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Biodiversity, Human Rights and Sustainability

Volume 1 Number 22 - July 2001

Tim Hayward





At first sight there seems to be little connection between a botanical interest in plant biodiversity and a concern with human rights.  Scientific studies of the conditions for the distribution and flourishing of plant life seem to owe nothing to political endeavours to protect humans from abuses by other humans; and vice versa.  Yet both biodiversity and human rights are matters of vital and fundamental concern worldwide; and both stand in need of protection from the threats to them resulting from certain organised human activities.  When we seek to understand how and why each is under threat, and what might be done to protect them, significant connections are revealed.  In this article I am going to suggest, in fact, that they are inextricably linked in important ways, and that strategies to protect the one need to be linked to strategies of protection for the other. 

Biodiversity and Human Rights Under a Common Threat?

There can be little doubt about the reality or seriousness of the threats that biodiversity and human rights are under due to the actions of humans.  On the one hand, biological diversity is diminishing at an alarming rate owing largely to the predations of a profit-driven globalized economy: scientists now believe that the world's flora and fauna are disappearing at rates greater than the mass extinction events that punctuate the fossil record (Purvis and Hector 2000).  On the other hand, and notwithstanding global endorsement of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights over the past fifty years, 'man's inhumanity to man', and, we should add, 'to women and children', continues unabated in the atrocities we continue to witness of oppressive regimes and genocidal ethnic conflicts.

Threats to the one, moreover, are not always unconnected to threats to the other: where, for instance, an indigenous peoples' traditional way of life, which is dependent on the careful and subtle use of local plant varieties, is undermined by expropriation of their land for logging, ranching or building, the peoples' livelihood and welfare is undermined, and their protests quashed, at the same time as plant species are put in danger of extinction.

Nevertheless, while concerns with human rights and with biodiversity may sometimes coincide, the reasons why humans put biodiversity at risk often have to do with what they perceive to be their vital and legitimate needs. There is an evident conflict if, for instance, the choice is between developing land for human food and homes or preserving a habitat for some species of plant at the expense of leaving a number of people homeless and without food.  So while some peoples may defend their right to reduce the biodiversity of their environment by referring to their right to feed themselves; others defend their right to retain their diverse environment on the same grounds.

It might therefore be thought that bringing human rights into the equation when thinking about strategies for protecting biodiversity only serves to muddy the waters.  However, what I am going to suggest is that human rights issues cannot in fact be extricated from the practical issues in protecting biodiversity.  This is so for quite deep reasons that emerge when we consider what is involved in understanding biodiversity and developing strategies for its protection.

What Biological Diversity is and Why it Should be Preserved: Our Radically Incomplete Understanding

The term biodiversity refers to the variety of life forms - the different plants, animals and microorganisms, the genes they contain, and the ecosystems they form - that make up the fabric of the earth's biosphere.  Biological diversity is now known to be crucial to the maintenance of ecosystems and organisms generally as well as providing essential services for human survival and flourishing.

Yet scientists have a radically incomplete understanding of exactly how biodiversity works or what should therefore be done to preserve it.  Any attempt to measure biodiversity quickly runs into the problem that it is a fundamentally multidimensional concept.  Biodiversity cannot be reduced sensibly to a single indicator,  such as species richness: to suppose that conserving overall biodiversity simply means conserving a population of every species, is, in the words of Purvis and Hector (2000) '…rather like having one of each note in the Mozart concerto’.  Living processes are interrelated in so many and complex ways that we are hardly beginning to understand.

In fact, we do not even know what is already there.  Purvis and Hector estimate that an average day sees the formal description of around 300 new species across the whole range of life, and suggest that the roughly 1.75 million described species of organism may be only around 10% of the total.  In fact, scientists are discovering not only new species, but even hitherto unknown life forms such as microbial communities in rocks deep beneath the earth's surface and self-reproducing entities that have genomes for their habitat (Purvis and Hector 2000).  In short, the one thing we know for sure is that there is much greater biological diversity than we know about!

It follows, therefore, that the harm human activities are doing to ecosystems may be correspondingly greater than we already realise.  This simply increases the urgency of the basic question: what can and should be done to arrest and reverse the trend?

One thing we know is that to leave the world untouched is not an option. There is now practically no part of the world that has remained unaffected by human interventions into its ecology.  Humans cannot know what trajectories ecological relations would take in the absence of human intervention, even in principle, since, on the one hand, humans' impacts have entered into the evolutionary history of ecology, and, on the other, some species extinction and other variations in biodiversity always have occurred anyway, quite independently of human intervention. To preserve biodiversity in any absolute sense is therefore not an option.

This also means there can be no purely objective standards against which to assess strategies for preserving biodiversity.  Strategies will always be selective and have a specific focus, implicitly favouring some forms of life over others.  Scientific experts themselves admit that they cannot entirely avoid being biased, geographically and taxonomically, in what they take as a focus of importance (Margules and Pressey 2000).

If some bias in the description of biodiversity is unavoidable, though, we can nevertheless identify and evaluate the reasons why a biodiversity preservation policy exhibits one bias rather than another. This will usually bring us to recognise that particular human interests are operative; and where there are competing views of the appropriate policy, one will therefore normally find competing human interests.  As proponents of competing interests vie for a claim to legitimacy, they will take every opportunity to defend their interests in terms of fundamental human rights.

Why Strategies for Preserving Biodiversity Raise Human Rights Issues

The main focus for conservation strategies throughout the world is on nature reserves.  Yet as Margules and Pressey (2000) observe, reserves contain a biased sample of biodiversity: they tend to be concentrated on land that is too remote or unproductive to be important economically; this means that many species occurring in productive landscapes or landscapes with development potential are simply not protected.  Moreover, goals such as the protection of grand scenery and wilderness often focus on areas that are remote, rugged and residual from intensive uses, giving them a political advantage over goals such as representativeness, which focus also on disturbed, economically productive landscapes.

Current strategies are thus heavily influenced by economic and political pressures.  If strategies for preserving biodiversity cannot be completely divorced from a consideration of human interests, we can still ask whether, from an ethical point of view, some interests are not more legitimate than others. Certainly, some peoples' ways of life do less harm to nature or humans than those of others.  While Western science is hardly equal to the task of fully comprehending the impacts of profit-driven technological interventions in global ecology, some peoples still live within their ecological means and understanding.  In cultures of indigenous peoples whose lives are still orientated to the careful observation of their natural environment, the requisite detailed knowledge may be available without any formal training in science as we understand it.

'In Indian Agriculture, women use up to 150 different species of plants (which the biotech industry would call weeds) as medicine, food, or fodder.  For the poorest, this biodiversity is the most important resource for survival...What is a weed for Monsanto is a medicinal plant or food for rural people’ (Shiva 1999).

Rich western industries take from indigenous peoples and biological communities what can turn a profit for them, patent it, claiming intellectual property rights in it, and sell back their products at prices the poor cannot afford.  Land that once supported local populations in a sustainable manner is turned over to the production of cash crops - such as coffee, tea, cotton, tobacco, animal feed, and so on - yielding a profit for transnational corporations that trade the crops while leaving the local population and their ecology impoverished.

If such practices are not condemned as unjust from within the rich countries that benefit from them, this is at least in part because they take a human right of freedom, as manifest in the exercise of private property rights and rights of free trade, to have priority in practice over rights to subsistence of those who suffer the adverse effects of global economic development.

This order of priorities is to a certain extent challenged, though, by the ideal of sustainable development as advanced by the Brundtland Report.  This conception of development requires respect for the rights of the needy; and these are expressly linked to a fundamental right of all humans '…to an environment adequate for their health and well-being' (WCED 1987).

Of course, human rights, even environmental rights, are not a panacea for problems of biodiversity loss.  Human interests, even their interests in an adequate environment, do not always coincide with preservation of biodiversity.  Some people think human rights do not offer a solution at all, and that their role should actually be reduced in the light of ecological concerns; at the extreme it is even argued that given the finitude of the earth's resources, it would be better to let those without access to means of subsistence die off in the interests of the planet and of future generations. Yet such proposals are as likely to be as ineffective as they are immoral: for they disregard how the positive contributions of the poor are systematically undermined by the practices of the rich. Therefore, as Charles Zerner (1997), research director of the Rainforest Alliance, has stressed, it is crucial to understand which particular humans' interests are served by which activities affecting biodiversity: we have to ask who benefits from a particular project, how, at whose expense, and who makes decisions for whom. Only if a concern with biodiversity is linked to considerations of human rights can such questions be given the requisite prominence.


The fate of biodiversity and human rights thus seem to be inextricably linked. Although biodiversity may appear to be a matter for objective scientific study, it is in fact imponderably complex; scientific understanding of it is also to some extent, and necessarily, value laden, because some principles are selected over others, and selection is guided by particular human aims. But if a completely impartial approach to biodiversity is not possible, what needs to be understood is which interests are served by which approach, and which interests have most justice on their side. In that way, biodiversity would be linked not only to human rights, but also to human responsibilities. For humans should not only claim rights for themselves, but also, when they are exercising power over peoples' lives and environment, take seriously their responsibilities - responsibilities regarding the natural world, and responsibilities towards one another too.


Margules, C.R. and Pressey, R.L. (2000) Systematic Conservation Planning.  Nature 405.

Purvis, A. and Hector, A. (2000) Getting Measure of Biodiversity.  Nature 405.

Shiva, V. (1999) Stolen Harvest - The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply.  South End Press pp70-71, 104-105.

World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our Common Future.  Oxford University Press.
Zerner, C. (1997)

The Conservation Toolbox: Choosing Alternatives.  Rainforest Alliance 1997 Annual Report.


L’étude scientifique de la biodiversité montre qu’il y a peu de liens avec les documents sur les droits de l’homme, mais cet article met en avant qu’il y a des connections significatives entre les deux.  Il n’y a pas de vision scientifique objective et complète indiquant que la biodiversité est importante, ce qui fait que les vues appréciant les stratégies pour la préserver sont différentes.  Dans l’examen de ces différentes stratégies il est important de comprendre où se trouve l’intérêt particulier humain qu’elles servent. Parce que différents groupes de personnes vont prendre chaque possibilité pour défendre leurs intérêts comme les droits humains, les décisions sur la bonne stratégie de préservation de la biodiversité impliquent que les documents éthiques sur les droits de l’homme soient pris en compte comme une culture scientifique.


El estudio científico de la biodiversidad de las plantas parece que tiene poco que hacer con la cuestiones de los derechos humanos, pero este artículo demuestra que hay conexiones significativas entre ellos.

No hay un punto de vista científico objetivo y completo de las razones del porqué la biodiversidad es importante, y hay puntos de vista que compiten por las estrategias apropiadas para preservarla. En la valoración de las diferentes estrategias es importante entender a que interés humano particular están sirviendo. Para que diferentes grupos humanos tengan acceso a todas las oportunidades para defender sus derechos humanos, las decisiones sobre las estrategias apropiadas para la preservación de la biodiversidad implicaran tanto cuestiones éticas de derechos humanos como conocimientos científicos.