Within the last 50 years, the human population has doubled, with global economic demands for energy and materials increasing 4-folds. In tandem to this growth has been an increase in global temperature of 0.2 degree C per decade since 1970, and according to the IPBES 2019 Global Assessment Report, an acceleration of species extinction rate tens to hundreds times worse than the average rate over the last 10 million years. These two unprecedented environmental crises of climate change and biodiversity loss are intrinsically interlinked, as are their solutions.
Within the last few years, we’ve seen emerging global support for nature-based solutions (NbS) for climate change. Nature-based Solutions are actions that protect, sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems to address society’s needs and well-being. Such solutions can provide a range of environmental and socioeconomic benefits such as livelihood improvements, reduced disaster risk, stronger governance structures and improved ecosystem resilience.
The concept of relying on nature to build resilience within ecosystems is not new. Nature-based solutions encompasses actions related to, for example,
- Protecting intact ecosystems (forests, peatlands, wetlands, savannahs, coral reefs, mangroves) through protected areas and sustainable management of resources,
- Ecological restoration of degraded landscapes through natural regeneration or improvements in yields for pasture and agriculture, and
- Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) related to Reducing Emissions for Deforestation & Forest Degradation (REDD+) programmes and carbon taxes.
With over 130 countries already implementing some form of NbS, such efforts and actions often coincide in places where the poorest and most vulnerable people live and utilise, affecting people’s access to land, water and other natural resources, and consequently their livelihoods and enjoyment of human rights.
The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), complemented by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, acknowledged that “change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind”. In 2015, with the adoption of the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, and the recognition in its Preamble that countries should respect, promote and consider human rights when taking action on climate change, the first multilateral climate change instrument that directly refers to human rights was endorsed.
Ultimately, anthropogenic climate change threatens all human rights to a greater or lesser extent. For instance, the right to life (Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR) is threatened from systemic risks arising from extreme events that undermine access to critical services such as electricity, water supply and health services. Increased warming puts ecosystems at abrupt and irreversible changes that slow down economic growth, increase food insecurity and triggers poverty traps. It also displaces thousands of people as regions of the world become uninhabitable due to increase flooding, droughts and hurricanes, vector-borne diseases, heat waves and forest fires. Climate migration is likely to compromise the rights to peace and security (Articles 14 & 22, UDHR) and our freedom of movement (Article 13, UDHR) through increased risks of violence and conflicts as we’ve witnessed in Darfur and Syria.
Closer to home, human rights may be impeded through the design and implementation of NbS strategies across an organization’s programmatic areas such as climate change, protected areas and biodiversity. There have been numerous high profile conservation responses to realize NbS such as ‘Half Earth’ and ‘30 by 30’. But they tend to repeat the existing failed models especially around participation, community-led initiatives and land rights and traditional knowledge.
Unfortunately, NbS strategies may not always constitute a neat win-win scenario. Conflicts often arise between different rights and rights-holders, or even between conservation objectives. Oftentimes well-intentioned attempts to protect habitats and species led to scenarios where one group’s rights and access to resources is favoured over another, implementing policies without free, prior and informed consent and criminalising everyday subsistence activities such as hunting and collection of firewood in favour of promises of new jobs via ecotourism. As ecotourism isn’t always feasible in certain landscapes and payment horizons may not properly compensate for the income lost, many communities become disillusioned about how conservation/NbS intiatives can assist them, making it more difficult to garner their trust and participation for future activities.
Further, there is often an oversimplification of actions related to a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ approach that rarely works. For instance, in conservation, poachers, traders or hunters are often seen as ‘enemies’ while those protecting wildlife or habitats as ‘saviors or guardians’. Such narrow perspectives of people often create further conflict especially where the two groups co-exist within the same landscape or even village. Understanding livelihood and consumption patterns and creating just outcomes for resource use, without imprudent and oftentimes discriminating labels, may provide a much more helpful approach to NbS strategies within, for example, protected areas. In cases where local people are more integrally involved in decision-making, conservation strategies are often more successful as groups are able to negotiate better with each other and the type of conservation/NbS strategy that is best suited for their area.
Ethically, organizations involved in NbS implementation share a responsibility to understand and address potential negative consequences of their actions on whose rights or livelihoods may be impeded. Indeed, not recognizing or being cognizant of the rights of all stakeholders in an area can create or fuel further conflicts over land, water and other resources, which ultimately undermines conservation efforts. This brings up queries related to the kinds of policies, capacities and systems needed to implement rights-based approaches to NbS.
To prioritize a rights-based approach to NbS, the following are required:
- Awareness of rights & responsibilities: For long-term, continuous problem solving and conservation action to most likely success, rights-holders themselves must be aware of their rights and capable of articulating for their recognition. Stakeholders of any NbS programme include (a) right-holders such as civil society actors and indigenous peoples, who are citizens, producers and organizations, and (b) duty-bearers such as government authorities and businesses. Allies such as NGOs and national or international donor agencies or the private sector are also considered stakeholders. Right-holders have the task of holding the duty-bearers accountable for their constitutional and human rights obligations, especially as part of the wider population and where livelihoods and leading a dignified life may be disrupted. Further, we cannot speak about rights, without speaking about responsibilities – two sides of the same coin. Added to a individual’s right is the the responsibility not to impinge on another persons’ rights.
- Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC): FPIC aims to establish bottom-up participation and consultation of a group prior to development or conservation action. FPIC includes the right to self-determination and ensures that all peoples have the right to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. FPIC applies to everyone, including indigenous or traditional peoples. Backing FPIC are the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169.
- Review existing models, which are often based on Western theories of conservation: can NbS incorporate more local and traditional knowledge about how we relate and interact with nature e.g. Buen vivir in Peru and Bolivia and ideas of the commons rather than private utilization. Majority of indigenous communities have developed systems that prioritizes collective use of resources such as implementing equal-access quota limits such as those implemented in spiritually-designated Oma ponds for fishing in Guyana.
- Strengthen institutional capacities within countries including civil society and government organizations: Weak institutions, ineffective environmental legislation, unclear accountability, poor transparency and a lack of public access and participation further exacerbate human rights abuses. Part of this process entails establishing a framework for addressing conflicting rights and interests. A rights-based approach establishes processes and mechanisms to bring conflicting interest and rights, for example, the rights claims of present generations for livelihood security versus the intergeneration claims for environment protection, into the open and seeks to resolve them with accessible redress as necessary where rights are violated.
- Assess how policies and actions will further the realisation of human rights as established by the UDHR and how to ensure that it will do no harm to livelihood and spaces were the poor and vulnerable often reside.
- Enhances results-oriented management: A rights-based approach helps to clarify and achieve goals while contributing directly to feedback and monitoring systems. A programme based on human rights design is more likely to provide early warning of problems and strengthen the accountability of all actors while achieving sustainability.
- Encourage lessons of practical experiences from other sectors are incorporated in meeting both human rights and conservation objectives.
NbS is not a magical tool that will solve all of the world’s environmental or even climate-related issues. It also won’t capture all the greenhouse gas emissions produced so far – we still need to reduce fossil fuel consumption. As such, knowing how, where and when to apply NbS is important in producing fair and equitable outcomes for nature and the people living there. Indeed, a healthy environment underpins the realization of many human rights, while the realization of rights contributes to more successful actions related to nature-based solutions.
Ultimately, for many organizations working with NbS, the challenge is not so much how to expand human rights to embrace ecological issues as how to construct the rights of nature, recognizing all nature as needing protection against the anthropomorphic assault of humans.
The threat of climate change is fundamentally driven by an economic system based on power rather than justice. If a system of justice has to respect the rights of nature as well as the rights of humans, the concept of the commons needs to be given much greater priority i.e. identifying natural resources as an intergenerational legacy rather than as private property and ownership, which helps to inoculate against social inequalities. Of the two great rights concepts applied to nature, that is ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’, equality has to assume much greater priority when applied to accessing natural resources.