manager of the “Cultural Landscapes” strategy of its Mediterranean Programme. Here with my colleagues I will continue working with partners to encourage and strengthen the integration of cultural values in conservation – a key ingredient to enhance the outcomes of conservation and to advance sustainability.