Respecting Human Rights is Essential for Sustainable Conservation

Gina Cosentino is The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Indigenous and Communal Conservation. Gina has authored this post in support of Blog Action Day, an annual event where bloggers around the world unite on October 16 to discuss one important theme: human rights.

Conservationists are in the human rights business even though many don’t think of conservation in this way. The purview of conservation has been to protect and safeguard our natural resources and environment for current and future use and enjoyment.

But conservation and human rights are in fact closely linked.

For instance, some conservation practices such as certain forms of protected areas have resulted in dispossession or restricted access for Indigenous peoples to their traditional lands, territories and natural resources. This has led to impoverishment, loss of culture, marginalization, loss of livelihoods, conflict, food and water insecurity, among other harmful impacts.

At the same time, conservation affords significant opportunity to help realize Indigenous rights and their human, cultural and economic development goals. For Indigenous peoples, the environment is inextricably linked to every aspect of their lives and well-being. Especially over the last decade, conservationists have increasingly recognized the importance of respecting and aligning conservation with human rights, and advancing conservation ‘with’ and not ‘for’ them.

In recent years, the United Nations has acknowledged the relationship between the need for a safe and clean environment and how a changing climate can and does impact the fulfillment and enjoyment of human rights and the overall well-being of people.  This is even more acutely so for Indigenous peoples who are on the frontlines of ecological change, who face serious pressures of competing wants and uses of their lands and resources, who rely on the environment for their livelihoods and survival, who have responsibilities of environmental stewardship not only for today but for the generations ahead, and who are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and climate change — problems that were not created by them in the first place.

Effective partnership with Indigenous peoples and respect for their human rights are fundamental pillars of sound and sustainable conservation practice and environmental governance.

Moreover, aligning conservation practices with the rights of Indigenous peoples, results smart, ethical and sustainable conservation that can improve the quadruple bottom-line for Indigenous peoples, government, industry and nature.

Indigenous peoples represent five percent of the world’s population, but they own, occupy or have claims to nearly 25 percent of the world’s lands and waters which represents 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Some of the most ecologically important places in the world are intact as a result of Indigenous peoples’ environmental stewardship and traditional ecological knowledge and experience. Indigenous peoples are therefore essential for nature.

So what is the relationship between human rights of Indigenous peoples and conservation organizations?

On one hand, since Indigenous peoples have strong economic and cultural relationships to land and natural resources, conservation can have a positive impact on human rights by helping to create more resilient natural and human communities. On the other, often those who live in high biodiversity areas are most vulnerable to outside threats such as extractive industries or even at times, inappropriate conservation practices. Since their livelihoods, health, cultural survival and overall well-being depend directly on the services nature provides (i.e. clean water, food), and ability access to their lands and resources, organizations involved in conservation have a duty and obligation to understand and address potential negative impacts of conservation of the people whose rights and livelihoods may be affected.

Indigenous peoples have specific human rights related to their lands, territories and natural resources — this includes the right to make decisions related to conservation and resource development and to be able to access the lands and waters they own or traditionally used. They have jurisdiction over their territories and resources and this ought to influence conservation practices.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets out the human rights and minimum standards for the “survival, dignity and well-being” of Indigenous peoples around the world. This legal framework should be considered a guiding baseline to evaluate conservation practices and their impacts on Indigenous peoples’ rights.

As a global conservation leader, The Nature Conservancy aims to uphold international human rights standards as part of our core guiding principles for our conservation programming. This human rights-based approach to conservation can be an effective pathway to both human and environmental security. So in short, every day is human rights day in the world of conservation!

See what other bloggers are saying about human rights by following #BAD2013 on Twitter »

[Image: The Hadza in Northern Tanzania live close to the land. The Nature Conservancy works with the Hadza on land tenure rights, supporting traditional livelihoods, reducing conflict through shared use land planning, and climate resilience. Image source: Gina Cosentino]

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  1. So, to continue our conversation the other day…

    This is a really excellent post and I think it’s great that the conservation community is thinking about human and community rights. Especially around Indigenous peoples. However, it’s this line that confuses me:

    “For Indigenous peoples, the environment is inextricably linked to every aspect of their lives and well-being.”

    Yes. And this is also true for all people.

    I’ll grant you that IPs have been especially impacted by global, neoliberal and neocolonial capitalist dispossession. But they’re not the only ones. Local communities in nearby Pennsylvania, for example, are being dispossessed in the name of natural gas extraction. Are they IPs? No. Are they any less important, especially when it comes to protecting human rights?

    My concern is in the framing that this somehow unique to these particular groups, when in fact, it’s a concern for everyone, as we’re all dependent upon a particular relationship with the environment.

    Help me out here. What am I missing?

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