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10 May 2022

Addressing biodiversity and livelihood protection with a human rights-based approach

Acing Tapa, Head of Forestry Farmer Groups (KTH) Brung Tampu, harvesting coffee in Punik Village, Batulanteh District, Sumbawa Regency

Photo: Donny Iqbal (CIFOR-ICRAF) / flickr

Living beings and natural resources are currently under growing pressure. We are witnessing intertwined biodiversity, climate, and pollution crises, coupled with the ongoing pandemic and effects of conflicts. Certain groups are seeing the consequences of the increased demand for land and other natural resources from the front line even as they fight to secure these for their livelihoods, communities and future generations. Access to freshwater and other natural resources, or the land itself, can be denied without warning, especially where tenure and land use rights are not secure. Indigenous leaders and environmental protectors are threatened and even killed for defending their livelihoods and traditional ways of life; the need to safeguard biodiversity, livelihoods and human rights has never been as urgent.

Conservation practices and solutions that view any human interference as a threat to biodiversity are associated with undermining sustainable practices and management of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) as well as human rights abuses against them. This contradicts scientific evidence demonstrating that when IPLCs are empowered to govern areas of conservation value, they overwhelmingly do so very effectively.

Applying a human rights-based approach (HRBA) to biodiversity conservation is a path to finding a common ground and safeguarding biodiversity, whilst enabling sustainable use, secure livelihoods and cultural survival. The online event human rights-based approach to safeguard biodiversity and livelihoods, held within the Focali – SIANI Dialogue Forum in December 2021, focused on enabling knowledge exchange between policymakers, representatives from Indigenous and local communities groups, researchers and civil society representatives to sketch possible understanding of the approach and translations into policy and practice.

Risk of violation of human rights and nature with fortress conservation

David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, highlights in a policy brief how the implementation of protected areas and the exclusion of IPLCs from access to land and resources also known as fortress conservation, has led to numerous human rights violations. A report by the Rights and Resources Initiative estimates that 136 million people have been displaced following the creation of protected areas.

Exclusionary conservation measures have been shown to hold limited gains for biodiversity, apart from being linked to human rights violations. The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment argues that they, at best, “attain their conservation goals, but do so while inflicting unacceptable human rights violations” and, at worst, result in “the abuse and marginalisation of the rightful guardians of vast, interconnected ecosystems while facilitating environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.”

The Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) highlighted the importance of supporting local and traditional knowledge to biodiversity conservation through their funding and collaboration support throughout the globe with many examples. Swedish development cooperation assures to promote HRBAs in all its development work by 2023 and ensure that biodiversity conservation is a top priority from 2022 onwards.

Commoner next to a parrot mascot

Photo: Marlon del Aguila Guerrero (CIFOR) / flickr

Daily realities throughout the world

During the event, representatives from IPLCs and environmental defenders were invited to share their own experiences and struggles to safeguard human rights and ecosystems in their Indigenous territories in the Philippines, Honduras, Kenya, Ecuador, and Sweden.

The deep connection with nature and the reciprocal relationship with natural resources stood out as a link between all different communities. Indigenous communities play a central role as stewards of nature as Joan Carling, The Indigenous Peoples Rights International, put it: “Indigenous People are providing solutions for anything related to sustainable management of resources.”

Indigenous communities’ practices, knowledge, and wisdom can greatly mitigate climate change and increase biodiversity protection. Still, their knowledge is not considered in ‘formal/scientific’ research or in political decision-making processes, even concerning projects in the territories that serve as a basis for their livelihood.

The lack of recognition of customary and tenure rights on certain territories makes it very difficult to claim the protection of territories and their related natural resources, even though they have been occupying and sustainably using them for generations.

If we had working public policies, we wouldn’t be evicted, incarcerated, murdered for trying to defend nature – Juana Esquivel, San Alonso Rodríguez Foundation Honduras.

Accountability is needed for these groups and national legal frameworks should consider the most basic human rights such as water access and self-determination. Free, Prior and Informed Consent is a must and is recognised in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Global North and South: Common issues

During the event, it became clear that issues faced by IPLCs in different parts of the world are often similar. This showcased the common case of IPLC rights violations in the so-called “Global South” committed in the name of conservation.

The Sámi people, an Indigenous community and population in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, have often been excluded from governmental decision processes, even on livelihood matters such as reindeer hunting or the creation of hydropower plants.

Matilda Månsson, Sámi Parliament, Sweden, affirmed: “Indigenous people and knowledge must be included in processes determining conservation priorities, designing policies, and implementing projects.”

José Gualinga, joining from the heart of Ecuador’s Southern Amazon

Photo: screenshot from the event

Legal battles for the right to consent

Fortunately, there are examples of IPLCs groups that have guaranteed and safeguarded their rights and the protection of territories.

Speaking directly from the heart of Ecuador’s Southern Amazon José Gualinga, one of the Leaders of the Native People of Sarayaku shared pieces from their historic victory in 2012 at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Ecuadorian State violated their rights by allowing an oil company to prospect in their territory without consultation: ”We have been fighting peacefully to defend the right to land and life, and guarantee future generations’ life. When we preserve our territories, we also fight against climate change.”

Still, that victory didn’t eliminate all threats to their livelihoods by actors with interest to exploit the territory for oil, gas, wood, and expansion of agricultural land. José stressed the importance of ”not only a consultation process but also a mechanism for us to have the right to consent because what is at stake here is our life so we are working towards having this respect being upheld”.

Public policies as a lever of change

Throughout the world, opportunities for change lie in public policies. However, these policies must come with strong HRBA actions and accountability mechanisms, or risk missing their goal.

Even though not legally binding, resolutions by the United Nations can be a catalyst for change, as David Boyd reminded us. On a global level, solutions exist to merge conservation practices and people-centred approaches. In countries whose governments have signed resolutions, national laws and legal frameworks must reflect the latter to gradually integrate human rights into any biodiversity conservation measure – keeping the right to a healthy and sustainable environment in mind, officially adopted in October 2021.

Nevertheless, Milka Chepkorir, ICCA Consortium and Sengwer Indigenous Peoples of Cherang’any Hills, Kenya, raised concern about the hope that lies in global policies, that rarely reach the ground and genuinely improve livelihoods. She underlined the importance of reflecting on how conservation projects are being implemented in formerly colonised and so-called developing countries. In this context, there can be a suspicion of international institutions and agendas, including the HRBA, and such approaches may lack legitimacy with the appropriate duty-bearers.

We need to think about the legacy of colonisation in any conservation project – governments in Africa don’t see legitimacy in a HRBA, in something they believe is the continuation of fortress conservation, brought in by the same Western people – Milka Chepkorir, ICCA Consortium and Sengwer Indigenous Peoples of Cherang’any Hills, Kenya


An interactive tool enabled the audience to share their thoughts regarding the main barriers they saw to a human rights-based approach being applied in conservation policy and practice.

Photo: screenshot from the Mentimeter created on

Window of opportunity for a human rights-based approach

Opportunities to jointly advance human rights and biodiversity issues do exist, both nationally and regionally; on January 27th, 2022 Swedish Government passed a law that obliged the government to consult communities directly affected by a political decision.

The world’s first legally-binding international policy to protect environmental human rights defenders, the Escazú Agreement, came into force in 2021, was signed and ratified by states in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Integrating a human rights framework into global policy, particularly environmental policy, seems inevitable, as promoting the right to a healthy and sustainable environment to a human right proves it. Now is the time to ensure that HRBAs are on the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework agenda.

On an international level, the importance of HRBAs to safeguard biodiversity appears to be gaining momentum. The CBD process resumed its official meetings in-person last March, and a number of discussions regarding the integration of a human rights-based approach to the post-2020 framework took place. However, the implementation of any legal framework on the ground depends on accountability and high commitment of duty-bearers, as well as the enabling condition for rights holders to participate meaningfully and effectively, as Claudia Ituarte-Lima, Raoul Wallenberg Institute, said in her concluding reflections:

Bringing rightsholders and duty-bearers together is a key advance in using of human rights to safeguard the foundation of life – Claudia Ituarte-Lima, Raoul Wallenberg Institute

Full and effective participation, co-creation and co-owning of strategies securing livelihoods while supporting biodiversity conservation, self-determination, and agency to manage natural resources sustainably should be rights allocated to IPLCs. The discussions on how a HRBA could be used as a step in this direction continues from local level to global policy processes. How the inclusion of rights based approaches in policy, programmes and accountability mechanisms plays out on the grounds is something for us all to keep an eye on and work on ahead to safeguard people and nature.

Authors: This webinar report was co-authored by Magdalena Knobel and Maria Ölund, Focali, Ana Carolina Marciano and Celina Thaller de Zarate, SwedBio, Stephen Woroniecki, Linköping University

About the webinar: The webinar was held within the Focali – SIANI Dialogue Forum in collaboration with Sida, Swedbio, The Tenure Facility and GGBC. The event featured nine expert panellists who presented their work and took part in a lively discussion about the relevance of HRBA for biodiversity conservation.

Videos: Watch recordings in English and in Spanish and read the full program.

Contact: For questions about the Focali – SIANI Dialogue Forum contact: