Putting people and rights at the center of nature conservation

Healthy economies and societies need a healthy environment, so nature conservation is good for people – but to be fair and effective, conservation must be done with and for the local population. The key is to recognize and implement the universal right to a healthy environment, including the rights and roles of indigenous peoples and local communities, and to embed these provisions in the global post-2020 framework for biodiversity.

Demand for a fair, climate-neutral and nature-positive future

The conservation community is increasingly recognizing the importance of rights, equity and justice for conservation, and in particular the global framework for biodiversity after 2020. The concept of equality emerged very clearly from a series of multi-stakeholder virtual biodiversity dialogues that we held in June / July, meetings of the Nature for Life hub that we jointly held on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly in September, and our joint call for action by world leaders at the UN Summit on Conservation of Biodiversity – which stated that “action for nature cannot be taken without addressing both climate emergencies and social inequalities”, and a fair, climate-neutral and nature-positive approach was demanded.

Recognition of the universal right to a healthy environment

One of BirdLife’s top priorities, and a really important opportunity right now, is to create a healthy environment for healthy through the universal right to a healthy environment and the integration of that right into the United Nations and multilateral environmental agreements, including the global post-2020 agreements Societies ensure frameworks for biodiversity. This is the goal of the 1Planet1Right campaign by the BirdLife partnership.

Iraq Babbler, Copyright Daniele Occhiato, from the Surfbirds Galleries

As part of the campaign, BirdLife, together with 975 civil society organizations, indigenous peoples, social movements and local communities, called on the UN Human Rights Council to recognize the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. There is considerable and growing support for it, backed by a wealth of evidence and consultations from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. In September, during the 45th Council session, Costa Rica launched a joint call with the Maldives in Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland for this right to be recognized.

This is just the first step. Next, we need this right in order to be recognized by the General Assembly of the United Nations and better integrated into the United Nations and into more comprehensive environmental treaties and national implementation, for example through the Paris Agreement of the UN Climate Convention and critically into the goals, indicators and Enabling the terms of the post-2020 global framework for biodiversity that is currently being negotiated. This should include the formal recognition of the customary rights of indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), the protection of environmental and human rights defenders, and the establishment of fair and equitable access and benefit sharing.

Our local-global approach to nature conservation and human rights

As one of the founding members of the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights, which was founded by seven international NGOs in 2009, BirdLife has long been working worldwide to support these rights both locally and at political level. Examples of the worldwide work of BirdLife Partners are:

  • Supporting indigenous forest defenders in the Philippines to participate in forestry processes,
  • Development of indigenous protected and protected areas in the Canadian boreal forests,
  • Revitalizing the traditional approach of the Hima Protected Areas in Lebanon,
  • Support of community associations in the management of forests in Madagascar, and
  • Restoration of the Iraqi swamps for the indigenous Marsh Arab tribes.

Approach the challenges

As shown in our latest Bird and Biodiversity Target Report, one-fifth of the total area covered by the Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (which includes the majority of the key biodiversity areas identified so far) falls within areas owned by indigenous peoples administered or for which they have tenure rights. This means that there are significant opportunities to incorporate traditional knowledge, innovations and practices from IPLCs into the maintenance of these sites. We therefore work to ensure that the role and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities as stewards and defenders of nature are recognized, protected and supported. This is important both to ensure conservation results – which should also benefit IPLCs that rely on a healthy natural environment – and to protect IPLCs from the possible adverse effects of conservation measures.

However, this is not always easy. In some places, national regulations in support of IPLC rights are lacking, and / or government policies tend towards fortress-style preservation that excludes IPLCs. Such measures can be both ineffective and unfair (and in some cases have resulted in serious human rights violations). Therefore, according to the logic above, and as studies have shown, they are bad for both conservation and humans. For this reason, we work on three levels: (1) globally to ensure much greater universal recognition of IPLC rights, (2) nationally to strengthen our partners’ ability to broadly understand and implement national policies and legal frameworks influence, and (3) support the partners on the ground in order to then support other stakeholders such as IPLCs to participate in them (e.g. in our forest governance project in the Asia-Pacific region) – both for their rights as well as for the rights of nature on site, which are ultimately one and the same. (For more information on building capacity through Hatch, see here.)

Working with the local population to better protect and preserve more nature

To address rights-based concerns about the “30-30” demand by the global framework for biodiversity post-2020 – the conservation of 30% of the land and sea most important to biodiversity by 2030 (versus the current target of 17)% of the land and 10% of the sea by 2020) – we need to be very clear about how we are going to achieve this target. As recognized in the current draft of the proposed target under the Framework, for such an expansion to be effective and feasible in terms of cost, space and equality, the focus must not only be on state-protected areas, which in some cases may exclude people, but also protected areas for indigenous peoples and communities and “other effective area-based protection measures” (OECM) often carried out by and for people. The local people need to be involved in ensuring the conservation results and be supported in managing and monitoring these areas accordingly.

In our report on Bird and Biodiversity Targets, we also outline some recent BirdLife research, which suggests that potential OECMs such as community reserves and other community-based approaches cover a high proportion of the most important biodiversity areas outside of protected areas and therefore there is great potential for recognizing the role of the OECM in achieving a site-specific protection target expanded after 2020.

While the right to a healthy environment can be a rather blunt legal concept, you can read more about how BirdLife and partners around the world advocate this right, for example when we question Portugal’s planned expansion of the Tagus Estuary airport and demand the government to take responsibility for the prevention of forest fires such as in the Brazilian Pantanal and the support of indigenous forest defenders in the Philippines.


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