Human Rights Protection Critical for Conservation Success

When you hear about human rights violations, a number of stories often in the news may spring to mind: North Korea’s repressive government, deplorable working conditions in Bangladeshi factories, clashes between protesters and riot police across the globe.

Kayapo man, Brazil

Kayapo man in Brazil. Since 1992, CI has supported the Kayapó people in their efforts to protect their culture and habitats and secure economic independence. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

But there are many smaller incidents that often slip under the radar of major news stories, despite their profound impact on thousands of people worldwide.

Indigenous peoples forced from their lands so others can extract the oil beneath it.

Families going hungry because women were not asked about the foods their families thrive on, and thus the crops that should be favored in sustainable agriculture projects.

Development projects that fail because communities were not adequately consulted.

Pastoralists watching as their cultures slowly turn to dust because of travel restrictions between national borders.

All of these examples are human rights violations — and in all cases, if those rights were respected, not only would the people involved be better off, but so would the environment they depend upon.

Studies have found that when indigenous peoples are given rights to govern their land, biodiversity increases and more trees remain standing. When women choose what to plant, crop diversity is maintained or increased and families have more food choices. When communities fully and effectively participate in decisions that impact them, projects are not only more likely to be sustainable, but to create innovative solutions. When pastoralists are allowed to migrate as their traditions dictate, soil quality is improved across vast swaths of grassland.

Many of these issues will be discussed at the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting this week in South Korea, where CI is working with partners and governments to ensure that the impact of biodiversity loss on people is front and center in these conversations.

In an MIT News article I recently read, scientists demonstrated that images with people in them are statistically more memorable than images of natural vistas, no matter how stunning the view.

Just as this study demonstrates our visual preference for the human element, for many people the human aspect of conservation is the most engaging. It is undoubtedly the most vital to “get right” for the continued success of conservation work around the world.

Here at CI, I am part of a team that is working to integrate human rights into all aspects of the institution’s work. How can we ensure that in all aspects of our work, the rights of indigenous peoples are respected, that women’s voices are included in decision-making and that communities benefit from their forest resources? We provide solutions to these questions each and every day.

Five years ago, in partnership with seven other large conservation organizations, we formed the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights in order to agree on shared principles and collectively move the needle to improve conservation practices worldwide. Based on these principles, CI has created a set of policies on topics such as gender, indigenous peoples and research ethics to further guide our work; we are working to create an ever expanding set of tools and guidelines in order to make these policies a reality on the ground.

Our “rights-based approach” to conservation embraces the fact that when human rights are respected, people, communities and nature can thrive.

Adrienne McKeehan is the advisor on rights and conservation in CI’s Policy Center for Environment and Peace. Read the next blog in our rights-based approach series, or check out Human Nature’s parallel “Gender + Conservation” blog series!

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