COP26: Biodiversity, Big Cycles and Human Rights

In the third interview in our COP26 Conversation Series postgraduate research student David McKeown, talks to CEO of ClientEarth and honorary professor James Thornton about biodiversity – critters, compost and ‘wholism’ – exploring how human rights law can protect those best positioned to be the stewards of nature.

biodiversity and human rights

David: In the UK ClientEarth is very known for its work with climate action, but alongside this, your work is also concerned with protecting forests and defending habitats.

What do you perceive as the main threats for biodiversity?

One is climate change. If you’re going to protect biodiversity, you have to stop climate change. There are a lot of good reasons to stop climate change, and that’s one of them, if you want to protect life and the diversity of life. Another is the human use of land. Agriculture is one of the largest impacts, in Europe, for example, it’s the number one thing that is having an impact on biodiversity and creating biodiversity loss.

The conversion of land and then the use of pesticides and herbicides – that’s an enormous global problem. Agriculture, and then deforestation. Deforestation sometimes involves agriculture – in Brazil, for example, you have large areas of forest and the drier forests the cerada, but also the wetter forests, that have been and are being cut down in order to grow soybeans.

We raise enormous numbers of animals in terrible conditions, and we cut down the rainforest to grow soy beans to feed them. And so the whole agricultural industry is one of the main contributors. And in the end, also climate change itself.

“If you want to protect diversity, one of the things you need to do is to address the agriculture system that we have and try and make it a much more sustainable system.”

It’s something that you can immediately start working on. And of course, we work on.

David: That description of these different factors really demonstrates the relationality of climate issues and environmental issues in general. I wonder for you, has it always been a holistic approach or was there one cause that brought you into climate activism?

Did you always have this sense that there was a holistic nature to this problem?

The nature of nature is holistic, completely holistic, and like almost every environmentalist I’ve ever met. What happened to me is I fell in love with nature as a kid. You know, as a kid, I spent as much time as I could out in nature and collecting spiders, looking at flowers, watching birds or anything I could do that would get me intimately involved with nature.

And then at university and law school it was beginning to become clear that the human impacts were growing to the point that they were dangerous. I had originally thought I was going to be a scientist because I loved nature.

“Becoming a lawyer became a way to learn tools that could be used to save nature rather than studying it and see it go. I would get these tools and try and protect it.”

So then as soon as you go into it, you see the connections between this part and that part between all of it.

David: It’s an encouraging time in many ways because I feel like people are talking, certainly post COVID-19, a lot more about the environment in a way that maybe prior to COVID-19, I sense wasn’t as popular. Particularly  with lockdowns, people were getting back into nature and rediscovering it.

James: Then the question is, how do you protect? Nature based, area based protection has to look at not only the science of what is important to protect in the area, but also the human communities who live there, and particularly in areas that are relatively wild. It would be the forest dependent communities and other people that are farmers and so on, who are the ones who can become the custodians of this – and then understanding their rights and protecting their rights becomes enormously important.

“One of the things that should come out of protecting nature is also protecting indigenous people. And this would be an immense boon for human rights as well as nature.”

David: Something that’s not so explicitly mentioned within the Convention on Biological Diversity is human rights, but within the Special Rapporteur of Human Rights within these recent reports,  there has been mention of this connection between human rights and the Convention on Biological Diversity. You’re seeing a lot of signpost towards rights, rights based discourse. That would be an incredible step if we could see a greater connection between human rights mechanisms and protections and also the Convention on Biological Diversity.

And I suppose that links back as well to what we were discussing earlier with the idea of holism and interconnection between nature and humans. Like this idea when you were mentioning earlier the critters, I was thinking of Donna Haraway’s “We’re all compost.”

James Thornton and David McKeown

“This really captures the idea quite nicely because everything from the critters that seem so insignificant to some people, right the way up to much larger aspects of nature are really all quite interrelated.”

And the rights that we might think about, you know, human rights only freedom of expression and this sort of thing are actually inherently interrelated to what we might see as something that we would use to conserve biodiversity.

James: Well, you’re absolutely right. One of the areas that we’ve been working on for almost 10 years is, if enforced, conservation in four countries in Africa. We’ve been working to protect and enhance the rights of the forest-dependent communities.

The current understanding by scientists, by the best conservationists, is that the way to protect nature is to protect the people who protect nature. And it’s obvious when you think about it, but that’s not the way conservation used to go. It used to be to protect nature from people.

“By protecting the people in situ who are the best place to steward the land and the various ecosystems, you have the best chance of protecting the ecosystems.”

So it’s really inseparable to the human rights from protecting nature. And what you need to do then is to become an expert.

“It is helpful being lawyers because you need to become an expert in what those very complicated rights are; some of them very ancient customs that were never written down for indigenous communities.”

And that’s overlaid with colonial law with more modern law. So there’s a new kind of archeology of rights in an area. And what will need to happen now for this area-based conservation that comes out of the Convention on Biological Diversity, is a lot of focus on clarifying those rights and making it clear that these people actually have rights there. And ideally, one of the things we’d like to see is a centralised system, annotating those rights so that they’re easier to protect. It’s a difficult thing because you’ve got such plural systems, even within a small geographical area.

David: And then also you’ve got these decolonial paradigms at play as well. It is very hard to unpack, but the complexity of it, once it’s embraced, can actually produce ways and pathways of dealing with this. For me, one of the most important ones is participatory rights. It’s so often overlooked, but they can be so fundamental in, especially types of governance, to try and set a framework in place where people can participate and see what can potentially flourish out of that.

James: And these big cycles that we’re talking about now really are the way to think.

“What’s encouraging is that I think a lot of people are beginning to see the big cycles and interconnection of all of these things which gives many people a moment of despair. But what it also means is if you go through that despair and realise that the actions you can take are improving actions, you also then feel self-empowered. So if everything is connected and I’m doing something that helps part of it, I’m doing something that also helps the whole thing.”


Find out more about our ClientEarth Conversation Series online where you can also book your place on the Environment and Energy Law Society roundtable to discuss the issues raised in the series with fellow staff and students.

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