By Estefania Monaco*

It should be an obvious statement: biodiversity is essential for the enjoyment of human rights. After all, if the Earth cannot sustain plant or animal life, how could it sustain human life? It is a sad sign of our times that our leaders and many of us seem to have forgotten our own dependency on nature. At the most basic level, human beings need to be alive and thriving biologically so as to enjoy the full range of human rights which in turn requires a healthy environment. A varied and abundant biodiversity is essential for maintaining the ecosystems that underpin the biosphere. A healthy environment provides greater resilience to such threats as soil desertification, water depletion and famine.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity entered into force in 1993 and has 196 parties. That’s practically universal ratification, yet it has not gathered enough attention to incentivise governments to fulfil the commitments they signed up for. Fun fact: The US has signed the Convention, but not ratified it. A 2010 report concluded the none of the targets set out within the framework for the Convention have been met. None of them. And to make matters worse, there is evidence that the rate of loss of biodiversity is actually speeding up and pushing the planet towards a sixth mass extinction – wildlife has declined by 58% on average since 1970 and is on track for reaching 68% decline by 2020.

But biodiversity decline is not just about animals becoming extinct or the evil that are genetically-modified crops. It is also about human vulnerability in the most extreme sense: ‘Biodiversity hotspots cover just 1.4 percent of the planet’s surface, yet 80% of major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurred in these areas’. Needless to say, conflict situations and respect for human rights do not go hand in hand. Not only that, but ecological decline, and biodiversity loss in particular, disproportionately affect the world’s most poor and vulnerable: ‘More than 70 per cent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and depend directly on biodiversity and ecosystems for their subsistence’.

Luckily for all of us, the tide seems to be ever-so-slowly changing. In March, the UN Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment presented the first-ever report on biodiversity and human rights to the Human Rights Council which adopted a resolution urging states scale up their efforts to protect biodiversity. The report concludes that biodiversity ‘is necessary for ecosystem services that support the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and culture. In order to protect human rights, States have a general obligation to protect ecosystems and biodiversity’ (paragraph 65). In addition, it assigns States a substantive responsibility to develop legal and institutional frameworks for the protection of biodiversity. The report also highlights the benefits of a human rights-based approach (HRBA) to biodiversity protection (paragraph 66). A HRBA:

  • provides a coherent framework and connecting links between biodiversity and the protection, promotion and fulfilment of the full-scope of human rights;
  • heightens the urgency in scaling up protection efforts;
  • promotes policy coherence and legitimacy.

To these, we may add:

  • provides a strong legal incentive to protect biodiversity as part of States’ human rights obligations;
  • provides a compelling framework for civil society action;
  • opens up potential avenuesfor redress in cases of violations;
  • helps develop biodiversity protection and conservation programmes that are human-centred in contrast to the more common model of closing off a parcel of land which so often results in the denial of land and cultural rights.

Practitioners are already making the most of the HRBA to biodiversity protection; Conservation International is championing biodiversity management initiatives the world over and they have also developed guidelines and tools to help the rest of us implement a HRBA in our conservation work.

It is not always easy to keep the faith that humanity has what it takes to avoid ecological catastrophe but if we keep speaking out, we can give ourselves a fighting chance. Embedding human rights rhetoric, values and the HRBA into conservation efforts is key to driving meaningful impact.

Get involved:

Born Free Foundation:
Act for Wildlife:


* Estefania Monaco is currently doing her MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.