The Ramsar Convention in Korea and
The Asian Regional Meeting on Ramsar COP 10,
Bangkok, 14th-18th January, 2008: A Birds Korea’ Eye’s View
Nial Moores, January 25th, 2008

Presentation by South Korea on the upcoming COP 10; on the left Dr. Kim Jin-Han, and on the right, Mr. Hwang Suk-Tae, Head, Team for Ramsar COP 10, MoE.

Useful discussion of the “Ramsar Asia Regional Preparatory meeting for COP 10” (held in Bangkok, Thailand, between January 14th-18th, 2008), is best introduced by a fuller explanation of the processes of the Ramsar Convention (with any errors or omissions fully the responsibility of the author), and by outlining of some of Birds Korea’s 3-year strategy (2006-2008) relating to the Tenth Conference of the Parties, or COP 10.

This article therefore aims first to introduce some of the key components and processes of the Ramsar Convention (named after Ramsar city in Iran where the Convention was ratified in 1971); to outline some of the Birds Korea strategies that relate most directly to the Ramsar COP 10 (to be held in South Korea between October 28th and November 4th, 2008); and then to include some key points relating to our work at the Bangkok meeting.

(For much more detailed background information on the Convention, please visit the Ramsar website at:, and for its implementation in South Korea please also refer to, for earlier related postings).

Interpretation of the Ramsar Convention

For want of a better image, the Ramsar “Wise Use of Wetlands” Convention ( is rather like a highly complex machine designed for a specific purpose (wetland conservation), which is maintained and improved by specialists. “Ramsar” has a number of fixed parts and processes, and can work well only when it is used in the way in which it has been designed to work. Learning how to use this “Ramsar machine” is in itself a very valuable process, providing many insights; while using it appropriately then provides further multiple benefits – including access to a huge body of information and expertise, and an improved ability to communicate concerns efficiently and effectively, both domestically and internationally. Supported by the weight of Ramsar (representing global expertise and concerns gathered and refined over at least three decades), domestic conservation ministries and NGOs alike can be greatly strengthened in their efforts to challenge unwise decisions relating to wetlands within their own nation, and globally.

The Ramsar Convention is of course well-known as the global inter-governmental convention dedicated to the conservation and wise use of wetlands, now with 157 contracting government parties. As a soft-law convention (working through legally non-binding guidelines and a strong moral obligation to commitments made in the form of Resolutions), the Convention is not some mere symbol (as suggested by one leading government official in Bangkok), nor is it some kind of WTO-type structure (as sometimes suggested by some NGOs), but instead, it is an organized, integrated arrangement of parts, processes and tools, crafted over many years by experts and governments to help achieve the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, worldwide.

Beyond the literature (Ramsar Convention Articles, Guidelines, earlier Recommendations and now Resolutions, as well as technical papers and reports), the Convention has several further component parts, each with different, though interconnected functions/duties, all of which enable information to be channeled in multiple directions, helping to advise decisions at the international, national and local levels.

The main components include:

  1. The Secretariat (made up of 12 or so full-time staff, including the Secretary-General, the Deputy Secretary-General, the Regional Senior Advisors and Assistant Advisors - each covering a massive geographical-region - and specialists in Community Education and Public Awareness, or CEPA), which coordinates the work of the Convention and responds especially to concerns of the Contracting Parties;

  2. The Contracting Parties (made up of those 157 National Governments that have signed the convention so far, by registering at least one wetland as a Ramsar site and through their implied acceptance of existing Ramsar literature, including the Articles and Resolutions);

  3. The National Ramsar Focal Points within those Contracting Parties (in South Korea’s case, Mr. Hwang Suk-Tae and his colleagues in the Ministry of Environment), who bear the greatest responsibility for communicating issues relevant to the Convention both within Korea, and also between Korea and the Ramsar Secretariat, in some cases advised domestically by National Wetlands/Ramsar Committees;

  4. The five specialist International Organisational Partners (IOPs), namely BirdLife International, Wetlands International, IUCN, WWF-International, and The International Water Management Institute, which (formally) advise and support the Convention and the Secretariat, and in many cases (though not in South Korea) have offices or partner organizations within Contracting Parties, conducting research and advocacy, and broader CEPA activities;

  5. Other United Nations-recognised bodies and Conventions with which Ramsar has signed special Memoranda of Understanding or Agreements (and in the case of other Conventions, to which many Contracting Parties have also signed), which help to determine the language used, and which help to ensure the relevance of Ramsar Guidance/Resolutions on wetlands to broader sustainable-development initiatives (such as the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the United Nations Framework on Climate Change); and

  6. the various committees/technical bodies that help to refine information and ideas, and facilitate communication of that information (including The Science Technical Review Panel [STRP], Working Groups and Standing Committees, composed of Ramsar Focal Points, approved experts and the Secretariat).

This formal Ramsar assemblage necessarily works together through a series of highly organized processes, including Standing Committee meetings, regional meetings and the triennial convention conferences (COPs), at which new Resolutions (after a series of stages of refinement) are proposed by and then either adopted or rejected by the Contracting Parties.

The Ramsar Convention is then further connected more informally to a much wider number of relevant organizations (including national conservation organizations, like Birds Korea), academic institutions, even private companies and individuals working at the local, national and international levels on wetland conservation, all combined with the formal elements outlined above to be called (rather loosely) the “Ramsar Family”, a term at least capturing some of the sense of openness and supportiveness that permeates this Convention. The wider participation of these other family members is promoted through an internet-based Listserver (Ramsar Forum), through outreach and CEPA activities (including the promotion of World Wetlands Day, each February 2nd), and increasingly through dedicated bodies such as the Ramsar Centre Korea, and it is proposed, the East Asian Region Ramsar Centre.

While organizations like Birds Korea are unable e.g. to vote or propose Resolutions directly at Ramsar COPs, we can:

  1. work to raise awareness of the values of wetlands, and the meaning of the Ramsar Convention through our own CEPA activities, which should help to strengthen the position of the Ministry of Environment (and in turn the Ramsar Convention) in its work for wetland conservation in the run-up to, at and after the COP;

  2. further support the national government with solid, scientific data and honest advice relating to wetlands and wetland biodiversity; and

  3. where necessary, inform the Secretariat and others (IOPs, other nations’ focal points) directly of significant concerns, when such concerns are supported again by scientific data and honest, constructive advice.

Birds Korea strategic preparation for the Ramsar COP 10.

The decision to conserve or not to conserve a wetland is of course dependent ultimately on the decision of the national government(s) in which that wetland is located. In South Korea, several decades of rapid industrial development have created a strong and well-supported socio-political structure that is much more focused on conversion of natural and semi-natural wetland into land for other uses, rather than conservation. The national push for use of wetland areas for agriculture, infrastructure projects and for housing and industrial use is in many cases supported by national laws (including two recently passed Special Laws on Saemangeum and The Coastal Zone [please see: New Legal Threats to South Korean Wetlands]), as well as by government budgets and even by popular opinion. In combination, this means that those working for wetland conservation are often either marginalised or are relatively powerless to influence national-level decisions – despite many such development projects clearly going against the spirit, and even the Articles and Resolutions, of the Ramsar Convention.

Birds Korea has therefore developed a multi-pronged strategic approach in line with Ramsar processes and aims, towards winning greater conservation (i.e. sustainable use) of inter-tidal wetlands– which we believe to be South Korea’s most globally significant, yet most threatened habitat type. This strategy involves work with local communities, national bodies and also internationally. As part of this strategy we of course remain keen to support, where feasible and appropriate, other organisations that are also working openly and with a similar commitment to the Ramsar Convention for the conservation of other wetland types in Korea and the wider Yellow Sea Ecoregion, including through conservation initiatives for e.g. river systems (now threatened in South Korea by the extremely poorly-advised Grand Canal project, proposed by the government of the president-elect), and freshwater wetlands, including rice-fields and wetlands of the DMZ (the latter contained within the brief of the DMZ Forum).

Birds Korea’s strategy to increase opportunities for conservation of Korean and Yellow Sea tidal-flats, especially between now and the Ramsar COP 10, includes:

  1. The Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program (SSMP), with its 2006, 2007 and 2008 SSMP Reports (the last to be published in time for the COP 10). Covered in much greater detail elsewhere, the SSMP is gathering scientifically robust data on the impacts of the Saemangeum reclamation on migratory shorebirds, and providing this data through internet and in high-quality reports to national government(s), NGOs (including IOPs), media and the wider international conservation community. Reports detailing the survey work from 2006 and 2007 have already been provided to officials in the Ministry of Environment (MOE) and Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (MOMAF), as well as to several overseas governments through mailing or visits. Further, the SSMP is being conducted by the partnership of Birds Korea and the specialist Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG), helping ensure the quality of the data, and also increasing its acceptability and trustworthiness internationally. This is because the AWSG is a specialist organization with a long history and an excellent reputation, both within Australasia and internationally. In addition, the AWSG is a specialist group of Birds Australia, BirdLife in Australia. In the absence of an IOP-partner organization in South Korea, this partnership with the AWSG enables the SSMP data to reach BirdLife International and other IOPs through a more or less formal process, enabling deeper consideration of the data and recommendations by the IOPs and in turn by the Ramsar Secretariat that the IOPs advise and support.

  2. Membership of the Yellow Sea Partnership, an informal gathering of organizations (both government and non-government) committed to the conservation of the Yellow Sea (

  3. Support for and participation by Birds Korea in the writing of a “Shorebirds of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway/Yellow Sea” book (note: the title is still undecided!). The overall process of the book is being led by Mr. Jan Van de Kam (a very well-known and well-published wildlife photographer – and also incidentally, a Birds Korea International Member), with publication planned for shortly before the Ramsar COP 10. Both the process and the product itself will help to raise awareness of the need for much greater international cooperation for the conservation of shorebirds and the habitats they depend on, most especially the intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea.

  4. Active participation in the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Recovery Team. As revealed by the SSMP data, Saemangeum was (even in 2007) still the single most important staging site for this highly charismatic and now Critically Endangered species. Further, the neighboring Geum Estuary held more Spoon-billed Sandpipers during southward migration than any other known site globally in both 2006 and 2007. Conservation efforts for this species are now being coordinated through special BirdLife International appeals and fund-raising initiatives, increasing the species’ profile, as well as the profile of Saemangeum/the Geum and other Yellow Sea wetlands. We are working to organise a workshop on the species in South Korea, either to precede the COP, or to be held as a side-event during it.

    Juvenile Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus, Nakdong Estuary, September 2007 © of Mr. Jan van de Kam

  5. Support for an international email campaign (, targeting embassies and Ramsar focal points, signaling continued international concern at the loss of the Saemangeum estuarine wetland, and creating increased political opportunities for governments to raise their concerns about coastal reclamation with e.g. the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

  6. Participation, along with other key specialists, IOP representatives and government focal points, in the drafting process of a Resolution focused on the conservation of key areas (especially the intertidal areas of the Yellow Sea) for migrant shorebirds, and for greater sharing of information between Flyways.

  7. Participation where possible in other meetings in the region that also aim to raise the profile of intertidal wetlands (including e.g. presentation of a paper at the Sanbanze Forum, Japan, in late January)

The Bangkok meeting

The Ramsar Asian Regional meeting provided a very important opportunity to discuss wetland conservation issues from a broader regional perspective, helping to raise regional awareness of the need to better conserve key wetland types in the Asian region, including desert wetlands, peatlands, rice-fields, and inter-tidal wetlands. The discussions from this five-day meeting were summarized in thirteen (or fourteen) draft key messages, and were also reviewed in the closing speech of the Secretary-General (January 18th), who at that time specifically highlighted peatlands and intertidal wetlands.

Hosted by the Thailand government and coordinated by the Thailand government and the Ramsar Secretariat, this successful and very well-run 5-day meeting attracted probably 170 participants in total, from the majority of the countries of the Asia region as well as from a broad range of expert organizations, including representatives of the IOPs - BirdLife International, Wetlands International and WWF-International. Birds Korea was represented at the meeting by both myself (Nial Moores), and by our Advisor on Saemangeum (Mr. Ju Yong-Ki) who was also representing the incipient “Korean NGO Network for Ramsar COP 10” (formally launched in South Korea on c. January 20th).

Notable elements of the Bangkok meeting for Birds Korea included:

  1. The setting up of a small display outside of the main conference hall, containing the SSMP posters, a report, and a photocopy of the well-researched article on the new Special Laws by Mr. Rakhyun Kim, as well as photographs of shorebirds and fisherfolk, and a map of Korea. The display also contained information on the new “Korean NGO Network for Ramsar COP 10”; a banner detailing the threats to the Nakdong Estuary provided by Supchi wa seiduri chingu (Busan); and materials from both the Korea Wetlands Project, and from a large Korea-Japan group, focused on developing an Asia-wide Resolution on rice-fields. This display was viewed probably by all participants.

    Display of SSMP materials. Birds Korea.

  2. Direct distribution and explanation of over 50 SSMP 2007 reports and the same number of Special Law reports to e.g. the Ramsar Secretary-General, the Senior and Assistant Advisors for Europe, the Assistant Advisor for Asia (there is at present no Senior Advisor for Asia) and the Vice Chair of the Ramsar STRP; to government representatives of South Korea (including representatives of both the MOE and MOMAF), China, and several other nations; to representatives of several IOPs and specialist national conservation organizations; and to a South Korean expert within the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. During the same one-week period, PDF files of both were also downloaded 40 times or more through the English-language website, suggesting significant interest. The vast majority of report recipients responded very positively, and almost all were already familiar with both the name Saemangeum from previous Ramsar meetings (the wetland was of course highlighted in one paragraph of Ramsar Resolution 9.15), and also the SSMP.

  3. Most participants, including key persons within the Ramsar Secretariat, appeared to have been unaware before the Bangkok meeting either of the Special Laws or the new proposed Grand Canal project (which apparently aims to convert 3100 km of rivers, large and small, into concrete-sided shipping canals, through dredging, construction of locks, and presumably the construction of greatly-strengthened dykes). As presently proposed, the possible canalization of the Nakdong River would seem very likely to cause significant impacts to the ecological character of Upo Ramsar site. As communicated in Bangkok to the South Korean government, perceived threats to the ecological character of any Ramsar site should initiate a process by which the Contracting Party (in this case South Korea) informs the Ramsar Secretariat of these possible threats, as clearly obligated by Ramsar Article 3.2. This process should enable the Ramsar Secretariat to learn more about the threats, and if appropriate, to respond to them.

  4. In depth-meetings held with several key IOP representatives, and some further useful discussion held with South Korean government (and NGO representatives), enabling greater communication between IOPs and the South Korean government delegation on the issue of Yellow Sea intertidal wetland conservation. As learnt during the meeting, it now appears very likely (based on information provided to the MOE) that the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries will soon be dissolved by the new government of the President-elect. The MOE, the focal point for Ramsar in Korea, will then become responsible for conservation of all wetlands and dependent species in South Korea.

  5. Participation in a Flyway Partnership sub-group meeting, with subsequent informal meetings on assisting the development of a Flyway-based Resolution that is focused on the conservation of shorebirds and their intertidal habitats, and might be able to incorporate some recognition (as already made explicit in Ramsar Resolution 7.21) of the importance of intertidal areas to shorebirds, to people and to fisheries. This Resolution, already discussed during the November 2007 STRP meeting in Changwon, should fully be in line with our work, conducted under the heading of “Birds, Wetlands and People Are One.”

  6. Opportunities to express the need for some clear precautionary preamble to the early draft of the proposed “Wise Use of Rice Paddy as Agricultural Wetland” Resolution, a drafting process led by the Korean NGO Network for Ramsar COP 10, the Korean Ramsar Network, and the Japan Wetlands Action Network. Birds Korea’s main concern, also echoed in a speech by the Secretary-General, is that the preamble of this (and other resolutions and policies) needs to clarify that conservation of natural wetland is better in terms of ecological services and biodiversity than conversion of such natural wetland to artificial, agricultural wetland. Moreover, Contracting Parties are committed to the conservation of populations of waterbirds (many of which have declined as a direct result of loss of natural wetland, including reclamation of inter-tidal wetlands and conversion of flood-plain, both for construction of rice paddy). In summary, Birds Korea believes that it is important that this very significant and timely Resolution should not be used in years to come by development bodies (such as the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry) to support their calls for conversion of intertidal and natural freshwater wetlands to land for agriculture.

  7. Further discussions with experts from China and Japan, towards developing more opportunities for collaboration in Yellow Sea tidal-flat conservation efforts.

  8. Strengthening of relationships with key wetland conservationists throughout Asia – from those working (inspirationally) for marsh restoration in Iraq, to those restoring geese populations in East Asia.

Taken as a whole, the Bangkok meeting has been another positive step for Birds Korea (and we believe also our partners in the SSMP, the AWSG) in our steady and well-focused joint preparations for the Ramsar COP 10, now only nine months away.