Keeping Nature Alive

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I represented the Center for Humans and Nature (CHN) at the Fourth World Conservation Congress, of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on October 5th–14th in Barcelona, Spain. IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network. It is a democratic member organization, with a membership of over one thousand government and non-government organizations. Although CHN has been a close partner with IUCN for many years, CHN became a formal member in 2008.

IUCN holds the Congress once every four years. The first half of the Congress is the Participants Forum, and the final half is the Members Assembly. The Forum gives the space for participants to share knowledge and build alliances. The Assembly allows the members to review the prior quadrennial Programme and adopt a new quadrennial Programme; this includes voting on new resolutions as well as voting on executive offices. This year, the Congress brought in over eight thousand participants and held over eight hundred workshops. These workshops were further divided into twelve Journeys to better align interest with talent. The presence and influence of the work and ideas of the Center for Humans and Nature throughout the Congress was extraordinary.

The CHN North American Global Responsibilities Program has been working on a project called “The Ethics of Biodiversity Conservation,” sometimes referred to as the “Biosphere Ethics Project” (BEP), since 2005. We are working with local, regional and international partners to create a code of ethics for biodiversity conservation. The alliances for this project include over fifty organizations and one hundred individuals, coming from government and non-government sectors, across disciplines and including theorists and practitioners. (Background information and meeting documents can be found at

At the Barcelona Congress, the Center for Humans and Nature and the Ethics Specialist Group of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law co-sponsored a workshop on “Keeping Nature Alive: The Ethical Foundations for Nature Conservation in the 21st Century.” This was selected as the opening workshop for both the Law and Governance Journey and the Rights and Conservation Journey. The Biosphere Ethics Project was also highlighted as a key project of the Commission on Environmental Law and the Environmental Law Programme. Due to this attention, we had standing room only and were able to receive much feedback on the project’s current process and outcomes.
The workshop included presentations by Brendan Mackey, Patrick Blandin, Klaus Bosselmann, Mirian Vilela, and myself. The session was facilitated by Amelia Arthur, an independent consultant in social development from Ghana. A great deal of interest and attention was focused on the Eight Key Themes that have been developed by our previous work in the Biosphere Ethics Project. These themes are: (1) keeping nature alive; (2) truth and reconciliation ecology; (3) the primacy of native species; (4) cross-sectoral regional and local alliances; (5) accountability; (6) biocultural diversity; (7) conservation is about managing change; and (8) the commodification of life. The audience noted that these eight concepts had never been brought together before in this way, and they clearly saw the value of doing so.

Prior to the Congress, we had been contacted by people in the IUCN Communications Director’s office. They loved the theme, “Keeping Nature Alive,” and asked us if they could use it on several of the formal IUCN publications for the Congress. This theme and wording were first identified in our project by Strachan Donnelley.

It was amazing and inspiring to see how much resonance this theme had at this very large international meeting. It appeared everywhere, from the multi-language IUCN publications titled “Keeping Nature Alive”; to the accepting words of the incoming President, Dr. Ashok Khosla; to the final words of the entire IUCN Congress, “IUCN: Keeping Nature Alive since 1948.”

Through our networks, contacts, and collaborations, the Center was able to insert ethics into many key dialogues at the Congress. Brendan Mackey (an environmental scientist at the Australian National University who had been a Visiting Scholar with the Center in 2008) was one of eight panelists asked to introduce and explain a critical question to the entire Congress in the opening ceremony. As the final panelist, Brendan asked, “What must we do to keep nature alive in the twenty-first century?” and expounded upon morality, spirituality, ethics, and economics. Jeff McNeely, IUCN Chief Scientist and active participant in our project, closed the opening ceremony stating that “This question of ethics is a tremendous and appropriate way to open the Forum.” Brendan was later elected as a representative of Oceania on the IUCN Council, a great triumph for our colleague and our project.

The Center was also asked to co-sponsor the first Presidential Debate in IUCN history. Alongside three other sponsors, including the University of Peace in Costa Rica and the Wilderness Society of Australia, we saw to it that one of the four questions asked was specific to ethics. It was precedent-setting and crucial that all three candidates gave attention to this critical issue. Dr. Khosla, the candidate who won the incoming Presidency, spoke of the need for ethics in every role of IUCN, including in the terms of engagement when speaking with the private sector. This was a key point made at several of our project meetings. He repeated this point once again in his acceptance speech.

In addition, I was asked by the Senior Counsel of the Environmental Law Programme to give my input into the overall themes that came from the Forum, which would be part of the dialogue of the closing ceremony. Prevalent themes included “ethics,” or the lack thereof in certain conversations; how “business as usual” is not working; how solutions must be sought in a multi-disciplinary fashion; the growing need to show the environment and human health connections; the lack of will; the availability of fresh water; and also how the issue of “trust/distrust” was mentioned at nearly every workshop that I attended. The link between ethics and trust is a crucial one that has yet to be explored by our project, but was made evident at this Congress.

I also represented CHN at several side meetings, including the Task Force on Cultural and Spiritual Values. I was asked to introduce our project on the ethics of biodiversity, as well as provide input on a Resolution that several of their members were preparing for the Congress, “Mot 121: Recognition of the Diversity of Concepts and Values of Nature.” I ensured that valuable terms such as “ethics” and the “community of life” were included in the final document. This motion was later adopted by the IUCN Members for the 2009–2012 Programme.

A report of the Workshop is currently in process and will be published by the IUCN Environmental Law Programme. Once published, it will be made available on the CHN website.

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