A note on languages
This webpage about the Ramsar Culture Network is mainly in English, with some of the material provided in other languages (principally the current official languages of the Ramsar Convention – English, French and Spanish). The RCN recognises that this is inadequate, and we hope at some future date to make things more equitably available in other languages. This will however be dependent on securing the significant resources required for translation.
Wetlands and culture
Human civilisations, from the very beginning, have grown up around rivers, lakes, coasts and other 'watery' landscapes. Wetlands are ecosystems, typically described in terms of ecological science or hydrology - but our relationship to them exists within a socio-cultural context. The language we use, the ideas and concepts with which we generate knowledge and understanding about wetlands, and our historical, emotional, spiritual and political connections to them, are matters of culture.
The societal attitudes that are conditioned by this, and in some cases the special knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities, are fundamental determinants of what may be possible for conserving, restoring and managing wetlands sustainably.
Culture in the Ramsar Convention
The text of the Ramsar Convention noted at the outset (1971) that “wetlands constitute a resource of great economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value”. The principle of integrated attention to culture has therefore always been a part of the Convention, and the various dimensions of value that are mentioned in the quoted text are all closely intertwined.
In practice, attention to the cultural dimension lagged behind during the early decades. Later years, however, have seen the Conference of Parties adopt several Resolutions on the subject; the formation of a Culture Working Group (which later became the Ramsar Culture Network); support for greater recognition of cultural and spiritual values in decision-making (through technical guidance and provisions in the Ramsar Strategic Plan); and phases of external funding for relevant project activities.
Definitions of 'culture' vary according to the context. For Ramsar purposes it is interpreted as a property of human groups or societies which expresses aspects of their identity, shared values, attitudes, beliefs, knowledge systems, creativity and other practices. It conditions the ways in which people interact with each other and with their environment. Culture can be exhibited in both material and non-material ways, and it is constantly evolving.
Material examples of this include protection and management of wetland habitats in ways designed to maintain a particular human social structure or uphold faith-based principles; use of wetland products for purposes that maintain cultural identities and represent place-specific skills; and heritage values associated with the co-evolution of particular societies and the ecosystems with which they have interacted. Non-material examples include sense of belonging; sense of continuity; aesthetic inspirations; and ecological ethics.
Culture in many of these forms contributes directly to the maintenance of wetlands. It also represents a set of benefits provided by wetlands to people; and this is recognised in the concept of cultural ecosystem services, which can be either tangible or intangible. The Ramsar Convention has formally incorporated cultural ecosystem services within its definition of wetland ecological character, and Parties commit to maintaining this character (and hence the relevant cultural services) as part of their obligation to promote the wise use of wetlands.
There are close relationships between the integrity of the functioning of water environments and the cohesion of human societies. Understanding key aspects of this, such as the specific roles of women or religious leaders in the wise use of water resources, is fundamental to achieving the Convention’s mission of contributing to sustainable development throughout the world. In this respect, Ramsar’s policies and activities on culture also support other intergovernmentally agreed aims, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The Ramsar Culture Network (RCN)
At the request of the Convention’s Contracting Parties, a Culture Working Group was formed in 2005 (Resolution IX.21). Operating under the supervision of the Standing Committee, one of the Group’s activities was the development of the first major guidance document on culture in the Ramsar context, published in 2008 and still in use today. The CWG also strengthened partnerships with bodies such as UNESCO, and it delivered conference sessions and other outreach work.
With the endorsement of the Standing Committee, the Working Group evolved in 2013 into the Ramsar Culture Network (RCN).
The RCN is a voluntary community of practice, currently comprising around 130 members (both young and old, women and men) in all regions of the world. Its mission is to “bring together and create synergy among individuals, groups and organizations who can contribute to an approach to the conservation and wise use of wetlands which integrates cultural and natural aspects, and thereby achieves greater effectiveness in the implementation of the Ramsar Convention”.
There are four key objectives:
- To nurture a global community of organisations and individuals recognising, celebrating and safeguarding the cultural values of wetlands and the role these values play in supporting the conservation and wise use of wetlands.
- To compile and disseminate useful knowledge (and related tools) concerning the interactions between culture, livelihoods and wetlands.
- To develop improved partnerships covering culture, conservation, sustainable development and other fields, which can result in better outcomes for wetlands and people.
- To encourage and contribute to updated international policy and guidance on culture relating to wetlands.
The RCN engages with other international organisations, though the membership and collaborative contacts.
A volunteer Coordinator (currently Dave Pritchard) provides basic ‘light touch’ management of the RCN, supported by a ‘core group’ of others representing the Ramsar Secretariat, some key collaborating organisations and a minimum of one Contracting Party representative.
The Network has at various times included a number of 'topic groups' or 'thematic groups' on particular subject-areas or tasks. Any member of the RCN is free to suggest the formation of such a group (and indicate the work they are willing to do) or to join any group that is active and where they have a particular contribution to make. At present a Thematic Group on Arts is active – contact us if you are interested.
Join the Network
Membership of the Network is free, and is open to anyone with an interest and a willingness to engage actively.
To join, please fill in the contact form below. You will be included in a mailing list for receiving occasional (infrequent) general communications, and depending on your individual areas of interest or involvement, we may be in touch personally to explore possible collaboration.
We have many eminent and exciting people, organisations and initiatives represented around the world in the RCN members list! Information on this is not yet in a form that can be published in these web-pages; but in future we hope to be able to offer you access to this, and ways of interacting more directly with each other.
For certain periods of its existence, the RCN’s coordination team have been able to secure partial funding for aspects of its work, notably from the MAVA Foundation. Generally however the Network functions on a voluntary basis, and by facilitating linkages with/input to on-going activities led by others.
This voluntary activity has significant limitations, and constrains the extent to which the Network’s agreed objectives can be achieved in practice. New sources of support are constantly being sought, and project concepts are being developed as a means of securing potential resourcing for the future. If you would like to provide suggestions that might help with this, please get in touch via the contact form.
Resolutions of the Ramsar Conference of Parties
Resolution VII.8: Guidelines for establishing and strengthening local communities’ and indigenous people’s participation in the management of wetlands. 1999.
Resolution VIII.19: Guiding principles for taking into account the cultural values of wetlands for the effective management of sites. 2002.
Resolution IX.21: Taking into account the cultural values of wetlands. 2005.
Resolution XIII.15: Cultural values and practices of indigenous peoples and local communities and their contribution to climate-change mitigation and adaptation in wetlands. 2018.
General publications on culture, wetlands and Ramsar
Cultural aspects of wetlands. 2002.
Key guidance texts
Project reports from the Ramsar Culture Network
Plans, progress reports, meeting reports and news updates
Standing Committee 35: Report of the Culture Working Group. 2007.
Standing Committee 36: Report of the Culture Working Group. 2008.
Standing Committee 46: Governance, planning and funding of activities on culture and wetlands in the framework of the Ramsar Convention. 2013.
Standing Committee 47: Ramsar Culture Network – report on activities. 2014.
Standing Committee 52: The Ramsar Culture Network and its contribution to the implementation of the Ramsar Strategic Plan 2016-2024. 2016.
Standing Committee 53: Update on the MAVA project “Conservation of the natural and cultural heritage in wetlands”. 2017.
Standing Committee 54: Update on the MAVA project “Conservation of the natural and cultural heritage in wetlands”. 2018.
RCN Terms of Reference for the Ramsar Culture Network
Terms of Reference for the Ramsar Culture Network. 2019.
Termes de référence pour le Réseau de la culture Ramsar. 2019.
Términos de Referencia para la Red de Cultura de Ramsar. 2019.
Call for expressions of interest (English / Français / Español). 2020.