Protecting people and human rights through nature

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A fisherman casts his net on the coast at sunset Gabon ©Martin Harvey / WWF©Martin Harvey / WWF

Many of us don’t think twice about the services nature provides us or how vital these are for the most vulnerable amongst us.  We recently had the opportunity to speak  together about the interdependence of human rights and biodiversity, at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, in an event organised to support the presentation of the annual report of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment.

The report this year focused on the many ways that the full enjoyment of human rights depends on biodiversity – and on how protecting human rights can help to protect the environment.

This event brought together a diverse set of perspectives – from countries, human rights experts, local environmental rights defenders and conservation organisations — to discuss how biodiversity and healthy ecosystems underpin human well-being and the realization of fundamental human rights, including the crucial connections between biodiversity and a healthy human life.

© Robert Delfs / WWF

Globally, biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate.  WWF’s Living Planet Report shows us that wildlife is in a downward spiral with nearly 60 per cent decline in wildlife across land, sea and freshwater in less than a generation.   And in the same fifty years, we have also seen an exponential acceleration of the unsustainable and wasteful use of natural resources—we are surpassing the boundaries of what the planet can cope with:  we are going beyond  the limits of the  regenerative capacity of living systems. This is not without consequences: we are dangerously  threatening the natural resources and ecosystems services upon which human well-being depends.

The story of natural decline is not just about the wildlife that so many of us love. The pressure on biodiversity and ecosystems undermines sustainable development and human rights, including the rights to life, health and an adequate standard of living.  As biodiversity decreases, we are weakening nature’s ability to provide the vital services we require—clean water, fresh air, food and a stable climate—basic services we all rely on, but especially critical for indigenous peoples, forest-dwellers, fisherfolk and others who are directly dependent on forests, rivers, lakes and oceans for their lives and livelihoods.

©WWF / Simon Rawles©WWF / Simon Rawles

Biodiversity health is an indicator of our relationship with the planet, and the foundation for functioning ecosystems. The plants and animals that have evolved on our planet in a complex web of life are the bricks of the walls that sustain our common home: if you remove too many bricks, the walls collapse. Our current development model is not sustainable. We know the problem, we understand the consequences and, in most cases, we also know the solutions. We  need a different way of governing our natural resources, including by expanding areas managed and conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities, putting people at the centre of responsibility and control and ensuring that efforts to conserve  and sustainably use biodiversity and ecosystems promotes rights and livelihoods.   States also need to ensure a safe environment for those speaking out in defense of the environment: 185 environmental human rights defenders were killed in 2015 alone. This is unacceptable.

The impact of climate change on human rights and human well-being has been well documented and recognized, but we haven’t taken this step for biodiversity yet. The world’s new commitment to sustainable development clearly shows that humanity is realising just how linked today’s social, economic and environmental agendas are. This is an important step forward, but we now need to see this commitment in public and private decisions and investments too.

© Brent Stirton / Getty Images© Brent Stirton / Getty Images

The 2030 Agenda, and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), if implemented effectively, will help us make the change by driving initiatives to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment that safeguards the biodiversity that is the key to all life on Earth. Now we need to come together to deliver that ambition.

Co-authored by:

John Knox

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment

Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law, Wake Forest University School of Law


Marco Lambertini

Director General

WWF International

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