Part I - Biodiversity and human rights

AuthorElisa Morgera
Biodiversity as a Human Right and its implications for the EU’s External Action
4 Par t I - Biodiversity and human rights
4.1 What is biodiversity? Why is it linked to human rights?
Broad ly speaking, the ter m ‘biodiversity’ captures a complex understanding of nature as
the v ariet y of life forms on th e planet;
the dynamic interactions and inter-dependencies among living organisms, as well as between living
organisms and non-living r eso urces ( ecos ystems); an d
the benefits t hat humans derive from ecosystems for their wellbeing (ecosystem services).
Biod ivers ity is inter nat ionally de fined a s ‘th e var iability amo ng livin g org anis ms’ acr oss te rrestria l, marine
and freshwater ecosys tems.’ It refers to divers ity within s pecies and between species, including at the
genetic level. It also includes d ivers ity of eco systems, which ar e internation ally defined as ‘a dy namic
complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting
as a functional unit’2. The benefits that humans derive from ecosys tems are the result of ecological
funct ions an d proces ses of ecosy stems, includin g purificatio n of wate r an d air, pes t and disea se control,
pollina tion , soil fe rtilit y and res ilience to climat e chang e.
Box 1: Overview of the link between biodiversity and human rights
2 United Nations, 1992, CBD Article 2.
The re lation be tween biodiv ersity a nd human righ ts is sum marised an d illus trated be low, as a guide
for understanding the current trends in biodiversity loss which are increasingly related to human well-
Right to life: los s of coastal habitats and coral reefs has increased the risk to life and property for 100-
300 millio n people fr om floods and hu rricanes (Diaz et al, 2019);
Right to health: biodiver sity continues to remain a cr itical sou rce for med icinal dev elopment; for
inst ance, ‘10 of 14 m ajor cla sses of a ntibiotics are derived fro m microorganisms’ (Kn ox, 2017);
Right to food: t he stab ility and resilience of fo od sources ar e reliant on biodiversity: fo r instance,
between USD 235-577 billion in annu al globa l crop ou tput is at risk as a result of the decline of
pollinators (bees, birds, etc: Diaz et al, 2019);
Right to water: fores t areas improve water flow regulation, reducing runoff and providing greater
water st orage; diverse animal, plant and algae species help to draw excess nitrogen and phosphorus
from aquatic ecos ystems (Knox, 2017);
Rights of indi genous peopl es and other n atural resou rce-dependent comm unities: b iod ivers ity
loss decreases access to natural resources on which their life, health and culture depend, reducing
their freedom of choice and action (Knox, 2017);
Children’ s rights: biod iversit y loss in terferes with childre n’s normal deve lopment and m ay prevent
them from enjoying their rights in the future (Knox, 2018b);
Women’s rights: biodiversity loss places a dis proportionate burden on women by increasing the
time they s pend to obtain water, fuel wood and medicinal plants, thereby reducing the time they can
spend on income-generating activ ities and edu cation (Roe et al, 2019) .
Policy Department, Directorate-General f or External Policies
Our underst anding about how much human we ll-being depends on biodivers ity a nd ecosystems has
increased, while conver sely our efforts to protect biodiversity have continued to fall short. The 2019 Global
Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services underscored that ‘[m]ost of nature’s co ntr ibu tions to
people ar e not fully r eplaceable and some ar e irreplaceable,’ and that the rate of global biodiversity
degradation during the past 50 y ears is unprecedented in human history. For instance, the average
abundance of n ative species in most major ter restrial biomes has fallen by at leas t 20 %, po t en ti ally
affecting ecosystem processes and nature’s contributions to human wellbeing. In addition, 66 % o f the
ocean area is exper iencing increa sing cu mula tive impa cts (with o ver -fishing bein g a ma in co ntri butor and
mar ine plast ic pollution having in crease d tenfold sin ce 1980, affectin g at least 267 sp ecies) (Diaz et al.,
2019). In fact, the 2019 Glo bal Sustain able Development R eport points to a negative long-te rm trend for
the b iodiver sit y-related SDGs 14 (‘life below water’) and 15 (‘life on land’).
As a result, current negative trends in biod ivers ity and ecosy stems will u nder mine pr ogr ess to wards 80 %
(35 out of 44) of targets as sessed within the Su stainable Development Goals (SDGs) relat ed to poverty,
hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 13, 14 and 15). The dire ct driv ers
of biodiversity loss have been: changes in land and sea use (such as unsust ainable agriculture); direct
exploitation of organisms (such as overfishin g); climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species,
with climate chan ge also increasingly exacerbating the impact of oth er drivers. The Global Chemicals
Outlook (2013) indicated that at least 27 % o f total ecosys tem losses are due to che mical po llution in
part icular , which is sign ificant as che micals are o ften m anaged in isola tion from bio diversit y.
The Global A ssess ment report also noted that biodiversity is generally declining less rapidly in indigenous
peoples’ lands t han elsewhere, which cover at least a quarter of the global land area, including
approximately 35 % of formally protected and approximately 35 % of all remaining terrestrial areas with
very low human interven tion. At t he same time, area s of the world projected to experience s ignificant
negative effects fr om global cha nges in climate, biodiversity, ecosyst em functions an d nature’s
contributions to human wellbeing are also home to large concentrations of indigenous peoples and many
of the world’s poorest communities.
For that reason, t he Global Assessment report underscored th e need for trans formative process es to
address climate change and biodiversity loss. It is also vital to address human rights concerns such as
inequalities, especially rega rding income and gender, which undermine: the capacity for sustainability;
inclus ive decision-making as well as the fa ir and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of
biodiv ersit y an d its conserva tion; to gether with the r ecognitio n and r espectfu l inclusio n of the kno wledge
and innovations of indigenous peoples and local communities in environmental governance (Diaz et al.,
2019). These findings have already led the EU Council to underline that ‘biodiversity and healthy
ecosyst ems and their services support t he full enjoyment of human rights’. The Council Conclusions also
reiterate support for ‘nature-based solutions in support of biodiversity protection, restoration and
sustainable use, as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation’ (Co uncil of th e EU, 2019)
More specifically, the factua l relation ship between biodiversity and th e right to food is well understood,
with the result that biodiversity has featured pr ominently in the reports of the UN Special Rappor teur on
the Right to Food. Most recently, the Rapporteur has drawn attention to the first report on the state of the
world’s biodiversity for food and agriculture, released in 2019 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of
the UN (FAO), which indicated that ‘fewer than 200 plant species make major contributions to food
production and just t hree crop s wheat, maize and rice account for more than half the world’s plant-
based calories ’ and that ‘[n]early one third o f fish stocks are o verfished and nearly 26 per cent o f the 7,745
local livestock breeds are at risk of extinction.’ (Elver, 2020). She called for ‘new production methods that
enhance, rather than degrade, biodiversity’ with a view to ‘sustainably increasing food outputs to meet the
world’s ener gy and nut ritional needs requires.’

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