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Wed, 21 Jun 2023

Human rights vital for conservation

Image: Timothy K.

Researchers at James Cook University say acknowledging human rights is an essential part of protecting marine ecosystems.

Dr. Patrick Smallhorn-West is a lecturer in marine science at JCU and researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Society. He said that in some instances past conservation practices have imposed great social costs on Indigenous peoples and other local rights holders.

“There have been violations of human rights to life, health, water, food and an adequate standard of living, non-discrimination, and cultural rights,” said Dr Smallhorn-West.

A new paper, “Why human rights matter for marine conservation”, outlines the shift within marine conservation towards more participatory and community-based practices, balancing the preservation of nature with human rights issues such as poverty and food security.

“Conservationists are increasingly considering human well-being and acknowledging the diversity of values in the conservation space.

“Many now view social and environmental issues as inextricably intertwined – a thriving planet cannot be one that contains widespread human suffering, and a thriving human population can’t exist on a dying planet,” said Dr Smallhorn-West.

He said effective and equitable conservation principles are now embedded within international policies, and community-based and Indigenous management principles are now considered key priorities by many leading conservation organisations.

“By embracing participatory design principles and reinstating customary tenure, conservation programs can be created that benefit both people and nature.”

“Mounting evidence also shows how supporting human rights is often a good conservation investment, and that securing basic human rights is often a necessary first step to conservation impact,” said Dr Smallhorn-West.

He said only once basic rights (e.g., food, health) are secure can people then exercise those rights, which can then begin to lead to better conservation outcomes.

The authors recommend greater adoption of the following three principles:

Acknowledgement that all people have basic rights that must be supported, and understand that conservationists are dutybound to respect those rights.

Acknowledgement that increased vulnerability reduces people’s agency to adopt sustainable practices, and so securing human rights can be a good conservation investment.

Understanding that conservation gains achieved through human rights violations will increase disenfranchisement, widen inequalities, potentially increase resource dependence, and heighten resistance to current and future conservation activities.


Dr Patrick Smallhorn-West
E: patrick.smallhornwest@jcu.edu.au