25th Anniversary of the Bern Convention 30 November 2004 at the Council of Europe Nature’s Guardian – 25 years on! Lily Venizelos It is 19 years since I first heard of the Bern Convention and became aware of its value as a forum for conservation. There is no other forum we know that allows small NGOs and conservationists to lobby “en masse” representatives of so many countries in one place at one time. Then be able to follow through with updates and reports in the following years. It was also not long before I realised that my primary interest was in marine turtles. Their global reach across seas and oceans and their use of undisturbed sandy beaches, makes them ideal flagship species to draw attention to wider conservation concerns. In the ensuing years, through the founding of MEDASSET, reports to the Bern Convention Standing Committee allowed us to bring pressure to bear on my own government for the protection of the marine turtles of Laganas Bay on the Island of Zakynthos. This led to Greek legislation for the protection of the sea turtles, and eventually to the Presidential Decree that set up the Zakynthos National Marine Park (ZNMP). Of course, nothing in this world is perfect, and we have yet to see full implementation and enforcement of this legislation. It is so good that here at the Council of Europe we can continue to report on the progress of implementation. Of course some would wish that NGOs freedom of speech could be restrained, but exchange of views with the opportunity to reply is a corner stone of democracy. Not least among the benefits of the Bern Convention is its ability to commission assessments by independent experts. When governments commission academic assessments by their own national experts, loyalty often overrides scientific objectivity, not with deliberate misinformation, but contentious areas are avoided in order not to embarrass the nation. This is a completely understandable national characteristic. Unfortunately it often leads to unwarranted complacency and political inactivity. For instance, in 2001 MEDASSET drew attention to pollution arising from the Soda Chrome factory on the important nesting beach of the highly endangered Mediterranean green turtle’s in Kazanli, Turkey. Initially our protests were completely dismissed by the factory. There were protests from the local population who were alarmed after watching the Oscar winning film Erin Brockovitch, and were becoming aware of medical problems caused by regular bathing in the sea. We persevered with research on the internet that indicated the severity of the symptoms of toxic chrome poisoning, and an independent laboratory analysis of samples taken on the beach. The next reaction was that the factory ridiculed our efforts on their website, substantiated, I am sad to say, by some Turkish academic circles attesting to the environmentally friendly activities of the factory. It was only when the Secretariat of the Bern Convention, aware of our campaign, commissioned an independent assessment that we saw the appointment of an environmental consultant to the factory, and moves leading to environmentally friendly operation of the company. Despite this obvious success, MEDASSET continues to draw attention to the 1.5 million tons of extremely toxic waste that remains dumped on the Kazanli green turtle beach, protected only by plastic sheeting. Greece and Turkey are of course, by no means the only nations represented here that have environmental problems that need corrective action. Two observations arise from this and other available examples; one is the imperative for the Bern Convention to continue to operate on a supra national basis with assured funding. Secondly that the
Contracting Parties to the Convention should understand that its activities give them international political consensus to carry out measures that might be neglected as contrary to national or local interest. Political will is essential if we are to maintain the bio-diversity upon which the future of our world depends. Also unique about the Bern Convention is that the European Commission is a signatory to the Convention while the individual European States of the European Union are also signatories. This is extremely important where the European States are concerned, as it gives the Convention the ability to cooperate on an issue with both the State in question, and with the EC. A good example is the case of the loggerhead turtles of Zakynthos. An area where the Convention has a most important role to play is in the exchange of information and ideas. Conferences, Seminars, Workshops, Publications and the Emerald Network are essential to demonstrate the way that the signatory governments can work together to promote the objectives of the Convention, â€œto ensure the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats by means of cooperation between Statesâ€?, for the common good. Protection of local cultures is particularly important as they generally reflect the integration of human beings into their particular environment, to the benefit of both. Of course, all of this needs funding. I know that the talented and committed Secretariat staff could do so much more if they were not constrained within the limits of their resources. So I appeal to you all to urge your governments to provide adequate funding to the Convention in the understanding that they have no wish to embarrass any country, merely to direct attention to the severe problems of the environment in this degraded world, providing information and recommendations for action. Given the opportunity the Convention can be so much more pro-active to the benefit of everyone. On the occasion of its 25th Anniversary, I commend to you the wonderful concept of the Bern Convention, and the hope that long may it prosper.