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Start up Asean wetlands law

March 23, 2019

AMADO S. TOLENTINO, JR.

WETLANDS (“where water meets life”) refer to a wide range of inland, coastal and marine habitats which share a number of common features. They encompass mudflats, estuaries, rivers, lakes, mangroves, marshes, reservoirs, fishponds, coastal lagoons, seagrass beds, peatlands, etc.

Benefits and functions of wetlands

Wetlands are our most productive ecosystems. They are places for people’s livelihood and sustenance. They support high concentration of waterbirds, mammals, reptiles, fish and invertebrate species. In short, they are an important storehouse, or “supermarkets,” of genetic material.

Structurally, wetlands are “natural engineers” for the protection of the environment — as water storage and for flood and soil erosion control. They are the “kidneys” of the earth because they filter water. From a climate change perspective, wetlands are the sinks of carbon and regarded as “natural refrigerators.”

From the viewpoint of teaching-learning, wetlands provide an excellent biological laboratory for natural history, cultural heritage and ecosystem services.

Major threats: loss and degradation

Studies on the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar Convention 1971) yielded 30 categories of natural wetlands and nine categories of manmade ones based on their basic biological and physical characteristics. Among member states of Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), mangroves are the most widely recognized natural wetlands while fishponds are artificial wetlands.

Wetlands has been continuously threatened by natural causes and human activities. Among them: urban, industrial and agricultural expansion; natural hazards like flash flood, earthquake, typhoon; oil and hazardous chemical pollution; land reclamation for housing, roads and harbor projects; and utilization as garbage dumping grounds. That we are losing wetlands at an alarming rate is a fact in Asean countries.

Wetlands in Asean jurisprudence

Ironically, although wetlands are now considered as one of the most threatened type of ecosystems and have been singled out as requiring specific conservation measures, a legal requirement for wetland conservation has not yet been effectively set in place in the Asean region. Thus, loss and damage to wetlands and their biodiversity continues.

There is, in fact, no clear and comprehensive enunciation of wetlands conservation policy in many of the Asean countries. It is still developing through a series of laws, regulations and decisions on the part of various government agencies, particularly the forestry, fisheries, environment ministries or departments, to mention a few.

Wetlands are simply included in forestry, wildlife, parks/protected areas or fishery laws depending on their location. They are also accommodated in coastal zone, marine, public works, tourism, agriculture, irrigation and other conservation laws, depending on the resources found in the wetlands type.

The governance of wetlands are also found in land laws (e.g. public and private land laws, zoning rules), pollution legislation (e.g. water pollution control, waste management, pesticides regulation) as well as in general environmental legislation (e.g. environmental impact assessment (EIA Law).

Be that as it may, it is very common for legislations not to distinguish between various types of wetlands or, alternatively, list as protected areas all or almost all wetland types found in the country. Among wetland types in the Asean region, mangroves are mostly the ones protected by law and a permit requirement for the use of the area and its resources is in place. Seldom are rice paddies mentioned as wetlands.

In general, Asean laws classify wetlands either as forests or protected areas depending on their location and the species that inhabit them and are set aside for protection under different laws with varying objective and different levels of protection.

The various agencies of the government charged with the protection and management of wetland areas do not coordinate their activities and synchronize/harmonize their rules and regulations in order to implement management schemes.

Alternative wetlands legal framework

There are alternative legal frameworks for the management of wetlands. One is provision of specific detailed legislation to individual areas. This, however, could be cumbersome and would fit only wetlands of great international, regional or national significance. The other is a general wetlands legislation which designates the areas which would fall under the rubric of the law and lays down strict planning controls but allows certain regulated activities within the area. Either way, integration or inclusion of wetlands in the national protected areas system and highlighting their ecological and economic importance is highly recommended.

A determined implementation and enforcement of wetlands law will be rendered more effective by providing applicable laws, rules and regulations with guidelines for easier compliance with requirements. Improved coordination among concerned agencies will also achieve improved law implementation.

Wetlands law for environmental sustainability

Mention should be made that after the adoption of the Ramsar Convention (1971), Asean countries became signatories to other wetlands-related multilateral environmental agreements. Among them, the World Heritage Convention (1972), the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) and the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites 1993).

Wetlands require a mutually reinforcing system of international, regional and national environmental legislations for their establishment, maintenance and management. While international legal instruments establish a harmonized set of obligations, regional and national legal instruments reflect those obligations for appropriate implementation and action. An Asean agreement on wetlands management would be most appropriate in this regard. In turn, innovative national legislations will provide a basis and impetus for further development of wetlands law.

Regional and national laws should, therefore, be strengthened if Asean wetlands are to be managed effectively for global environmental sustainability.

Indeed, wetlands should be treasured and nurtured for the life they support and the resources they provide. They should be restored, protected and managed wisely with the use of law for sustainable development.

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