Biodiversity conservation and sustainable development

Following the World Parks Congress in Durban in 2003, the Director General of IUCN, Achim Steiner, spoke of the need to see protected areas not as ‘islands of protection in an ocean of destruction’, but as ‘the building blocks of biodiversity in an ocean of sustainable human development, with their benefits extending far beyond their physical boundaries’[i].  That link between biodiversity and sustainability had long roots: indeed, sustainable development was put forward as a concept partly as a means of promoting nature conservation.

The rise of conservation concerns

The word ‘biodiversity’ is new, of course, coined in the 1980s, but under various labels, wildlife or nature conservation was an important element in environmentalism through the twentieth century.  For much of that time, the conservation of species was seen as something that required control of particular activities, such as hunting or fishing, by making regulations and setting aside land in protected areas.  In the years after the second world war, as European colonial empires crumbled and were replaced by a world of aspiring developing countries, conservationists began to realise that such piecemeal was not enough. 

Understanding conservation and development

By the 1960s understanding was growing that development itself had serious ecological impacts.  The problem was discussed at a conference on ‘the ecological aspects of international development’, held in Virginia in 1968. Its proceedings were published in 1973 as The Careless Technology: ecology and international development.  In the same year, IUCN and the Conservation Foundation published guidelines for development planners, Ecological Principles for Economic Development.

Developing international conservation strategies

In 1975 IUCN joined UNEP, UNESCO, and FAO in an ‘Ecosystem Conservation Group’ to develop a strategy for nature conservation. Early drafts were quite tightly focused on wildlife conservation, but on publication in 1982, the World Conservation Strategy proved more broadly focused.  It argued that development could be made ‘a major means of achieving conservation, rather than an obstruction to it’. Three objectives for conservation were identified, the maintenance of ‘essential ecological processes and life-support systems’ (food production, health, and other aspects of human survival and sustainable development) and the ecosystems on which they depended, the preservation of genetic diversity (both in wild and domestic species) and the sustainable utilization of species and ecosystems (fisheries, harvested wild species, forests and grazing land).

The World Commission on Environment and Development Our Common Future had little specific to say about wildlife conservation, and perhaps for this reason a follow-up to the World Conservation Strategy, Caring for the Earth, was published in 1987, re-stating conservation concerns in the new language of sustainable development (North-South dialogue, community, poverty and inter and intra-generational equity). 

Conserving nature, harnessing biotechnology and exploiting natural resources?

The main focus of wildlife conservationists at the Rio Conference in 1992 was the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Its roots went back long before preparations for the Rio Conference began – debate about the need for an international convention to preserve global biodiversity had been hot in IUCN, WWF, UNEP and other organisations since the mid-1980s. 

Early drafts of the Convention reflected conservationist concerns about biodiversity loss. However, by 1992 the issues of bioprospecting and the exploitation of genetic resources through biotechnology had come to prominence, and the eventual Convention combined provisions for biodiversity conservation with the issue of benefit sharing from commercial exploitation of genetic resources.  The Convention, signed by 156 countries at the Rio Conference, was therefore a slightly awkward marriage between conservation concerns and novel issues of biotechnology, held together by the new term ‘biodiversity’. Signatory nations committed themselves to the development of strategies for conserving biological diversity, and for making its use sustainable.

Since 1992, the CBD has become the main forum for international debate about biodiversity and development.  The news has mostly not been good. The 6th meeting of the CBD Conference of the Parties in April 2002 adopted a strategic plan committing Parties to achieve, by 2010, a significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level. The 2010 meeting in Aichi noted that the ‘2010 targets’ had not been met, and set new ones, variously extending to 2015 or 2020.

Biodiversity conservation and poverty

Perhaps the most interesting issue in debates about sustainability and biodiversity since Rio has been the relationships between conservation and poverty.  There has been much concern about the impacts of displacement of indigenous and other rural people from protected areas, a concern reflected in the new thinking about protected areas at the 2003 World Parks Congress with which this article opened.  There have also been many claims that ‘win-win’ outcomes are possible.  To this end, biodiversity conservation was linked to the Millennium Development Goals in September 2000: two of the 48 indicators (relevant to Goal 7 ‘ensure environmental sustainability’) are the proportion of land area covered by forest  and the amount of land in protected areas.  In September 2005, the Secretariats of the five biodiversity conventions argued that biodiversity underpinned all MDGs.  Biodiversity could, they suggested, help alleviate hunger and poverty, promote good human health and ‘be the basis for ensuring freedom and equity for all’[ii].  The the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment argued that ecosystem services underpinning welfare and livelihoods, particularly (although not exclusively) of the poor.

Historically, wildlife conservation had an important role in the development of ideas about sustainable development.  It has an inextricable element of debate about the future of the biosphere and humanity.


[i] Steiner, A. New Scientist 18 October 2003, p. 21


[ii] The five biodiversity-related conventions are:

 1) Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); 2) Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES); 3) Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS, or the Bonn Convention); 4) Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar Convention); 5) World Heritage Convention ( A sixth agreement, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, was adopted by the Thirty-First Session of the Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in November 2001.

February 2012

About the author

Cambridge, UK

Bill Adams holds the Moran Professor of Conservation and Development in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge.  He has... (Read more)

Bill Adams | Timeline for 'Biodiversity conservation and sustainable development'