Conservation must put people and rights front and centre

As we mark Human Rights Defenders Day (December 9th) and Human Rights Day (December 10th) at WWF, we are committed to delivering inclusivity in all our work, upholding and championing human rights, and supporting and protecting those who defend them for us all.

Delfin Ganapin, Global Governance Practice Leader, WWF International

Recognition of the human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment at the Human Rights Council that took place in Geneva this October marked a significant step toward filling a longstanding gap in the international human rights framework.

A right already recognised by more than 80% of UN Member States through national laws, courts, or regional treaties, a similar resolution should now be presented to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) for truly universal recognition.

But beyond being a landmark achievement for more than 1,300 civil society organizations and Indigenous peoples’ groups, as well as 15 UN agencies, youth activists, and businesses that have been campaigning for its recognition for so long, adoption of the resolution tabled by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, and Switzerland, marks a watershed moment in the fight against climate breakdown, nature loss, and pollution.

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) called it a ‘breakthrough moment for environmental justice’ that will help protect individuals and communities from risks to health and livelihoods.

There is good evidence to support this. Recognition in 2010 by UNGA of the related right to water and sanitation, for example, led to its inclusion in national constitutions. Mexico and Slovenia, for instance, made safe drinking water available to rural and marginal communities. And Costa Rica strengthened laws and policies tackling water pollution.

Recognition of the right to a healthy environment has similar potential to bolster environmental protection around the world, further emboldening governments, courts, and citizens to ensure it is upheld. This is especially important given that 24% of all global deaths are linked to environmental factors such as air pollution and chemical exposure, according to the World Health Organization. It also further strengthens the legitimacy of environmental defenders persecuted for their activism, 227 of whom were murdered last year, including many women, making 2020 the worst year on record for people defending their lands, livelihoods and ecosystems.

Equally importantly, recognition of the right to a healthy environment reflects a growing global realisation that protecting nature and respecting rights are two sides of the same coin. As the universal and indivisible agenda of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — addressing people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership — so clearly prescribes, we can only achieve a fair, green, and prosperous future if we find integrated solutions to the humanitarian and environmental challenges we face, and leave no one behind.

This awakening has only been sharpened by our collective experience of the global pandemic and the renewed understanding it has triggered that the health and well-being of people and the natural world in which we live are interdependent.

However, despite some progress in securing and exercising rights in international and regional conventions, we are every day confronted by the reality of profound injustice around the world. Whether it be the impacts of climate breakdown hitting the most vulnerable and the least responsible the hardest, including rural and Indigenous peoples, or the abuse and killing of those who put their lives at risk to defend nature and related human rights, international and national governance is still failing to protect individuals and communities on the sharp end of environmental degradation, exploitation, and conservation.

Tackling pervasive corruption, abuse of power, and the erosion of civic space and democratic freedoms, requires concerted and sustained action from governments, businesses, communities, NGOs, and others. Common to all our efforts must be recognising and upholding human rights, securing inter-generational and gender equity, and supporting and protecting environmental and human rights defenders.

For conservation organisations like WWF, the implications are profound. As resolution 115 at this year’s World Conservation Congress on ‘protecting environmental human and peoples’ rights defenders and whistleblowers’ makes clear, we must respect, defend and uphold human rights, undertake human rights due diligence, and commit to the use of free, prior and informed consent for Indigenous peoples.

This must be the beginning of a new era. Anchoring all our work must be an absolute respect for and promotion of human rights, the neglect or violation of which have no place in conservation. And approaches such as nature-based solutions must be equitable and rights-based, respecting local cultures and knowledge, providing for the full participation and free, prior and informed consent of all stakeholders, and fair and comprehensive benefit-sharing.

Following the Independent Review looking into how WWF addressed alleged reports of human rights abuses by some government rangers in Central Africa, India, and Nepal — commissioned by WWF and published one year ago — we have been working to implement its recommendations through a dedicated three-year Action Plan. This includes doing more to make communities’ voices heard, to have their rights respected, and to consistently advocate for governments to uphold their human rights obligations. We know we are still a long way from the impact we want to see but we are committed to doing more, focusing on action, and monitoring progress to ensure we deliver. We will continue to listen, learn, and refine our approach.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, we have negotiated a groundbreaking agreement with the government to establish a national government Human Rights Directorate to oversee compliance to human rights obligations across all national parks and to finalise a new Partnership Agreement with ICCN on Salonga National Park that brings in a human rights NGO partner, and creates specific actions and oversight on the human rights safeguards by park guards. Our Year 1 Implementation Update gives more detail, including specific progress made in the other landscapes assessed by the Independent Review.

In our advocacy around the world, we continue to call upon all governments to put a rights-based approach at the heart of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework to be agreed in Kunming next year. Conservation has to work for both people and nature, strengthening and reinforcing our connection to nature, not separating us from it.

A particular focus on the inclusion of Indigenous peoples and local communities is vital. Their lands cover at least 32% of the planet’s terrestrial surface, and 91% of all such lands are in ‘good or fair ecological condition’ — but more than a quarter could face high development pressure in the future.

We cannot hope to deliver on global goals for nature such as protecting 30% of the world’s land, freshwater and sea and securing a nature-positive world by 2030 without recognising, respecting, and including the rights, governance, and conservation leadership of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

This year on Human Rights Defenders Day and Human Rights Day, let all conservation organisations, businesses, communities, and governments commit to upholding rights, delivering inclusivity, and supporting and protecting those who defend them for us all.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.