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The Precautionary principle in biodiversity conservation and natural resource management: An issues paper for policy-makers, researchers and practitioners

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IUCN – The World Conservation Union
The Precautionary Principle in
Biodiversity Conservation and
Natural Resource Management
Rosie Cooney
The World Conservation Union
IUCN
The World Conservation Union
An issues paper for policy-makers,
researchers and practitioners
IUCN Policy and Global Change Series No. 2
IUCN
Policy and Global
Change Group
The Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
TRAFFIC
R
The Precautionary Principle Project: Sustainable
Development, Natural Resource Management and
Biodiversity Conservation
The Precautionary Principle Project is a partnership of IUCN, Fauna & Flora
International, TRAFFIC and ResourceAfrica. Through a broad collaborative process
of case studies, regional and international workshops, and engagement with major
international policy and decision-making arenas, the project aims to increase
understanding of the meaning of the precautionary principle, examine its practical
impacts in terms of conservation, livelihoods and development, and develop “best-
practice” guidance for its implementation in the context of sustainable development.
The project runs until late 2005 and is supported by the European Union, IUCN, and
the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The Precautionary Principle in
Biodiversity Conservation and
Natural Resource Management
An issues paper for policy-makers,
researchers and practitioners
The Precautionary Principle Project: Sustainable Development,
Natural Resource Management and Biodiversity Conservation
The Precautionary Principle Project is a partnership of IUCN, Fauna & Flora International,
TRAFFIC and ResourceAfrica. Through a broad collaborative process of case studies, regional
and international workshops, and engagement with major international policy and decision-
making arenas, the project aims to increase understanding of the meaning of the precautionary
principle, examine its practical impacts in terms of conservation, livelihoods and development,
and develop “best-practice” guidance for its implementation in the context of sustainable
development. The project runs until late 2005 and is supported by the European Union, IUCN,
and the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The Precautionary Principle in
Biodiversity Conservation and
Natural Resource Management
An issues paper for policy-makers,
researchers and practitioners
Rosie Cooney
IUCN Policy and Global Change Series No. 2
IUCN – The World Conservation Union
2004
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Copyright: © 2004 International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural
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Citation: Cooney, R. (2004). The Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity
Conservation and Natural Resource Management: An issues paper for
policy-makers, researchers and practitioners. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland
and Cambridge, UK. xi + 51pp.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements vii
Executive summary ix
Acronyms xi
I. Introduction 1
The context of this study 1
Background and objectives 2
Structure 3
2. The meaning of the precautionary principle 5
The core concept of precaution 5
The content of the precautionary principle 5
Precaution, prevention, and polluter-pays 8
Precaution and science 9
3. Acceptance of the precautionary principle in biodiversity
and natural resources law and policy 11
Development of the principle in environmental law and policy 11
Biodiversity and general environmental law and policy 12
Fisheries law and policy 19
Forest law and policy 23
4. Implementing precaution in biodiversity and natural resource
management: issues and challenges 25
Does acceptance of the principle in law and policy translate into implementation? 25
What sectoral features shape the implementation of precaution in biodiversity and
natural resource management? 26
Through what tools and approaches can precaution be implemented? 29
Assessing conservation costs and benefits 34
Costs, benefits, and competing objectives: the balancing act of implementing
precaution 35
Equity and precaution 37
Can precaution be “abused”? 39
5. Conclusions and current directions 41
Towards best-practice guidance 43
6. References 45
v
Acknowledgements
The author is grateful for the extensive and valuable comments and input provided by Pisupati
Balakrishna, Susie Brownlie, Markus Burgener, Stas Burgiel, Douglas Butterworth, Faith
Campbell, Nyasha Chishakwe, Kevern Cochrane, Keith Davenport, Barney Dickson, Jonathon
Ekstrom, Jonathan Evans, Sarah Fowler, Mark Halle, Virginia Gascon Gonzales, Meira
Hanson, Jeff Hayward, Michael Heazle, Ryan Hill, Paul Holthus, Jon Hutton, Mark Infield, the
International Council of Mines and Mining Biodiversity Working Group, Bill Jackson, Yoshio
Kaneko, Tim Low, Sue Mainka, Teresa Mulliken, Sheelagh O’Reilly, Tim O’Riordan, David
Offord, Alison Rosser, Peter Sand, Kathryn Saterson, Kath Short, Joel Tickner, Konrad von
Moltke, Trevor Ward, Grahame Webb, Tomme Young, and Maria Elena Zaccagnini.
This work was supported by IUCN and the European Union.
vii
Executive summary
The precautionary principle, or precautionary approach, has emerged over recent decades as a
widely and increasingly accepted general principle of environmental policy, law, and manage-
ment. It is an approach to uncertainty, and provides for action to avoid serious or irreversible
environmental harm in advance of scientific certainty of such harm. While an important and
intuitively sensible principle, the acceptance of the precautionary principle into law and policy
and its implementation in practice have been marked by controversy and confusion.
IUCN – The World Conservation Union has a mandate from its members to assess the
meaning and impacts of the precautionary principle in the field of natural resource management
(NRM) and biodiversity conservation, and to develop best-practice guidance for its imple-
mentation into policy and practice. In an ongoing initiative, IUCN and its partners TRAFFIC,
ResourceAfrica and Fauna & Flora International are assessing the meaning, acceptance,
implementation and impacts of the precautionary principle, and exploring its consequences in
terms both of conservation and of development and poverty reduction.
The objectives of this paper are, first, to examine and discuss issues arising in the translation
of the principle into operational measures in the specific field of biodiversity conservation and
natural resource management (NRM); and second, to examine and discuss issues of sustainable
development, poverty reduction and livelihoods as they relate to the precautionary principle.
The precautionary principle, or precautionary approach, is used in a variety of ways, and a
wide range of formulations exists. The core concept of precaution can be viewed as a
mechanism to counter a widespread regulatory presumption in favour of allowing develop-
ment/economic activity to proceed when there is a lack of clear evidence about its impacts.
Formulations of the precautionary principle vary from weak to strong, and from those which
impose obligations to those which empower decision-makers to take precautionary action.
Features common to most of these formulations include the use of language that limits the
operation of the principle to circumstances in which there are threats of serious or irreversible
harm, consideration of the cost-effectiveness of precautionary actions, and a shift of the burden
of proof to demonstrate lack of harm to proponents of activities.
Acceptance of precaution as a governance/management tool is highly inconsistent across
biodiversity-related policy sectors, and in general remains contentious. Many countries have
incorporated the principle into general environmental, biodiversity or natural resource law and
policy. However, at a multilateral level, it is very widely incorporated in biodiversity
conservation and fisheries management instruments, but virtually absent from forestry and
timber agreements and policy. It appears only a limited form of precaution is provided for under
relevant international trade agreements. This poses challenges for coherent environmental
policy at both international and national levels.
There are some important features of the biodiversity and natural resources sector which are
different from the industrial contexts in which precaution is usually discussed. Uncertainty in
NRM and biodiversity conservation is fundamental and persistent, and surrounds not only
underlying natural systems but the socio-economic and political context which shapes the
impact of conservation and resource decisions. Threats to biodiversity are often posed not by a
new, poorly understood technology or process, but by the expansion or intensification of
ix
well-understood activities such as harvesting of wild species or clearing forests. Threats often
derive from multiple rather than singular sources, with different courses of action each raising
potential risks. The costs or burdens of precautionary measures may fall on poor or subsistence
natural resource users and communities, rather than industrial interests. However, there are
often close linkages between biodiversity conservation and the long-term interests of those
(resource users) whose actions raise threats of harm, and precaution can also support local
livelihoods and communities.
Care should be taken in assuming specific management approaches are necessarily pre-
cautionary. Precaution is commonly equated with restrictive, “protectionist” conservation
approaches, and assumed to be inconsistent with sustainable use. However, determining the
precautionary strategy is likely to require assessment of the relative conservation threats and
benefits posed by alternative strategies. Such assessments will benefit from taking into account
not just scientific knowledge, but traditional and local knowledge, and incorporating under-
standing of the socio/economic/political contexts which will determine the impact of con-
servation decisions. The frequent automatic link made in legislation and policy between
biological indicators of threat (such as species status) and specific management responses (such
as prohibitions on use or trade), often justified on precautionary grounds, should be questioned.
Implementation of precaution involves a political and values-based balancing between the
interests of biodiversity/resource conservation, and other countervailing pressures such as eco-
nomic or livelihood interests. The more extreme or highly prohibitive versions of precaution
(the “when in doubt, don’t” approach) are problematic for reasons of both pragmatism and
equity, although they may be appropriate in specific circumstances. Many versions of pre-
caution incorporate the concept of proportionality between level of risk and measures adopted,
and include some form of analysis of the various costs and benefits involved. Different
decision-making instruments, arenas and contexts may demonstrate varying levels of risk-
averseness, due in part to their different objectives and the varying strength of different interest
groups reflected therein. Where the same issue is addressed by different policy or decision-
making arenas, this can pose potential conflicts.
Precaution raises significant equity issues in biodiversity conservation and NRM. The
livelihood and socio-economic impacts of the principle can be negative, particularly for those
dependent on utilization of biological resources to support livelihoods. Highly restrictive or
protectionist approaches raise particular problems in this respect. Attention should be paid to
which groups bear the burdens of precautionary restrictions, including who bears the burden of
proof, and who participates in and influences decision-making.
Precaution can be used by various groups in illegitimate ways, and can be misused to
disguise objections to utilization based on, for instance, animal rights concerns.
Key issues and questions for further examination will be developed through the ongoing
work of the Precautionary Principle Project.
x
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
Acronyms
AEWA African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement
CBD Convention on Biological Diversity
CCAMLR Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources
CITES Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna
and Flora
CMS Convention on Migratory Species
EIA Environmental Impact Assessment
EU European Union
FAO Food and Agriculture Organization
FSA Agreement for the Implementation of Provisions of the United Nations
Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 Relating to the
Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly
Migratory Fish Stocks
FSC Forest Stewardship Council
GMO Genetically Modified Organism
HCV High Conservation Value
IUCN IUCN – The World Conservation Union
IWC International Whaling Commission
LMO Living Modified Organism
MAC Marine Aquarium Council
MSY Maximum Sustainable Yield
NASCO North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization
NRM Natural Resource Management
RMP Revised Management Procedure
SPS Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement
UN United Nations
UNCLOS United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
WTO World Trade Organization
xi
I. Introduction
The precautionary principle is variously described as the fundamental principle underlying all
environmental policy, or as a pointless distraction from the real issues. It is seen as a
fundamental tool for sustainable development, a safeguard for future generations, and counter-
ing a tendency to overlook scientific uncertainties in an unscientific manner. It is seen as
anti-scientific, subject to abuse, inherently Northern, anti-innovation, and anti-sustainable use.
It raises issues which are central to current international debates around environment, poverty,
sustainable development and biodiversity, including the relationship between biodiversity
conservation and sustainable development; conservation for biodiversity vs conservation for
people; protectionist approaches vs sustainable use; and regulatory vs incentive-based conser-
vation approaches.
The precautionary principle provides guidance for governance and management in re-
sponding to uncertainty. It provides for action to avert risks of serious or irreversible harm to
the environment or human health in the absence of scientific certainty about that harm. It is now
widely and increasingly accepted in sustainable development and environmental policy at
multilateral and national levels. The principle represents a formalization of the intuitively
attractive idea that delaying action until harm is certain will often mean delaying until it is too
late or too costly to avert it. However, the potential for controversy is obvious. Applying
precaution will usually involve restrictions on human actions: such restrictions (by definition)
cannot be fully justified by unambiguous scientific evidence, yet may impose substantial costs.
Precaution has generated an enormous body of literature over the last decade or so from the
standpoint of lawyers, environmentalists, economists, and ethicists, but remains obscure,
confusing, or undesirable to many.
The context of this study
This study represents an initial examination of issues surrounding the meaning, acceptance and
implementation of the precautionary principle in biodiversity conservation and natural re-
source management (NRM), in the context of the ongoing initiative “The Precautionary
Principle Project: Sustainable Development, Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource
Management” (www.pprinciple.net). The precautionary principle was brought to the attention
of IUCN at the First World Conservation Congress in Montreal in 1996. A Resolution was
adopted by the Congress calling for IUCN to examine the precautionary principle, advise on
best practice for its use in an environmental context with special reference to IUCN pro-
grammes, and to disseminate these recommendations widely, bringing them particularly to the
attention of secretariats of international environmental and resource use conventions and
agreements.1In subsequent years two workshops explored implications of the precautionary
principle for natural resource management. The first was convened by Africa Resources Trust
(now ResourceAfrica) and the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology in Cape Town
in March 1997. It explored these issues particularly from a southern African perspective. In
1999 a second international workshop was convened in Cambridge, UK, by ResourceAfrica,
1
1IUCN World Conservation Congress Resolution 1.45 (1996).
the IUCN Species Programme, the IUCN Environmental Law Centre, TRAFFIC International
and the Lauterpacht Research Centre for International Law.
The Precautionary Principle Project is a partnership of IUCN (the Species Programme,
Environmental Law Centre, and Regional Office for Southern Africa), TRAFFIC, Fauna &
Flora International, and ResourceAfrica. It seeks to build on the findings of these workshops,
and help fulfil the Resolution of the First World Conservation Congress, by drawing on the
breadth of expertise and experience across IUCN and its partners. Through a broad col-
laborative process of case studies, regional and international workshops, and engagement with
major international policy and decision-making arenas, the project aims to increase under-
standing of the meaning of the principle, examine its practical impactsin terms of conservation,
livelihoods and development, and develop “best-practice” guidance for its implementation in
the context of sustainable development. Funding for an inception phase was received from
IUCN’s Innovation Fund (known as “3I-C”), and the project is currently primarily funded by a
grant from the European Union (DG-Development), with the support of the United Kingdom
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Background and objectives
After over a decade of analysis of the meaning, potential, and legal status of the precautionary
principle, it is clear that the time has come to focus on its implementation, the translation of the
principle into specific operational measures and their practical impacts (Freestone, 1999;
Freestone and Hey, 1996a; von Moltke and Weill, 2004). While some analysis of the operative
effect of the principle has been undertaken in various fields (eg, Renn et al., 2003; Tickner,
2003a), most has focussed on industrial (“brown”) environmental issues such as chemicals
regulation and pollution control. The immediate relevance of the precautionary principle in the
context of the “green” issues of biodiversity conservation and NRM is clear: biodiversity faces
major threats with the potential for huge, but poorly understood, negative impacts. Threats
include ongoing large-scale habitat destruction, forest loss and degradation, overexploitation
and collapse of biological resources, spread of invasive alien species, climate change, and
continued loss of biodiversity. However, very little analysis has focussed on the precautionary
principle in this area.
Analysis of and debate on the precautionary principle have to date been dominated by the
North and Northern concerns. They have focussed primarily on the interaction between the
precautionary principle and industrial economic interests. Very little analysis has examined the
principle in the context of sustainable development, and sought to examine its implications for
developing countries, for poverty reduction, and for the livelihoods of the poor and marginal-
ized. The precautionary principle is often seen as an integral principle within sustainable
development. By safeguarding against serious, and particularly irreversible, harm to the natural
resource base that might jeopardise future generations’ capacity to provide for their own needs,
it is frequently viewed as closely linked to inter-generational equity, and part of the overarching
concept or policy of sustainable development, formulated by the 1987 Brundtland Commission
as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the abilities of
future generations to meet their needs”(World Commission on Environment and Development,
1987). However, by virtue of limiting the nature or extent of economic and livelihood activities,
the precautionary principle can be seen as in tension with the “right to development”, and has
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
2
raised various concerns among developing countries, which have been expressed in fora such
as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and at the World Summit on Sustainable
Development (WSSD). These issues are particularly central when addressing the precautionary
principle in the context of biodiversity conservation and NRM, given that the great bulk of
biodiversity lies within the developing world.
This paper, therefore, has two linked objectives:
(i) first, to examine and discuss issues arising in the translation of the principle into
operational measures in the specific field of biodiversity conservation and natural
resource management (NRM); and
(ii) second, to examine and discuss issues of sustainable development, poverty reduction
and livelihoods as they relate to the precautionary principle in this sector.
A comprehensive review and analysis of these issues might involve technical analysis of a
broad range of specialist disciplines, and assessment of a vast array of international and
national legislation, policies and decisions. This is beyond the scope of this paper. This analysis
seeks therefore to be illustrative rather than comprehensive, highlight major issues of broad
relevance, draw preliminary conclusions where possible, and highlight areas of ambiguity for
further examination.
Structure
This paper first addresses the meaning of precaution. It discusses the core concept and its
various formulations (section 2). The development of the principle in international law and
policy is sketched out, and its acceptance by an array of biodiversity and resource-related
governance and management instruments at international, regional and national level is
analysed in more depth (section 3). The next section addresses the implementation of pre-
caution (section 4). Specific features of biodiversity and natural resources that influence the
implementation and impacts of precaution are sketched out, as are major prevailing approaches
to uncertainty and their relationship to the precautionary principle. This leads to an examination
of a range of issues and challenges in implementing the principle, raising questions for both
biodiversity conservation and for livelihoods, poverty reduction and sustainable development.
The final section (section 5) sets out preliminary conclusions and an outline of the way ahead
for the development of best-practice guidance for the implementation of the precautionary
principle in biodiversity conservation and natural resource management.
3
I. Introduction
4
2. The meaning of the precautionary principle
The core concept of precaution
What is the precautionary principle? Understanding the meaning of the precautionary principle
requires understanding the context and rationale for its origin. In many societies, jurisdictions,
and contexts, there has long been a general presumption in favour of development. The term
“development” here is used broadly, to refer to all human economic activities modifying the
environment, rather than to a more specific use such as improvement of standards of living in
developing countries. Under this presumption, where there is uncertainty or ignorance re-
garding the impacts of an activity such as release of pollutants, fishing, building, or mining, the
“default state” is that activities can go ahead. Uncertainty around environmental impact is used
as a rationale for not banning toxic chemicals, not reducing fisheries harvest levels, or not
refusing mining applications. Environmental objections against them will require clear scienti-
fic evidence that they lead to environmental harm.
However, in recent years, faced with the increasing scale of human changes and impacts on
the human environment, and with growing awareness of its complexity, it has become
increasingly clear that science, and human knowledge generally, cannot provide definitive
evidence of all forms of harm in advance. Such evidence may be intrinsically unattainable, or
come too late to prevent serious and irreversible environmental damage. How then should
decision-makers act in the face of uncertainty, while seeking to balance divergent aims and
objectives? Precaution has emerged as a broad principle weighing in favour of environmental
protection in the case of uncertainty. The core of the principle can be understood as countering
the presumption in favour of development. Where there is uncertainty concerning the impacts
of an activity, rather than assuming human economic activities will proceed until and unless
there is clear evidence that they are harmful, the precautionary principle supports action to
anticipate and avert environmental harm in advance of, or without, a clear demonstration that
such action is necessary. Precaution shifts the balance in decision-making toward “prudent
foresight”, in favour of monitoring, preventing or mitigating uncertain potential threats. This is
a broad notion susceptible of supporting a very wide range of operational measures, and as
discussed below, most formulations contain texts which further specify or limit its con-
sequences.
The content of the precautionary principle
It is important from the outset to recognise the character of a principle. The traditional concept
of a legal principle is that it provides an argument in a particular direction, but does not
determine a specific outcome (cf. a “rule”: see Dworkin, 1976). Principles provide flexible and
context-specific guidance: they may be of variable importance in different contexts, can be in
conflict with other principles, and they allow discretion for decision-makers to balance them
and be guided by those they find to be most important. Unless a specific formulation requires it,
therefore, the precautionary principle will not determine a specific outcome or decision, and in
particular will not necessitate one particular decision that would guarantee total protection
5
(Nollkaemper, 1996, pp.80–1). Based on this understanding the terms “precautionary
principle” and “precautionary approach” are used interchangeably in this paper (see Box 1).
What is the general content of the precautionary principle? The core concept outlined above
has been given expression in many different formulations of the precautionary principle in
policy, legal, advocacy and analytical instruments and documents. Some are “weak” and some
are “strong”, some demand or exhort action while some enable or authorize, some involve a
very broad scope of operation for precaution while some limit it to specified conditions. At the
very minimum, the precautionary principle will require that scientific certainty of environ-
mental harm is not required as a prerequisite for taking action to avert it. Where the principle is
given its fullest effect, however, it may lead to prohibition of activities which pose any
environmental threat, and require proponents of any proposed activity to demonstrate that it is
safe. Much debate around the precautionary principle is confused by the fact that antagonists
have very differing conceptions of the principle in mind, involving one of these extremes or any
point on a continuum between them.
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
6
Box 1. Precautionary principle or precautionary approach?
There has been much debate over whether the terminology “precautionary principle” or
“precautionary approach” should be adopted. There are two related but distinct debates.
One is about the content of the legal guidance, the second is about the legal status of the
guidance.
First, “the precautionary approach” has been argued as favourable terminology because
“the precautionary principle” appears to mandate that risk be avoided or minimized,
thereby automatically giving the environment the benefit of the doubt; while “the pre-
cautionary approach” implies that it allows flexible operational measures which are
context-sensitive and allow for the balancing of various objectives, including economic
ones. For instance, in fisheries, the term “precautionary principle” is often viewed as a
hard-line approach requiring complete prohibitions, so “precautionary approach” has been
favoured (Mace and Gabriel, 1999). What is not in question in this debate is the acceptance
of the concept as guidance to be applied (in specified contexts). However, given the
traditional legal understanding of a principle (see text), this distinction does not appear a
useful one.
Second, some have argued against the recognition of precaution as a “principle” of
environmental law, which implies a broad obligation to apply precaution in decision-
making, in favour of viewing precaution as merely one particular policy/management
“approach” to dealing with uncertain risks, which may be chosen over alternative ap-
proaches according to circumstance. While it is undisputed that in specific contexts there
are clear legal requirements or guidance in favour of precaution, this debate relates to an
extensive (unresolved) question about whether precaution has become part of customary
international law (e.g., Cameron and Abouchar, 1996). Contention may also be prompted
by the difficulty of some regulatory systems, such as that of the USA, in accommodating
broad, generally applicable principles which allow wide discretion in decision-making
(von Moltke, pers. comm.).
General formulations of the principle provide further guidance and illustrate these varia-
tions. Probably the most widely cited version of a generally applicable principle of pre-
cautionary action in the environmental context is Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on
Environment and Development (1992). This states:
“In order to protect the environment the Precautionary Approach shall be widely applied
by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible
damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing
cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
Points to note include:
nthreats: precaution becomes relevant where there are threats of harm to the environment
(or human health). There is little guidance in this formulation as to what level of evidence
or suggestion or indication of a threat is required. Some formulations provide more
guidance, including, for instance the introduction of criteria of “reasonableness” or
“reasonable grounds for concern”.2Sometimes science-based risk assessments are
viewed as an essential first step for applying precaution (see e.g., European Commission,
2000).
nserious or irreversible damage: the threatened damage should be “serious or irreversible”
– in this version threats of only minor or trivial damage do not raise the relevance of
precaution.
nlack of full scientific certainty not a reason for postponing: while scientific uncertainty
should not be used as a rationale for delaying protective action, under this formulation it is
important to note that protective measures could be postponed for other reasons such as
economic cost or poverty reduction priorities.
ncost-effective measures: the measures applied should be cost-effective. This implies
some assessment of the costs and benefits of proposed measures, and some sort of
proportionality between the costs of the measure adopted and the benefits to be gained.
napplied by States according to their capabilities: in this international (soft) law formu-
lation the capabilities of States, presumably encompassing economic, governance, and
technical capabilities, moderates the requirement to apply the precautionary approach.
This version of the principle of precautionary action is relatively “weak”: it is limited to
serious/irreversible damage, there is no call for protective measures, just a requirement that
lack of scientific certainty not be used as a reason to delay them, and obligations are moderated
by cost-effectiveness and the differing capabilities of States.
This can be contrasted with a relatively “strong” version, perhaps more typical of the way in
which the precautionary principle is used in environmental advocacy. The Wingspread
Statement on the precautionary principle was formulated in the late 1990s by a meeting in the
USA of scientists, government officials, lawyers, and labour and environmental activists.
While not the result of public or multilateral discussion or negotiation, it has been influential in
2. The meaning of the precautionary principle
7
2See e.g., Convention for the Protection for the Environment of the North-East Atlantic, 1992 (OSPAR
Convention), Article 2(2)(a); and Scottish Natural Heritage (2001).
the broader debate on precaution and provides a useful counterpoint. It includes the following
definition:
“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, pre-
cautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not
fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the
public, should bear the burden of proof”(Raffensperger and Tickner, 1999).
In this version, precaution is relevant to harm in general, not limited to “serious and
irreversible” harm, and a positive duty to take precautionary measures is envisaged.
Characteristic is the:
nshift of the burden of proof: this is one of the most important ways in which the
precautionary principle is given operational effect. Proponents of potentially harmful
activities may be required to demonstrate that such activities are safe or acceptable, rather
than those opposing the activities being required to argue that they are harmful.
One effect of the incorporation of precaution into environmental decision-making and
management is to force attention to scientific uncertainties. This makes explicit that in these
circumstances, decision-making can be informed by science, but cannot be determined purely
by it. Decisions will need to be based on judgements, influenced by values and perceptions,
about acceptable risks, costs, and benefits. Precaution is therefore often linked to a shift
towards more inclusive, participatory and democratic forms of environmental governance (see
generally O’Riordan, Cameron and Jordan, 2001; Tickner, 2003b). Precaution can operate to
lift decisions on environmental risk out of the purely technical realm and open the space for
participation of stakeholders in deliberation and decision-making on such questions as risk
identification and assessment, assessment of alternative courses of action, and choice of risk
management strategy. In this respect the Wingspread Statement goes on to say “the process of
applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include
potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives,
including no action.”
Precaution, prevention, and polluter-pays
The precautionary principle must be distinguished from another well-established principle of
environmental law, the principle of preventive action (see e.g., De Sadeleer, 2003). Risk
involves negative outcomes that may or may not occur. Sometimes, usually based on a
quantitative assessment of past occurrences, it is possible to reliably identify possible outcomes
and assign to each a likelihood of occurrence. This is “classic” risk: the system, the possible
outcomes and their likelihood are well understood, and the principle of prevention rather than
the principle of precaution is relevant. This can be contrasted with the situation where there is
uncertainty surrounding possible outcomes and their likelihood of occurrence. There is no clear
rational basis for assigning probabilities to identified outcomes. Here precaution is the relevant
principle. Prevention therefore is about preventing known risks, precaution is about preventing
unknown risks.
The precautionary principle can be viewed as related to and evolving from the principle of
prevention and a further well-established principle, the polluter-pays principle (see De
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
8
Sadeleer, 2003; Dzidzornu, 1998). All these principles have as their aim environmental
protection, and they can be seen as reflecting a progression in the law in the time at which it
addresses environmental harm: from reactive law, addressing harms that have already hap-
pened (polluter-pays); to addressing known risks before harm occurs (prevention); to antici-
pating and averting unknown, uncertain threats (precaution).
Precaution and science
While precaution provides a policy approach to scientific uncertainty, science nevertheless
frequently plays a very large role. Many versions or discussions of implementation of the
precautionary principle emphasise the importance of initial scientific assessment of risks as a
basis for decision-making (see e.g., Boisson de Chazournes, 2002; European Commission,
2000; Gehring and Segger, 2002; Scottish Natural Heritage, 2001). Many formulations of
precaution or guidance for its implementation involve language that describes what level of
indication of threat is required before precautionary action is justified, and this may often rely
on scientific assessment.
However, the precautionary principle is often contrasted with a “sound science” based
approach to risk regulation, in which environmental protection measures require clear scientific
evidence of environmental risk, rather than precaution in the face of uncertain or hypothetical
risks. Some argue that without clear scientific evidence of risk, regulation may reflect arbitrary
or ill-informed fears or misconceptions, or illegitimate motivations such astrade protectionism.
On the other hand, some argue that precautionary regulation is entirely consistent with respect
for sound science. This group emphasises that scientific knowledge of the risks of many new
technologies or environmental interventions is fragmentary, that the statistical power of tests
for negative impacts must be borne in mind when evidence is presented that a technology or
intervention does not cause harm (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence), and that the
culture of scientific investigation may over-emphasise quantifiable risk factors and
under-emphasise uncertainty and ignorance.
Rhetoric aside, the precautionary principle itself, as distinct from its application in any
particular circumstance, should probably be viewed as neutral with respect to scientific rigour.
For instance, a precautionary regime may require rigorous scientific evidence of low risk
before an activity is allowed to proceed, and a non-precautionary regime may require rigorous
scientific evidence of risk before prohibiting an activity. Which of these is chosen does not
reflect differing valuations of science, but differing value judgements about what objectives
should be favoured when science is uncertain.
2. The meaning of the precautionary principle
9
3. Acceptance of the precautionary principle in
biodiversity and natural resources law and
policy
This broad general principle has had a major impact on environmental law and policy over
recent decades. This section starts by providing a general background by sketching out the
development of the precautionary principle in environmental law and policy. It goes on to
examine the incorporation of the precautionary principle into major biodiversity and natural
resource-related law and policy at international, regional and national level, with a focus on
biodiversity, fisheries, forestry, invasive alien species, and trade. In some cases specific legal or
policy provisions or measures are described as precautionary in the absence of any explicit
inclusion or reference to precaution. In this case measures are described as precautionary if
they: (a) aim to anticipate, mitigate or avert a potential threat; (b) are not clearly, un-
controversially justified by available scientific knowledge.3
Development of the principle in environmental law and
policy
There are several comprehensive analyses available of the “meteoric” rise of the precautionary
principle in environmental law and policy (see e.g., De Sadeleer, 2003; Douma, 2003;
Freestone, 1999; Freestone and Hey, 1996b; Hohmann, 1994; O’Riordan and Cameron, 1994).
The precautionary principle is widely recognised as emerging from the Vorsorgeprinzip
(directly translated as “fore-caring” or “foresight” principle) of German domestic law (von
Moltke, 1988), although it has earlier antecedents in Swedish law (Sands, 2000). The principle
emerged in the international arena in the late 1970s in the context of the North Sea ministerial
conferences on marine pollution. At the time, the prevailing approach to marine pollution relied
on scientific calibration of the assimilative capacity of the marine environment: in the absence
of scientific evidence that particular emissions were causing damage, there was no recognised
basis for control. The final ministerial statement from the second North Sea conference
provides an early formulation of the precautionary approach in this context: “Accepting that, in
order to protect the North Sea from possibly damaging effects of the most dangerous sub-
stances, a precautionary approach is necessary which may require action to control emissions
of such substances even before a causal link has been established by absolutely clear scientific
evidence” (Article 7).
From these beginnings, the precautionary principle, or precautionary approach, has been
progressively incorporated into a very wide range of hard and soft law instruments at inter-
national, regional and national level. At the 1992 Rio de Janeiro United Nations Conference on
Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) it was extended to environmental pro-
tection in general in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and incorporated
11
3It is important to note that a particular regulatory or management measure cannot be identified as
precautionary prima facie. A highly restrictive measure, such as a total ban or prohibition, will be
preventive if used against a well understood threat, whereas as a milder measure such as monitoring
may be precautionary if anticipating an uncertain threat.
into the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and Agenda 21. It is now incorporated, at
least in some instruments or contexts, in a wide range of fields including climate change,
marine fisheries, food standards, transport of hazardous waste, pollution control, and chemicals
regulation, although it remains contentious in many areas. The precautionary principle has been
given operative effect in recent agreements, including the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior
Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International
Trade (1998), the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (2001), and the
Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000). Much of the debate about the precautionary principle
has been dominated by disputes over its use within the context of global trade liberalization and
World Trade Organization (WTO) disciplines, and these disputes have a major influence over
its acceptance elsewhere. While extensive analysis has focussed on whether the precautionary
principle has “crystallized” into a principle of customary international law, it may con-
servatively be said that while it is not unequivocally accepted as having the status of customary
international law (eg, Marceau, 2002), it can probably be described as customary international
law in some sectors (Gehring and Cordonnier-Segger, 2002).
At national level the precautionary principle has long been accepted in many countries as a
legitimate basis for medical and public health interventions, and is increasingly being adopted
as a basis for environmental policy. More generally, the precautionary principle continues to
provide a strong focus for advocacy in support of environmental protection, public health and
sometimes human rights.
Biodiversity and general environmental law and policy
Global agreements
Many multilateral environmental agreements related to biodiversity, wildlife or species conser-
vation incorporate references to the precautionary principle in some form, though few involve
its elaboration into specific guidance or operational measures.
The Convention on Biological Diversity
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 1992), the only global agreement for bio-
diversity generally, contains a version of the precautionary principle in the preambular text,
which provides some guidance on how the “serious or irreversible” harm mentioned in the Rio
Declaration should be interpreted in the biodiversity context. It states “where there is a threat of
significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not
be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat” (emphasis
added). The precautionary principle has subsequently been extensively included in decisions
and related work on biosafety (see below), marine and coastal biodiversity (eg, Decision II/10,
SBSTTA I/8), invasive alien species (see below), the ecosystem approach (Decision V/6),4and
guidelines on sustainable use (Decision VII/12).
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
12
4While precaution does not appear in adopted text, the importance of adopting a precautionary
approach was consistently highlighted during discussions and preliminary work. See e.g., Report:
Liaison Group meeting on Ecosystem Approach, 15–17 September 2000, Paris.
Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
The precautionary principle was a key focus of contention in the negotiation of the Cartagena
Protocol on Biosafety (2000) to the CBD on the trade of living genetically modified organisms
(LMOs). The Protocol reaffirms the precautionary approach, and on this basis seeks to
contribute to ensuring that development, handling, transport, use, transfer and release of living
modified organisms are undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the risks to biological
diversity or human health. Key requirements include an Advance Informed Agreement pro-
cedure for transboundary movements of LMOs, and risk assessments by importing States. It is
reaffirmed in several places that lack of scientific certainty shall not prevent import States from
taking action to avert potential risks.
Invasive alien species
The precautionary principle has become increasingly important in policy efforts to address the
introduction, spread and eradication of invasive alien species. The CBD has developed Guiding
Principles for the Prevention, Introduction and Mitigation of Impacts of Alien Species that
Threaten Ecosystems, Habitats Or Species (Annex, Decision VI/23, see also V/8), although the
current status of these remains contested precisely because of controversy over the pre-
cautionary approach. The Guidelines highlight the precautionary approach as the first Guiding
Principle, understood as meaning that lack of scientific certainty about the environmental,
social and economic risk posed by a potentially invasive alien species or by a potential pathway
should not be used as a reason for not taking preventative action against the introduction of
potentially invasive alien species, and that lack of certainty about the long-term implication of
an invasion should not be used as a reason for postponing eradication, containment or control
measures.
Both the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern
Convention, 1982) and the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), developed under
the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS, 1979), have developed guidelines on intro-
ductions of alien species that incorporate the precautionary approach (see Bern Convention:
Standing Committee No 57 (1997) and No 77 (1999); CMS: MOP Resolution 2.3).
International wildlife trade and CITES
The precautionary principle has been supported in resolutions of the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, Washington,
1973), and is an important principle of decision-making and advocacy in this forum. The
precautionary principle is incorporated into criteria governing the listing of species in the
CITES Appendices (Res. Conf 9.24 (Rev)). Species listed in Appendix I may not be com-
mercially traded, and trade in species included in Appendix II is regulated by a permit system.
The precautionary principle has been formulated in an unusual way in this context. When
Parties are deciding which species should be placed in the Appendices, in the case of scientific
uncertainty it is provided that Parties should act “in the best interests of the species”. Further
specific “Precautionary measures” restrict the circumstances under which species can be
transferred from Appendix I to Appendix II. Overall, therefore, the specific operative effect of
the precautionary principle under the terms of the relevant resolution is to weigh in favour of
species protection when making listing decisions, and in favour of maintaining Appendix I
3. Acceptance of the precautionary principle in biodiversity and natural resources law
13
species in Appendix I. However, the precautionary principle is commonly used in advocacy
and debate within CITES as an argument specifically in favour of increased trade regulation
and of trade bans/restrictions (Dickson, 1999). This issue is discussed further below.
CITES provides for Parties to adopt “stricter domestic measures” with respect to trade in
wild species (Article XIV(1)), such as additional limitations on the import of particular taxa.
Such stricter import restrictions are, for instance, relied on by the USA and the European
Union, often as precautionary measures in the light of uncertainty surrounding management of
harvest and trade, enforcement, and species status. The US Wild Bird Conservation Act (1992)
involves a general prohibition on the import of all wild-caught birds, unless a harvest/trade
programme can be demonstrated to meet a range of stringent conservation conditions, a clear
example of reversal of the burden of proof. Likewise, the US Endangered Species Act (1973)
involves general trade prohibitions on species listed as endangered. These unilateral trade
measures tend to be controversial, as range States are not necessarily consulted in decision-
making processes, and these decisions may involve substantial economic and livelihood costs.
The provisions of CITES are implemented through measures taken at the national level,
including the formulation of “non-detriment” findings (see Articles III and IV) to allow trade in
Appendix II and, under special circumstances, Appendix I species, the establishment of export
quotas, and a choice of harvest or management strategies. These decisions are frequently made
in conditions of substantial uncertainty and the precautionary principle may be given opera-
tional effect by national management authorities.
Other global biodiversity agreements
Other major global biodiversity treaties include the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (1971)
and the CMS. While neither of these incorporates the precautionary principle in the text of the
convention – they were negotiated before the emergence of the precautionary principle – both
have recognised and accepted the notion of precaution in subsequent decisions, including the
Ramsar Guidelines on Management Planning for Wetlands (Resolution VIII.14 Chapter VI)
and the resolution on Allocation and Management of Water (Resolution VIII.1 Article 10.1),
and the CMS resolution on Wind Turbines and Migratory Species (Resolution 7.5). A range of
species-based agreements concluded under the CMS has incorporated the precautionary
principle – these are discussed further below.
Regional agreements
Most parts of the globe are covered by regional biodiversity-related agreements, and several
incorporate statements of the precautionary principle. The recently amended African
Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (2003) incorporates a strong
statement of the precautionary principle as part of its fundamental obligation (Article IV). The
Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1991) does not explicitly
incorporate the precautionary principle, but does explicitly address the issue of uncertainty and
contains detailed requirements to foresee, assess, minimize and monitor potential environ-
mental harm. However, most other regional conservation framework agreements, such as those
covering Southeast Asia, the Western Hemisphere, Central America, the Wider Caribbean, the
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
14
South Pacific, the Amazon, and East Africa do not incorporate the precautionary principle.5In
general these were negotiated before the precautionary principle had emerged as a recognised
environmental principle.
European Union
The wide acceptance of the precautionary principle as a general environmental policy principle
within the European Union (EU) has been highly influential, and driven much of the recent
debate about the principle. The Maastricht Treaty of European Union (1992) states that
“Community policy on the environment must aim at a high level of protection and be based on
the precautionary principle, as well as on the principle that preventive action should be taken,
that environmental damage should be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.” In
the WTO Beef Hormone dispute with the USA (see WTO, 1998a), the EU’s reliance on the
precautionary principle as a basis for import restrictions to guard against uncertain health
threats of hormone-treated beef gave impetus to the international debate and contention on
precaution. Recently, the precautionary principle has been the focus of attention in the EU’s
development of a new, more precautionary, chemicals regulatory framework (REACH) (see
e.g., EU, 2003), and is currently again at issue in an ongoing trade dispute over an alleged EU
de facto moratorium on the import of genetically modified crops (see e.g., Bridges, 2004a). In
2000 the European Commission published a Communication on the Precautionary Principle,
subsequently adopted by the European Parliament, which provides important guidelines for
translation of the general principle into operational measures (European Commission, 2000).
This Communication sets out that implementation of the precautionary principle should be
guided by the principles of proportionality, non-discrimination, consistency, examination of
the costs and benefits of action and inaction, and examination of scientific developments.
The 1992 EC Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Flora and Fauna
(Directive 92/43, the Habitats Directive) states that in the case of a project likely to have a
significant effect on a protected site “competent national authorities shall agree to the plan or
project only after having ascertained that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the site
concerned…”. This represents a clear reversal of the presumption in favour of development,
and the burden of generating and providing the information to demonstrate that the site will not
be affected will lie on the proponent.
3. Acceptance of the precautionary principle in biodiversity and natural resources law
15
5See Asean Agreement on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (Kuala Lumpur 1985);
Convention on Nature Protection and Wild Life Preservation in the Western Hemisphere (Washington
1940); Convention for the Conservation of the Biodiversity and Protection of Wilderness Areas in
Central America (Managua 1992); Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine
Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (the Cartagena Convention, Cartagena de Indias 1983);
Convention on Conservation of Nature in the South Pacific (Apia 1976); Convention For The
Protection Of The Natural Resources And Environment Of The South Pacific Region (Noumea 1986);
Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation (Brasilia 1978); Protocol Concerning Protected Areas and Wild
Fauna and Flora in the Eastern African Region (Nairobi 1985).
Species and taxon-level agreements
Agreements negotiated before the 1990s generally do not incorporate the precautionary
principle. These include the Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears (1973) and the
Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972).
However, a number of agreements related to marine mammals incorporate or have accepted
a precautionary approach. The Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic
and North Seas (ASCOBANS, 1991), concluded under the CMS, has incorporated precaution
in relation to various issues despite a lack of explicit incorporation in the original treaty (MOP 3
Resolution 3). A later CMS agreement on Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea,
Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS, 1996) explicitly incorporates
the precautionary principle (Article II.4), and this has been reinforced in subsequent
Resolutions (Resolution 1.12). The original CMS Agreement on the Conservation of Seals in
the Wadden Sea (1990) does not include the precautionary principle, however, its imple-
mentation now includes a series of subsequently established guiding principles, including
precaution.6The Agreement on Cooperation in Research, Conservation and Management of
Marine Mammals in the North Atlantic (NAMMCO, 1992) does not contain the precautionary
principle. More recently, the precautionary principle has been incorporated into the Agreement
on the International Dolphins Conservation Programme (1998; Article IV), negotiated to
minimize dolphin deaths in the Eastern Pacific yellowfin tuna fishery. The International
Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW), and its associated International Whaling
Commission (IWC), were originally established as fisheries management agreements, and are
discussed below under fisheries.
The precautionary principle is not widely explicitly adopted in agreements related to sea
turtles, despite the fact that several of these have recently been concluded. Precaution is not
explicitly incorporated into the Inter-American Convention for the Protection and
Conservation of Sea Turtles (1996); the Cooperative Agreement for the Conservation of Sea
Turtles of the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama (1998); or the two
relevant CMS agreements on marine turtles of the Atlantic coast of Africa (1999) and of the
Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia (2001).7Likewise the SPAW Protocol (Specially Protected
Areas and Wildlife of the Wider Caribbean Region) to the Cartagena Convention, a broader
agreement but with considerable relevance to turtle conservation, does not explicitly in-
corporate precaution. However, several of these agreements ban all consumptive use of turtles,
a measure which is presumably based on the precautionary principle, given the notorious
uncertainty surrounding sea turtle population dynamics.
A range of other species or taxon-specific agreements have been developed under the CMS.
Of these the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (1995) incorporates the precautionary
principle among its fundamental principles, and precaution also appears in the Memorandum of
Understanding on the Conservation and Management of the Middle-European Population of
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
16
6Ministerial Declaration of the 6th Trilateral Governmental Conference on the Protection of the Wadden
Sea (1991).
7Memorandum of Understanding concerning Conservation Measures for Marine Turtles of the Atlantic
Coast of Africa (1999); Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of
Marine Turtles and their Habitats of the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia (2001).
the Great Bustard (2000), and the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels
(2001).
Incorporation at the national level
At the national level, the precautionary principle is, naturally, not evident in biodiversity and
wildlife law adopted prior to the Rio Earth Summit and its incorporation into the Rio
Declaration and the Convention on Biological Diversity. So, for instance, the major wildlife
laws of Kenya and Brazil, enacted in the 1960s and 1970s, do not explicitly incorporate the
precautionary principle,8although they may be viewed as incorporating precautionary ele-
ments. However, a range of both developing and developed countries has incorporated the
precautionary principle into more recent legislation, and this is particularly evident where
countries have recently enacted comprehensive biodiversity legislation.
Examples from Latin America
Several countries in this region have recently adopted biodiversity legislation that incorporates
the precautionary principle. For instance, in Ecuador it is incorporated in law on the conser-
vation and sustainable development of the Galapagos Islands, and on invasive alien species,
and in forthcoming law on biodiversity and sustainable use.9Relevant biodiversity law also
incorporates precautionary measures, including a “reverse listing” procedure for import and
export of wild species, requiring permits for all such trade.10 In Argentina, precaution is
incorporated as a principle to guide the application and interpretation of general environmental
law.11 In Peru, the recently developed National Strategy for Biological Diversity (2001) and
regulations implementing the Forest and Wildlife Law (2001) include the precautionary
principle as a guiding principle (Article 1(i)). In Costa Rica, the precautionary principle is
incorporated into the 1998 biodiversity law (Ley de Biodiversidad, Article 11(2)) and has been
relied on by the Constitutional Court in an important case concerning sea turtle conservation.12
Examples from Asia
The Pakistan Supreme Court has recognised and upheld the precautionary principle,13 viewing
it as an integral component of sustainable development. Likewise in India, the Supreme Court
has held that the precautionary principle is a norm of customary international law and of
national law.14 India’s general wildlife law, the Wild Life (Protection) Act (1972), does not
3. Acceptance of the precautionary principle in biodiversity and natural resources law
17
8Brazil Lei 5.197 (1967); Kenya Wildlife (Conservation and Management) Act (1976).
9See Legislación Ambiental Secundaria. Libro IV: Biodiversidad (2003) Art. 20, 21, 29; Ley Especial
para la Provincia de Galápagos (2002); Ley Para La Conservación Y Uso Sustentable De La
Biodiversidad (in Congress for approval).
10 Legislación Ambiental Secundaria Libro IV: Biodiversidad Art. 20, 29.
11 Ley General Del Ambiente Ley Nacional 25.675 Art. 4.
12 Res. 01250-99 Sala Constitucional De La Corte Suprema De Justicia, Costa Rica.
13 Ms. Shehla Zia and others v. Wapda Supreme Court of Pakistan (1992).
14 Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union Of India (1996); M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1996);
Narmada Bachao Andolan v. Union of India (1999).
incorporate the precautionary principle. However, it bans all hunting of wildlife, a measure
which was presumably precautionary, given uncertainties surrounding the level and conser-
vation impact of hunting. Southeast Asia provides several examples of the relatively recent
adoption of environmental or biodiversity laws including a range of guiding principles, but,
perhaps surprisingly, not the precautionary principle. Malaysia’s National Biodiversity Policy
(1998) makes explicit reference to the CBD and other principles, but not the precautionary
principle. Lao PDR’s Environmental Protection Law (1999) sets out a number of principles,
but not precaution. Vietnam does not include the precautionary principle in its general
Environment Protection Act (1993) or Biodiversity Action Plan (1995). Finally, Indonesia
does not include text on precaution in its 1990 Act on the Conservation of Biological Resources
and their Ecosystems or in the more recent Law Concerning Environmental Management
(1997).
Examples from Africa
A range of African countries has adopted the precautionary principle in biodiversity related
legislation. The 1997 Mozambique environment legislation15 states that environmental man-
agement activities should be undertaken so as to avoid significant or irreversible negative
environmental impacts, independently of the existence of scientific certainty concerning the
occurrence of these impacts (Article 4). Mozambique’s 1999 law on forest and wildlife
activities16 also adopts “prevention and prudence”, meaning that the introduction of animal
and plant species and of modern technologies into the forest and wildlife sector should be
preceded by impact evaluation studies in order to guarantee sustainability.” In Cameroon’s
general environmental law of 199617 the precautionary principle is incorporated as a guiding
principle for management of the environment and natural resources. South Africa’s National
Environmental Management Act (1998) provides that sustainable development includes consi-
deration of, inter alia “that a risk averse and cautious approach is applied, which takes into
account the limits of current knowledge about the consequences of decisions and actions”
(Article 4(a)(vii).
Australia
The precautionary principle is deeply entrenched in environmental policy in Australia. The
precautionary principle, as one of the principles of “Ecologically Sustainable Development”
was incorporated into the 1992 framework Inter-Governmental Agreement on the
Environment, an agreement between Commonwealth and state governments. It is included in
the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) and in
numerous state environmental statutes, particularly in New South Wales. The precautionary
principle has been a key issue in a string of environmental cases in Australia,18 which have
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
18
15 Lei No. 20/97.
16 Lei No. 10/1999.
17 Loi No. 96–12 portant loi-cadre relative à la gestion de l’environnement (1996).
18 See Leatch v National Parks and Wildlife Service (1993); Nicholls v Director-General of National
Parks and Wildlife (1994); Greenpeace Australia Ltd v Redbank Power Co (1995); Northcompass v
Hornsby Council (1996); Friends of Hinchinbrook Society Inc v Minister for Environment (1997).
highlighted the importance of the principle, even where no specific statutory obligation is
involved.
United States of America
Precaution is rarely explicit in domestic US legislation, but precautionary measures are
well-entrenched (see e.g., Raustiala, 2002; Wirth, 2002). In wildlife conservation, several
regulatory instruments have strong precautionary elements, including the Endangered Species
Act (1973), the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), and the Wild Bird Conservation Act
(1992). In general, these involve the complete prohibition of a class of activities for defined
species, or prohibition unless stringent requirements are met.
Fisheries law and policy
Uncertainty and “traditional” fisheries management approaches
By way of background to this section, it is important to recognise the approach to uncertainty
adopted by “traditional” fisheries management. The aim of traditional fisheries management is
to achieve the maximum sustainable yield (MSY). This is the maximum harvest from a stock
that can be maintained indefinitely, taking into account the increase in productivity that usually
results from a decrease in the stock size. Pursuit of MSY has often been associated with
over-fishing, due in large part to lack of adequate recognition of or incorporation of uncertainty
(see e.g., Wade, 2001). Retrospective analysis of fish stocks has demonstrated that reality often
lies outside model estimates, and targeting modelled MSY can lead to overexploitation and
stock collapse (Punt and Smith, 2001). This has been an important factor in the wide in-
corporation of the precautionary approach in fisheries.
Multilateral agreements and policy processes
Against this background of “non-precautionary” management and widespread stock over-
exploitation, the recognition and incorporation of uncertainty, and attendant risks, have been
major drivers of the evolution of fisheries policy and regulatory approaches. Recent decades
have seen the strong emergence in international, regional and national fisheries law and policy
of a “precautionary approach” to fisheries management, and it is probably within the fisheries
context that the concept of precautionary resource utilization and management has received the
most detailed attention and fullest elaboration to date (for comprehensive analyses see
Freestone, 1999; Juda, 2002).
UN Law of the Sea Convention
The major international agreement regulating conservation and utilization of high seas marine
resources is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS
contains no explicit mention of precaution and enshrines the concept of MSY, requiring the
adoption of measures to “maintain or restore populations of harvested species at levels which
can produce the maximum sustainable yield” (Article 119). Measures must be based on the best
scientific data available. As to whether this requirement means that conservation measures
3. Acceptance of the precautionary principle in biodiversity and natural resources law
19
aimed at averting potential but scientifically undemonstrated risks cannot be taken, a leading
commentator suggests that if adequate scientific data are not available, then the general
obligations of the convention remain, and the primary applicable obligation is that of
conservation (Freestone, 1999, pp. 159). This arguably provides a basis for subsequent wide
acceptance of the precautionary approach.
Despite the absence of reference to precaution in UNCLOS, the precautionary approach may
influence judicial decisions pursuant to it. The ruling of the International Tribunal for the Law
of the Sea in the Southern Bluefin Tuna cases19 does not rely expressly on the precautionary
approach, but has been interpreted as necessarily implying acceptance of it (eg, Marr, 2000).
UN Fish Stocks Agreement
The 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement (FSA)20 marks a significant shift of emphasis and
approach. Environmental considerations are strongly highlighted in the preambular language
and given effect throughout the operative provisions. The FSA is the first global fisheries
agreement requiring a precautionary approach to fisheries management. A precedent-setting
and highly influential development. Article 6 requires that to preserve the marine environment
as well as protect marine living resources, the precautionary approach should be applied to
conservation, management and exploitation measures. It includes requirements that States
apply a prescribed methodology for precautionary measures (set out in Annex II), implement
improved techniques for dealing with risk and uncertainty, take into account both ecological
and socio-economic uncertainties, and develop research and monitoring programmes and plans
aimed at conserving non-target and dependent species (Article 6(3)). Annex II sets out
guidelines for precautionary measures based on the establishment of precautionary reference
points and actions to be taken where such points are approached and exceeded. Reference to
MSY is retained in these Annex II guidelines, but as a “limit” point, constraining harvest, rather
than as a “target” for management.
The FSA establishes obligations for signatory States that affect both management within
national waters of straddling or highly migratory stocks and management of high seas stocks by
international and regional fishing organizations. Its influence, in conjunction with voluntary
FAO agreements, has already been clearly demonstrated by the adoption by a range of States
and organizations of explicitly precautionary fisheries management methodologies.
FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the FAO Technical
Guidelines on the Precautionary Approach
The voluntary United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Code of Conduct for
Responsible Fisheries, also concluded in 1995, includes an exhortation to apply the pre-
cautionary approach widely in the conservation, management and utilization of living aquatic
resources, directed at States, sub-regional and regional fisheries management organizations
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
20
19 Southern Bluefin Tuna cases (New Zealand v. Japan, Australia v. Japan), International Tribunal for the
Law of the Sea, Order of 27 August 1999, Order on Provisional Measures of 27 August 1999.
20 Agreement for the Implementation of Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the
Sea of 10 December 1982 Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and
Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (1995).
and arrangements (see Article 6.5 and 7.5). While the Code of Conduct is voluntary, there is
evidence that it is and will continue to be highly influential in shaping fisheries management
(see e.g., FAO, 2001a).
Detailed technical guidance for implementation of the precautionary approach has been
developed by the FAO (FAO, 1995). These guidelines represent one of the most detailed
treatments of the operational meaning of precaution in a natural resource management or
conservation arena, and offer valuable lessons for other sectors. The FAO guidance first
characterizes the general concept of the precautionary approach, setting out that the pre-
cautionary approach requires, inter alia: avoidance of irreversible changes; prior identification
of undesirable outcomes; initiation of corrective measures without delay; priority given to
conserving the productive capacity of the resource; harvesting and processing capacity com-
mensurate with estimated sustainable levels of the resource; that all fishing activities have prior
management authorization and are subject to periodic review; legal and institutional frame-
works for fishery management, with management plans implementing the above for each
fishery; and appropriate placement of the burden of proof through meeting these requirements
(para. 6(a)-(h)). Detailed guidance is then developed for the implementation of the pre-
cautionary approach in relation to fisheries management, research, technology development/
transfer, and species introductions, including, e.g., management planning and design, moni-
toring, stock assessment methods, review and evaluation of new technologies, and cooperation
and information systems on invasive species.
It is not clear that this broad and far-reaching understanding of the precautionary approach is
widely reflected in legal and policy developments. Within the Fish Stocks Agreement,
guidance on the precautionary approach focuses on target and limit biological reference points,
rather than including the more “systemic” changes set out in the FAO guidance. It has been
argued that this narrow understanding of the precautionary approach characterizes current
efforts in this area, at the expense of the broader management implications (Mace and Gabriel,
1999).
The FAO continues to actively develop the precautionary approach, developing guidance
across a range of fisheries (eg, Caddy and Mahon, 1995; Caddy, 1998; FAO, 2001b). More
recently, the precautionary approach has been endorsed by and incorporated into ongoing work
under FAO auspices on developing guidance for the ecosystem approach to fisheries (eg, FAO,
2003).
CCAMLR
Of the regional fisheries organizations and arrangements, the Commission on the Conservation
of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR, 1980) is often viewed as being among the
most precautionary (Mace and Gabriel, 1999). While precaution is not explicitly adopted in the
treaty, since at least the early 1990s it has been understood that in the case of uncertainty,
CCAMLR Conservation Measures should be consistent with a precautionary approach
(CCAMLR, 1993), although in practice this is often subject to dispute (TAP, 2001). CCAMLR
adopts an ecosystem-level approach to conservation and management, widely understood as
necessitating or at least being consistent with a precautionary approach.
3. Acceptance of the precautionary principle in
biodiversity and natural resources law and
policy
21
NASCO
The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO) provides an early and
leading example of the impact of the FSA in influencing precautionary fisheries management
through regional agreements. In 1998 parties agreed to adopt a precautionary approach to
salmon conservation and management,21 and NASCO has developed detailed guidelines for its
application.
International Whaling Commission
The precautionary principle has been prominent in discussion and advocacy within the
International Whaling Commission (IWC), established under the International Convention for
the Regulation of Whaling (1946). A moratorium (referred to as a “pause” indicating that it
would be of short duration) on all commercial whale harvesting was instituted in 1982 (taking
effect in 1985/6) pending the development of an appropriate procedure for the sustainable
management of relevant stocks. In 1994, Parties agreed on the Revised Management Procedure
(RMP) to govern the level of any resumed harvesting, but have not been able to accept this as a
basis for removal of the moratorium. The RMP has been called a “radical framework for
risk-averse management of natural resources” (Donovan and Hammond, 2004), and is often
cited as a leading example of a highly robust, explicitly precautionary approach to uncertainty
in the establishment of fisheries harvest limits (eg, Cook, 1999). On the other hand, however, it
should be noted that the IWC has achieved precautionary management, by simply curtailing the
action that it is designed to manage. Further relevant measures include the establishment of
whale sanctuaries in which commercial harvesting is prohibited, for which precaution has been
an explicit rationale (see e.g., Resolution 2002-1).
ICES
The International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which coordinates research and
advises management bodies such as the European Union with respect to North Atlantic
fisheries, has since 1999 provided “precautionary” advice for fisheries managers, in line with
requirements of the FSA and the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. Work to develop
theoretical and practical understanding of precautionary measures is ongoing within ICES.
Other multilateral instruments
A number of regional agreements that pre-date the adoption of precautionary terminology
involve a clear reversal of the burden of proof. The 1952 International Convention for the High
Seas Fisheries of the North Pacific Ocean reverses the burden of proof: scientific evidence was
required for stocks to be released from “abstention” (fishing ban) (Freestone, 1999). The UN
General Assembly Resolution of 1989 prohibiting the use of large scale driftnet fishing bans
this activity in the absence of certainty as to its harm, and places the burden of proof on those
wishing to lift the ban.22
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
22
21 Agreement on Adoption of a Precautionary Approach CNL (98)46. Adopted at 15th meeting of the
Council of NASCO 1998.
22 UN General Assembly Resolution on Large-scale Pelagic Driftnet Fishing and its Impact on the
Living Marine Resources of the World’s Oceans and Seas (1989).
More recently, in regional fisheries agreements, the precautionary approach has been
adopted by the International Commission for the Conservation of Tunas (ICCAT COMSCRS/
99/11) and the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization, the International Pacific Halibut
Commission (see IPHC 1999 Catch Recommendations), and the precautionary approach forms
part of the recently negotiated Convention on the Conservation and Management of Fishery
Resources in the South-East Atlantic Ocean (2001). In Europe, the UNEP Mediterranean
Action Plan pursuant to the Barcelona Convention on the Protection of the Marine and Coastal
Environment of the Mediterranean (1995) stipulates that member States must apply the
precautionary principle according to their capacity (Article 4).
Incorporation at national level
Few States have specific fisheries legislation incorporating broad policy principles, although
fisheries may be subject to general biodiversity conservation/natural resource management
legislation. However, broad legislation focussing on the marine environment and incorporating
the precautionary principle has been developed in various States in recent years. The “need to
apply precautionary approaches” is highlighted in the South African Marine Living Resources
Act (1998), covering the conservation and sustainable utilization of marine living resources.
The precautionary approach is included in the Preamble to Canada’s Oceans Act (1996) and in
the Australian Fisheries Management Act (1991). New Zealand’s Fisheries Act (1996) does not
use the terminology of precaution, but adopts a set of “information principles” that set out
elements amounting to the precautionary principle.
Forest law and policy
Sovereignty over forest resources is keenly guarded by States, and there are few multilateral
instruments explicitly relating to forests. While it has been argued that precaution should be
accepted as a broad principle cutting across disparate sectoral forest laws, and function to
“narrow the margin of sovereign discretion over issues of common concern” (Brunnee and
Nollkaemper, 1996, pp. 310), reference to precaution in existing international law or policy
instruments is extremely rare. Despite the prominence of the precautionary principle at the
Earth Summit, it is not reflected in the Statement on forests adopted at that meeting,23 although
it was a highly controversial subject during negotiations (Humphreys, 1996). It is not reflected
in the International Tropical Timber Agreement (Yokohama, 1992). Notably, the precautionary
approach does not feature in the CBD programme of work on forests (see Decisions IV/7, V/4,
VI/9), the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (Decision VI/9), or the deliberations of the
United Nations Forum on Forests, the International Forum on Forests or the International Panel
on Forests.
FSC and High Conservation Value forests
Perhaps the only explicit acceptance of precaution in forest policy is in relation to the
designation and management of High Conservation Value (HCV) forests. The HCV concept
3. Acceptance of the precautionary principle in biodiversity and natural resources law
23
23 Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Forest Principles for a Global Consensus in the
Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of All Types of Forests (1992).
derives from the “best-practice” standard for forest management of the Forest Stewardship
Council (FSC). HCV forests are those exhibiting any of a number of high conservation values,
which are determined by science or stakeholder consensus and include not just biodiversity
considerations but also cultural and social values. FSC Principle 9 incorporates the pre-
cautionary approach with respect to decisions on and management of HCV forests, and more
detailed guidance on the implementation of precaution in this context is currently under
development. Elaboration of national and sub-national standards for the FSC Principles and
Criteria have in some cases incorporated further guidance on the precautionary approach.24
International trade regulation
The liberalization and expansion of world trade may pose major threats to biodiversity. Trade is
particularly relevant to two potential threats: those posed by trade in genetically modified
organisms, and those due to the spread and establishment of invasive alien species. The
conformance with WTO disciplines of precautionary trade-restrictive measures to avert threats
to biodiversity is a topic of some debate (see e.g., GBF, 2003). In general, the WTO agreements
of most relevance to NRM and conservation appear to provide little explicit basis for adoption
of a precautionary approach. The “environmental” exceptions to general free trade obligations
provided under Article XX of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1994) do not
include text related to scientific uncertainty or the precautionary principle, and it remains
unclear how attempts to rely on these provisions invoking the precautionary principle would be
treated in dispute resolution.
The Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement (SPS, 1994) governs use of trade measures to
control disease, contaminants or organisms that may pose risks to human, plant or animal
health, and is relevant to the control of risks of both genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
and invasive alien species. While it does not incorporate the precautionary principle explicitly,
this agreement provides for a circumscribed form of “provisional” action in the case of
scientific uncertainty. It appears clear from a number of disputes, however, that the scope of
precautionary action under this agreement will be interpreted restrictively (see WTO, 1998a,b;
WTO, 1999). Furthermore, the burden of proof is placed on those seeking to defend trade-
restrictive measures against potential threats. The International Plant Protection Convention
(1997), which regulates measures to control pests of plants, and is relevant to the control of
potentially invasive species, does not make explicit reference to precaution, and requires
“technical justification” for measures to control such pests. More generally, WTO rules do not
provide for assessment or monitoring of the potential negative environmental impacts of trade
liberalization. This approach to uncertainty and precaution is in marked contrast to that of many
major global environmental policy instruments. As a consequence, the precautionary principle
is one of the key loci for potential conflict or disharmony between the WTO and the multilateral
environmental regime.
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
24
24 See e.g., Mississippi Alluvial Valley Regional standard, British Columbia Regional standard, online at
www.fscoax.org.
4. Implementing precaution in biodiversity and
natural resource management: issues and
challenges
Wide and ever-expanding – if controversial and inconsistent – acceptance of the precautionary
principle at the policy level forces attention to its practical implementation. For many decision-
makers and practitioners the precautionary principle remains an unfamiliar concept, and
attempts towards its systematic implementation are in their infancy. While it seems clear that
some form of precaution must be a core element in effective approaches to biodiversity
conservation and NRM, implementing the principle requires consideration of a wide range of
questions and issues.
Does acceptance of the principle in law and policy translate
into implementation?
An initial question is whether the bare invocation of the precautionary principle in multilateral
or domestic law and policy has any substantive impact on practical conservation interventions
and outcomes. For instance, it appears that after a decade of precaution being incorporated as a
broad obligation in Australian environmental law, it has had little consistent impact on practice
(Fisher and Harding, 2001). The formulation and context of the principle may affect whether
such obligations are created. For instance, formulations in which the precautionary principle is
stated to “inspire” a policy instrument, where decisions makers “may have regard to” the
precautionary principle in making a decision, or where the precautionary principle is included
only in preambular texts, are likely to have less impact than where applying the precautionary
approach is set out as an obligation in the operative text of an instrument. Even where an
obligation is created, however, it is unlikely to mandate any specific decision/action being
made, as a legal principle does not generally determine the outcome of a decision. In some cases
precaution may be seen as imposing a procedural rather than a substantive requirement: it must
be shown that attention was paid to the precautionary principle during the decision-making
process, rather than that a “precautionary” decision was made. A forest manager, for instance,
might need to demonstrate that the precautionary principle was considered during decision-
making on incidental “take” of endangered species during a logging operation, rather than
being required to demonstrate that the final decision was precautionary with respect to
conservation of the species. Such formulations leave ample scope for precautionary consi-
derations to be ignored or overridden. It appears likely that the precautionary principle will
often have little systematic impact on practice unless formulated as an obligation, and linked to
specified process or outcome standards developed on a sectoral basis, with respect to, for
instance, specific species, fisheries, or protected areas.
25
What sectoral features shape the implementation of
precaution in biodiversity and natural resource
management?
The operative measures used to implement precaution, and their impact, will necessarily vary
according to environmental sector, depending on the nature and source of risks, the nature and
capacities of interest groups, and prevailing management practices and approaches. To a large
extent, the precautionary principle has evolved and emerged to deal with specific uncertain
risks (marine pollution), against a specific prevailing management paradigm (assimilative
capacity), involving a specific set of key interests (industry and the broader public/ environ-
mental good). These features have shaped much of the debate and understanding of the
principle. However, in a number of important respects the biodiversity and NRM sectors
diverge from this paradigm, with significant consequences.
The extent and nature of uncertainty
Uncertainty is a prominent feature of conservation and resource management. There are at least
two types of uncertainty that can be distinguished (Walker et al., 2003). One (epistemic
uncertainty) derives from missing, inadequate or incomplete data. It might be linked to lack of
investigation, sampling error, or measurement biases. The hallmark of this kind of uncertainty
is that it can, at least in principle, be “solved” by more investigation or data. The second
(ontological or variability) uncertainty derives from the intrinsic nature of the system being
studied. The characteristics of the system: its complexity, scale, stochasticity, dynamics etc.,
make understanding or prediction of outcomes impossible or highly unreliable. A good
example is weather: while science and technology provide ever greater tools to reduce
uncertainty surrounding future weather, the scale, complexity of interacting factors and chaotic
dynamics of the system preclude reliable prediction.
Uncertainty in the context of biodiversity and NRM is endemic, and is frequently of the latter
type. The dynamics, behaviour, and responses to disturbance, disease, habitat destruction and
hunting, extraction or fishing even of single species are usually poorly understood. Eco-
systems, particularly the most biodiverse, are composed of myriad interacting species engaged
in complex interactions with each other and with abiotic factors such as nutrient, temperature,
and hydrological regimes. They exhibit the dynamics of complex systems, characterized by
chaotic dynamics, threshold effects, state changes, and inherent stochasticity. Experimentation
involving any but the simplest variables is not generally possible. While the degree of epistemic
uncertainty encountered in biodiversity and natural resource management can be gauged by the
fact that we do not know how many species exist to the nearest ten million (eg, Stork, 1997),
this ontological or variability uncertainty is much more intractable. The history of natural
resource management is characterized by “surprise” (Ashby, 2003), and ecology is unlikely
ever to become a predictive science.
Even where the species or system in question is well understood, however, decision-making
and management must grapple with uncertainties in the economic, political, social and cultural
realms. In the scenarios within which the precautionary principle evolved the human behaviour
consequent on regulation is, arguably, fairly predictable. Control of emissions generally leads
to predictable reductions; a ban on toxic chemical production will usually end production.
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
26
However, most biodiversity conservation/NRM scenarios involve a close and complex inter-
action between natural ecosystems and human social, economic, political and psychological
factors. For instance, the impact of a decision whether or not to decrease a fishery harvest quota
or ban trade in a wildlife product will depend not just on the biological characteristics of the
species or system in question, but on human responses to it. Fishers may exceed quotas or evade
gear restriction. Trade in wildlife may not cease, but may follow different routes and become
illegal and harder to regulate. Management and decision-making may therefore need to
incorporate not just scientific information, but considerations of broad social, economic and
political contexts.
To some extent, therefore, this suggests that the boundary between precautionary and
preventive action in conservation/NRM is a blurred one. It may be that most conservation and
NRM measures can be viewed as reflecting a level of precautionary action. This still leaves
ample scope, however, for wide variation, dispute and negotiation over the level of precaution
to be applied and the measures chosen for its implementation.
The nature of threats to biodiversity and living natural resources
There is a substantial difference between the threats addressed by precautionary regulation and
management in the biodiversity and natural resources context, as compared to its industrial
applications. The precautionary principle emerged to deal with – and its current evolution is
largely shaped by addressing – new processes or products, usually the result of technological
development, such as industrial chemicals, hormone-treated livestock, or nanotechnology. In
the context of the conservation of biodiversity and living natural resources, risks are indeed
sometimes posed by new technologies or processes. This is true of the potential risks to
biodiversity posed by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or emissions, and the risks
posed by introductions of alien species or of climate change can be seen as “new” in their
present manifestations. But particularly when examining risks of habitat loss and over-
exploitation, two of the three greatest worldwide threats to biological resources, there is no
unknown new technology, process or substance concerned. Forests are cleared by chainsaw or
hand, wetlands are drained or concreted, wildlife is trapped, shot, or snared. There is no
particular mystery, particularly concerning causal links, comparable to a new poorly under-
stood technology or chemical. “Harm”, and particularly the serious/irreversible harm to which
precaution is particularly relevant, typically does not generally result from major, poorly
understood discrete activities but from the incremental and poorly understood impactof myriad
small and well understood acts. The consequences of this difference are not clear. It is not clear,
for instance, how the scientific risk assessment and stakeholder consultation procedures often
set out for implementing precaution (see e.g., European Commission, 2000; Scottish Natural
Heritage, 2001) can be generalized to these sorts of threats.
Multiple risks
The typical conceptual paradigm of precautionary decision-making involves an activity (such
as releasing a pollutant) that poses clear potential environmental risks that would not exist if the
action were not undertaken. Decisions are between “risk” and “caution”. However in practice,
decision-makers in NRM and conservation are often confronted with a choice of strategies
which each carry attendant environmental risks – the choice is between risk and risk. If people
4. Implementing precaution in biodiversity and natural resource management
27
are prevented from harvesting coral reef fish for trade, they may dynamite the reef for cement.
If harvest of medicinal plants and wild foods from a forest is prohibited, people may resent such
restrictions and oppose further conservation efforts. Management of an ecosystem for the
benefit of commercially valuable species may yield economic benefits that ensure the habitat is
not converted to agriculture, but may lead to alterations detrimental to other species. What does
applying the precautionary principle mean in these situations? Risks may arise from different
sources and over different time-scales – should the precautionary principle be understood as
requiring consideration, and some sort of balancing, of all of them?
Values and objectives in decision-making
Implementing precaution necessarily involves value judgements, and typically involves trade-
offs between competing objectives. In NRM and conservation, an (arguably) particularly broad
array of values and objectives poses particular challenges. There is a large diversity even within
the constituency broadly in favour of environmental protection. Some are concerned primarily
with the welfare and rights of individual animals (rarely plants): suffering or death of indi-
viduals is to be averted. Some seek to conserve biodiversity as a whole for its intrinsic and
aesthetic value: any significant loss of biodiversity represents a harm. Some seek to ensure the
continued provision of utilities such as ecosystem services, like freshwater supply or micro-
climate regulation: maintenance of the services is crucial, rather than biodiversity per se. Some
aim to sustain livelihoods, income, or ways of life rather than species or ecosystems: these may
tolerate major reductions in stocks or simplification of ecosystems to do so. This is just within
the broad “environmental” constituency. In most decision-making contexts, interest groups
with no stake in environmental protection will be involved. Implementation of precaution may
generally need to carefully address and stipulate the specific objectives of precautionary
management and the standards to be aimed for, and find ways to address the interaction of
competing interest groups with different values, priorities and objectives.
The distributional consequences of precaution
The negative distributional consequences of precautionary management and policy in the
biodiversity and NRM context may impact on the poor rather than the powerful. To date, in
most disputes and most analyses concerning the precautionary principle, proponents of threat-
causing activities have been powerful commercial interests standing to profit by such activities,
and the precautionary principle has been used to curtail or restrict their actions to protect the
public or the environment. The burdens placed by the operation of the precautionary principle –
such as restrictions on import, emissions or activities – therefore fell on parties well-equipped
to deal with them. In some biodiversity/NRM contexts, such as biosafety, industrial fisheries,
large-scale commercial logging, or mining, the dynamics are similar. However, in many
situations, adopting a precautionary approach may impose livelihood and economic costs on
those with few resources, and exacerbate existing distributional inequities (Dickson, 2003). For
instance, a study of a park planning process in Uganda describes the exclusion of communities
from park resources on the basis of uncertainty about the impacts on biodiversity (Risby, 2002).
People in all countries rely on biological resources for food, traditional medicine, fuel, building
materials, ornaments, pets, livelihoods and income, for “ecosystem services” such as clean
water and crop pollination, and as elements in culture and spirituality. In economic and
livelihood terms, however, less developed countries rely more heavily and directly on the use
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
28
and trade of biological resources than more industrialized countries, and within less developed
countries the livelihoods of the poor, particularly the rural poor, may be especially dependent
(eg, DFID, 2002; Koziell and Saunders, 2001). Precautionary restrictions on access to and use
of wild resources may therefore impact most seriously on poor countries and poor people
within them, and equity considerations require particular attention.
Precaution may be aligned with the long-term interests of those
whose actions threaten biological resources
In the case of use and management of biological resources, the precautionary principle may not
be directly antithetical or opposed to the groups whose actions raise potential threats. It has
been pointed out that “[a] major difference…between fisheries and pollution (for which the
Principle was created) is that the survival of capture fisheries…is directly dependant on the
state of the environment…This is not the case for, say, chemical industries dumping sewage
into the coastal areas” (Garcia, 1994, at 110). In areas of industrial application, the groups
threatening environmental damage gain no particular benefits from minimizing environmental
harm. However, under certain circumstances, those who utilize, manage and trade biological
resources such as wildlife, forest products and fisheries will often be those most detrimentally
affected by serious or irreversible harm, and these groups have a strong stake in sustainable
management. This raises the potential for precaution to be implemented through local and
community level resource and wildlife management, and to be conceived not only as an
element in “top-down” regulatory strategies. It is unsurprising that traditional and indigenous
natural resource management systems, where these have not been lost or eroded, may contain
strong precautionary elements (see e.g., Zwane, 2004).
Through what tools and approaches can precaution be
implemented?
Against this general background, implementing precaution in biodiversity conservation and
NRM will generally proceed through the use of specific management and policy tools and
approaches. While these will necessarily be highly variable and context-specific, this section
provides a brief survey of both some specific tools and some general approaches typically
linked with precaution.
Specific policy tools
Reversal of evidentiary burden. The precautionary principle is often put into practice by
reversing the evidentiary burden (the “burden of proof”), by establishing a presumption that
certain activities should not be allowed to proceed without a demonstration that they are not
harmful, rather than operating on the presumption that certain activities should be allowed to
proceed unless there is evidence that they are harmful. So, for instance, the US Wild Bird
Conservation Act disallows commercial import of wild birds unless stringent conservation
requirements are satisfied. “Reverse listing”, where all of a class of activities or substances are
prohibited or regulated unless they can be shown to be “safe” (a “white list”) is one means of
4. Implementing precaution in biodiversity and natural resource management
29
implementation. Some countries take a precautionary approach to the control of alien invasive
species by prohibiting the import of all species except those assessed in advance as “safe”.
Placing the evidentiary burden on proponents. The evidentiary burden may then be placed
on the proponent of an activity to demonstrate that it will not cause harm. So, for instance,
national forest regulations might require an applicant for a forest concession to demonstrate
that it would not negatively impact on biodiversity.
High standard of proof. Stronger versions of precaution may require there to be
unambiguous evidence (rather than e.g., a suggestion, some indication or a reasonable
inference) that an activity will not cause harm before allowing it to proceed. For instance, under
the Revised Management Procedure developed under the International Whaling Commission,
the risk of overexploitation is quantified and can be set at an extremely low level.
Complete prohibition of particular activities. Where there are threats of particularly serious
or irreversible harm, certain classes of activities judged as particularly dangerous may be
entirely prohibited. In many countries any intentional hunting or “take” of endangered species
is entirely banned. There is a global moratorium on large-scale driftnet fishing. The South
Africa Marine Living Resources Act (1988) prohibits the use of dynamite or poison to catch
fish.
Leaving “margin of error”. A common means of implementing precaution, particularly in
the fisheries context, is simply leaving a margin of error when establishing harvest limits.
Information and monitoring requirements. One response to the recognition of potential
threat or harm is to require monitoring or research to determine the likelihood and/or magnitude
of threat. For instance, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living
Resources requires monitoring of the incidence and biological impact of marine debris in
Antarctic waters25. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Principles and Criteria require moni-
toring to assess inter alia environmental impacts of forest management activities (Principle 8).
Broad management and policy approaches
Precaution in NRM and conservation is often linked to, and/or seen as necessitating, particular
broad conceptual or management approaches to conservation and NRM. Here four overlapping
and interrelated general approaches are briefly introduced, and their relationship with the
precautionary principle discussed. These approaches are not necessarily well-defined, operate
at different levels, and may conflict or be complementary.
The Ecosystem Approach, or ecosystem-based management
The species-based approaches characteristic of major national and international efforts for
biodiversity conservation throughout the 1970s and 1980s have to some extent been supplanted
or at least complemented by management focussing at the ecosystem level. The term
“Ecosystem Approach” is used in a variety of ways, but has been defined within the CBD as “a
strategy for integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conser-
vation and sustainable use in an equitable way” (Decision V/6). The ecosystem approach
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
30
25 See CCAMLR’s Report to the 18th Antarctic Treaties Contracting Parties (1994).
characteristically incorporates the understanding that ecosystems are dynamic and inherently
largely unpredictable, and uncertainty is therefore endemic. Adaptive management is a key
management tool within the broader framework of the ecosystem approach.
Generally, it appears that the ecosystem approach will usually involve more risk-averse and
precautionary management. It is frequently argued that given prevailing uncertainty regarding
ecosystem structure, function, and inter-specific interactions, precaution demands an eco-
system rather than single-species approach to management (eg, Redford and Feinsinger, 2001;
Thorne-Miller, 2003). In the forestry context, in fact, the ecosystem approach has been viewed
as being perhaps overly reliant on the precautionary principle, as compared with “sustainable
forest management” approaches (IUCN, PROFOR and World Bank, 2004). However, an
ecosystem approach to management need not imply adopting a precautionary approach to
biodiversity conservation threats. For instance, the ecosystem approach has been argued
recently to justify culling of top marine predators such as seals and whales to promote fisheries
productivity (see e.g., Pickrell, 2004).
Adaptive management
Adaptive management is a management approach that expressly tackles the uncertainty and
dynamism of complex systems (see e.g., Holling and Sanderson, 1996; Oglethorpe, 2002;
Salafsky et al., 2001; Walters, 1986). While the term is used in various and not always
well-defined ways, its hallmark is an emphasis on “learning by doing.” Adaptive management
involves management actions that are designed as experiments to produce information about
the resource being managed. It emphasises making modest, reversible management inter-
ventions, careful monitoring of impacts, and continual assessment and refinement of manage-
ment practice as information increases. Management approaches to biodiversity conservation
and NRM increasingly stress adaptive management. They are emphasised in, for instance,
fisheries management approaches and advocacy, within the Ecosystem Approach developed
within the CBD (see below), in the CBD Guidelines on Sustainable Use (Decision VII/12), and
in environmental certification standards such as those of the Forest Stewardship Council (see
FSC Principle 7.1, 7.2) and Marine Aquarium Council (see MAC, 2000).
The relationship between the precautionary principle and adaptive management is rather
confused. Some (critics) view the precautionary principle as requiring a highly restrictive
approach to conservation, involving procrastination and extensive research in the face of
uncertainty, leading to delay and associated costs. These groups tend to view adaptive
management as an alternative approach, which involves accepting uncertainty as a given and
acting pragmatically and without unnecessary delay. This is a reasonably frequent argument in
the context of wildlife management. In the commercial fisheries sphere, however, adaptive
management is typically seen as consistent with and contributing to a precautionary approach
(eg, Ward et al., 2003). This may be because precaution is not understood to require a strongly
restrictive or prohibitive approach in this sector, as maintaining a viable fisheries industry has
always been accepted as a valid management objective.
Environmental impact assessment and risk assessment
Some regulatory approaches place emphasis on environmental impact assessment (EIA) or risk
assessment for potentially hazardous activities/substances, and basing restrictions on the
4. Implementing precaution in biodiversity and natural resource management
31
results. EIA is a well-established tool for identifying potential environmental impacts caused
by specific development or policy interventions, and developing procedures for their manage-
ment and mitigation. While sometimes all threats will be clearly identifiable, their nature
understood and their likelihood quantifiable, more often a variety of uncertainties will need to
be addressed within the EIA itself and in subsequent management responses. Risk assessment,
used within EIA or elsewhere, is a broad term usually used to mean identification and analysis
of the nature of risks, their magnitude and the likelihood of their occurrence. Risk assessment
techniques often emphasise laboratory-based and quantitative techniques, and may be as-
sociated with specific methodologies within various contexts, such as chemicals assessment.
Some risk assessment techniques, such as Ecological Risk Assessment are geared, as the name
suggests, toward broad ecological risks.26 However, the use of risk assessment techniques for
some of the decisions which most affect biodiversity, such as land-use decisions, is in its early
stages (see e.g., Kapustka et al., 2001).
While EIA and risk assessment can inform and facilitate the application of a precautionary
approach, it is not clear that they should generally be seen as fulfilling precautionary require-
ments or as necessarily leading to precautionary management. Conducting an EIA may itself be
a precautionary measure, as it may highlight and reduce uncertainties. On the other hand, EIA
techniques are not comprehensive and may tend to focus on some types of risks and not others,
and may substitute informed scientific guesswork for careful delineation of uncertainties.
However, precaution is most relevant after an EIA, when the decision is made as to whether
potential risks posed by a development are acceptable. Here there is ample scope for a low or
high level of precaution to be exercised.
Protectionist approaches: does “precautionary” mean “protectionist”?
Within biodiversity conservation and natural resource management generally, it is probably
true that the precautionary principle is most frequently linked to highly restrictive or
“protectionist” conservation strategies. These are understood here as regulatory approaches
which favour prohibitions or tight restrictions on the use and trade in wild animals or plants and
strict protected areas,27 in contrast to approaches that emphasise incentive-based conservation,
sustainable use of biological resources, and community management (although few would
entirely give preference to one at the expense of the other). In particular, precaution is
frequently relied on as an argument against extractive use, in which individuals (or parts
thereof) are permanently removed from wild populations, such as through hunting or fishing.
Within the CITES arena, for instance, precaution is typically invoked to support extending
trade restrictions through for e.g., “uplisting” species or limiting imports. This widespread
equation of precaution with protectionist strategies in this context deserves careful attention.
There is little question that extractive use can pose a wide range of threats both to target
species and to other components of the ecosystem, including overexploitation, spread of
disease, social or ecological disruption due to selective harvest of particular life stages, sizes or
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
32
26 For an introduction to Ecological Risk Assessment see e.g., links at www.esd.ornl.gov/programs/
ecorisk/links.html.
27 This is the sense in which “protectionist” is used for the rest of this paper, as distinct from
“trade-protectionist”.
sexes, and by-catch.28 Overexploitation remains ranked among the major global threats to
biodiversity (UNEP, 2000). However, there are potential conservation benefits, as well as risks,
associated with the utilization of wild species (Hutton and Leader-Williams, 2003). Con-
sumptive use may provide economic incentives for communities, private interests or States to
conserve and maintain wild lands, outweighing the benefits of conversion to intensive revenue-
producing uses such as agriculture and plantations, or it may provide incentives for manage-
ment of wild species rather than allowing uncontrolled hunting or grazing. Benefits to
non-target species can flow from maintenance of lands as wild, control of hunting, and
reduction of grazing pressure. Revenue from wildlife utilization and trade, including from
direct sales of specimens or of permits and licences, is sometimes responsible for a substantial
proportion of the budgets of wildlife departments.29 There is strong evidence of some of these
effects, for example in trophy hunting of African elephants in southern Africa (Child, 1995),
crocodilians and the skin trade in Africa and the USA (Hutton and Webb, 2003), habitat
conservation and hunting with dogs in the UK (Oldfield et al., 2003), or trophy hunting of
Caprinae in Pakistan (Johnson, 1997). Likewise, “sustainable forest management” approaches
seek forest conservation through sustainable utilization and trade of forest resources rather than
strict protection (although doubts have been expressed about the effectiveness of this strategy
for biodiversity conservation (Rice et al. 2001)). The Marine Aquarium Council initiative is
based on the utilization and trade in marine species providing incentives for good local
management and conservation. Conversion and degradation of wild habitats remain the
primary threat to biodiversity worldwide, so the importance of these incentives, where they
exist, should not be understated.
Restrictions on utilization and trade may undermine these conservation benefits, and have a
range of further negative impacts. Trade and use restrictions, particularly when applied in the
absence of a clear scientific rationale, can provoke antagonism among disenfranchised re-
source users toward conservation instruments (see e.g., Lombard and du Plessis, 2003) or the
activities of conservation organizations (see e.g., Jepson, Brickle and Chayadin, 2001).
Prohibition of use or trade in specific species may lead simply to deflection of demand to other
species. Consumptive use, such as trophy hunting, will sometimes be simpler to implement
than alternative conservation strategies, and avoid other environmental risks associated with
them. Ecotourism, for instance, frequently viewed as a more precautionary conservation
strategy than sustainable use, requires substantial institutional capacity and infrastructure
development, is vulnerable to a fickle tourist market, and carries attendant environmental risks
such as habitat degradation and pollution (see e.g., Roe, Leader-Williams and Clayton, 1997).
Finally, the conservation benefits of strict protectionist strategies often rely on effective
State enforcement and management, often unfeasible in developing countries and problematic
in the most developed. Without strict and comprehensive enforcement, prohibitions may often
not solve the conservation problem, but simply drive it underground and/or make it impossible
4. Implementing precaution in biodiversity and natural resource management
33
28 For some of the less obvious threats posed by extractive use see e.g., Festa-Bianchet M (2003) or
Jachmann, Berry and Imae (1995).
29 It is important to recognise that most of these potential benefits of utilization flow from the partial
alignment between the long-term interests of resource users and conservation. Where those whose
activities raise conservation threats do not have a direct stake in resource conservation (such as in the
classic precautionary paradigm of industry emissions regulation), “more restrictive” is likely to equate
with “more precautionary”.
to monitor or manage. For instance, Kenya has a long-standing ban on the consumption and
trade of wild meat, a precautionary response to concerns about overexploitation. It has been
pointed out that the combination of lack of adequate resources to police such a ban, with a lack
of incentives for wildlife management, plus the need of rural people for meat, has led to
widespread poaching and rapidly declining wildlife populations (Barnett, 2004). Likewise,
State management of protected areas may be highly ineffective where there are neither
resources nor political will for effective management, and exclusion of local people may
remove the group with the strongest incentive for good management (see e.g., Molnar, Scherr
and Khare, 2004).
This complex set of conservation risks and benefits of utilization and trade suggests that the
automatic equation of precaution with protectionist approaches is flawed. Highly protectionist
approaches may “make the best the enemy of the good”: by seeking to entirely eliminate risks
of exploitation, they may preclude use of the available tools to manage utilization for sus-
tainability. Conversely, of course, it is equally important to note that approaches based on
sustainable use and community involvement should not necessarily be viewed as the most
precautionary.
Assessing conservation costs and benefits
Given the multiple risks and benefits often involved in conservation decision-making, it
appears clear that determination of the risk-averse strategy will typically require some form of
assessment of the potential conservation costs and benefits of alternative strategies.30 This
raises the question of how this is done, and specifically what information is taken into account.
Traditional and indigenous knowledge, and knowledge of
resource users
As discussed earlier (section 2), science often plays an important role in establishing the basis
for precautionary decision-making. However, scientists and scientific institutions are not the
only repositories of knowledge about ecosystems and biological resources. Traditional and
indigenous people managing resources may often have different, and/or better, understanding
and information than scientists about the dynamics and responses of utilized systems. Thereis a
strong case to be made for precautionary decision-making to incorporate the understanding and
knowledge of traditional, indigenous or local resource users themselves. This insight is
reflected in the FAO Technical guidance on the precautionary approach, which emphasises that
resource users themselves often have substantial knowledge of fisheries, and a precautionary
approach should make use of their experience (FAO, 1995, pp.57).
Incorporating the broader socio-economic and political context
Management and exploitation of wildlife and natural resources takes place as part of a complex
interaction involving people and human institutions, mediated by economic, political and
cultural specificities, as pointed out above. However, in practice, the conservation risks facing
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
34
30 The language of risks and benefits, or costs and benefits, is adopted throughout this discussion, but this
is not intended to imply that costs and benefits should be limited to the monetary or quantifiable.
species or populations are often defined purely in terms of biological status. Further, a direct
link is often made between biological status and specific policy/management responses. Under
CITES, listing in Appendix I and prohibition of commercial trade is determined by biological
status characteristics, coupled with a finding that the species is in trade. The convention text
does not require attention to non-biological threat factors, such as socio-economic factors or
management context, or explicitly require consideration of the conservation impacts of the
listing. Likewise, in the US Endangered Species Act, import restrictions follow automatically
from assessment of biological status.
Such automatic links between biological scientific information and a management response
may preclude comprehensive assessment and response to the broad range of conservation
threats that face biodiversity. This can be highly problematic. An example is provided by
Jepson, Brickle and Chayadin (2001) with respect to the listing of the Tanimbar corella
Cacatua goffini in Appendix I of CITES. Concern about biological impacts of international
trade of the corellas from Indonesia led to successful calls for banning international trade
through listing in Appendix I. Listing was based on the precautionary principle, as biological
information on species status was inadequate. While trade decreased, the authors highlight a
range of longer term and indirect negative conservation consequences of the ban. Prohibition
led to the resentment of local people, who perceived the bird as abundant and an agricultural
pest, local hostility toward conservation NGOs, and consequent abandonment of plans for a
protected area in the region.
Sometimes the more precautionary strategy – that which is more risk-averse in conservation
terms – will be obvious. Often, however, it will require careful assessment of different options,
and consideration of a wide range of social, economic, and institutional factors, most of which
lie well outside the traditional borders of natural science disciplines.
Costs, benefits, and competing objectives: the balancing act
of implementing precaution
Decisions and management on precautionary grounds carry consequences not only for conser-
vation, but for social, economic, development, food security, and livelihood interests. Imple-
menting precaution will usually need to respond to and balance these frequently competing
priorities and objectives.
Extreme versions: “when in doubt, don’t”
First, however, why should such a balancing be made? Why should the precautionary principle
not be understood to require avoidance of any risks, at any cost to other interests? In some
circumstances the precautionary principle is indeed equated with its more extreme versions,
calling essentially for a “zero risk” approach, in which activities should only be allowed to
proceed when they are known to be safe. This approach could be characterized as “when in
doubt, don’t.” There are a number of general problems with efforts to advocate or adopt this
approach to precaution. First, it is logically impossible to prove a negative: there is no way to
conclusively demonstrate that an action or intervention will definitely not cause harm. Second,
at a practical level, in biodiversity and NRM, knowledge will always be incomplete, under-
standing will always be partial, and there will always be room to call for more data before
4. Implementing precaution in biodiversity and natural resource management
35
taking action. This approach can be relied on to block action indefinitely, with all the associated
costs. Third, all human activities impact on the natural world – no human activity is free of risk.
To call for a “zero risk” version of the precautionary principle in one context begs the question
of why this should not be generally applied – an approach which would preclude, for instance,
virtually all fishing, timber extraction, agriculture, and technological development, an outcome
which few would view as reasonable. For these reasons such a uniformly strict interpretation of
the principle will tend to render it meaningless in practice (Nollkaemper, 1991), and discredit
the principle itself (Garcia, 1994, pp.118). This leaves open, however, the potential to articulate
the principle in this way in specific situations where it is judged that potential damage is
particularly serious or irreversible, or the environmental values to be protected particularly
precious.
Proportionality
The concept of proportionality is common to many definitions and understandings of the
precautionary principle. Proportionality generally requires an appropriate relationship between
the protective measures adopted and the level of security to be achieved (European
Commission, 2002). A trivial, hypothetical increase in environmental security should not be
pursued by highly restrictive and massively economically expensive measures; protective
measures against clearly plausible (if uncertain) catastrophic and irreversible environmental
harm should not be delayed due to a moderate economic cost. Proportionality involves a
balancing act of threats, benefits, and uncertainties across environmental, economic and social
realms. This is not necessarily a well-defined notion, as it involves a judgement which takes
into account the uncertainty surrounding threats, the seriousness and possible likelihood of
threats, the likely economic, social (and environmental) costs of the protective action, the
environmental, economic and social benefits of the action, and the level of security that is
desired. Where it is incorporated, proportionality limits the “absolutist” or extreme tendencies
of the precautionary principle, limiting these to situations where proportionality requires them.
Precaution and the objectives of management
The weight given to economic, social, livelihood and environmental factors in applying
precaution will depend crucially on the context. One factor may be the stated policy objectives
of the decision-making forum. Drawing from international examples, some decision-making
contexts emphasise primarily conservation objectives (eg, CITES), some emphasise sustain-
able use and conservation of biodiversity as a whole (eg, CBD), some emphasise management
and conservation of specific resources (many fisheries agreements), some emphasise sustain-
able development, with its environmental, social and economic aspects (eg, WSSD), some
emphasise trade and/or economic growth (eg, WTO). It is not surprising that the precautionary
principle, influential within all these arenas, takes on very different forms in each. In general, it
appears plausible that the more “purely” conservation oriented a decision-making arena is, the
“harder” a version of precaution will be adopted, the less weight competing economic or social
objectives will be given, and the less environmental risk will be considered acceptable.
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
36
Precaution and power
In a related point, precautionary decisions are necessarily political, and the relative weight
placed on different threats and potential benefits in decision-making will be influenced by the
strength of the different interests. Where powerful interests are at stake, the precautionary
principle may be strongly resisted and be given little weight in decision-making. In commercial
fisheries regulation under the EU Common Fisheries Policy, for instance, major risks to stocks
are tolerated due to the political pressure to support the fishing industry (see e.g., Bridges,
2004b). While there is increasing acceptance of the precautionary principle as a component of
corporate social and environmental responsibility,31 there is an ongoing history of vehement
corporate opposition to precaution. Against major economic interests, it may be that more
stringent versions of precaution will only generally be applied when threats are very obviously
serious and irreversible, and even then this may be delayed for decades and result in widespread
harm to the environment or public health (see e.g., Harremoes et al., 2002).
Divergence between sectors
There are therefore inconsistencies in the degree to which precaution is accepted as a legitimate
basis for decision-making, and inconsistencies in the level of environmental risk tolerated
across different decision-making fora. A major problem is posed by the fact that the subjects
and issues regulated by each of these agreements sometimes significantly overlap, meaning that
different perceptions and versions of precaution, toward the same problem, are accepted within
different fora. For instance, a strong precautionary approach to invasive alien species has been
widely discussed and endorsed within the CBD (Decisions VI/23 and V/8). Such an approach is
likely to be contentious within the WTO. The approach to sustainable use under the CBD,
incorporating the precautionary approach, makes it clear that human needs and benefits are
important elements in decision-making (see e.g., Decision VII/12, Annex II, Practical Principle
12). Under CITES, however, precautionary decision-making on utilization and trade in wildlife
does not explicitly incorporate reference to socio-economic and livelihood needs (see e.g.,
CITES, 2004).
Equity and precaution
Basic equity considerations demand that in implementing precaution, attention should be paid
not only to the various costs and benefits, but also to who bears costs or gains benefits. For
precaution to contribute to, rather than conflict with, sustainable development, the burden of
the precautionary principle must be borne by those most able to afford it (Thompson and
Kennedy, 1996). This is intimately tied to the question of who is involved and represented in
the decision-making process.
4. Implementing precaution in biodiversity and natural resource management
37
31 The precautionary approach is one of the ten principles of the UN Global Compact: for details see
online at www.unglobalcompact.org.
Precaution, protectionism, livelihoods and development
As discussed above, in the biodiversity context it will often be developing countries, and poor
people within developing countries, who bear the costs of precautionary resource use and
conservation strategies, including economic and financial loss, loss of income, land or re-
sources, restriction of livelihood options, and opportunity costs. “Top-down”, protectionist
conservation approaches which prohibit access to or use of biological resources are particularly
problematic in this regard (Mohammed-Katerere, 2001), as distinct from precautionary ap-
proaches that have been implemented through local level institutions and management. Sub-
sistence and livelihood interests do not wield the same political and negotiating power in
national or international decision-making as the commercial interests already mentioned, and
weighed against them in conservation decision-making arenas may be Northern NGOs or
governments. Where conservation measures affect only politically marginal community inter-
ests, little weight may be placed on supporting their interests and livelihoods in value judge-
ments involving what level of risk is tolerable, and particularly stringent or restrictive versions
of the precautionary principle may be applied.
Who bears the burden of proof?
The allocation of the burden of proof carries major consequences for equity and the distribution
of costs. For threats to biodiversity posed by new technologies, or large-scale change or
expansion of economic activities, proponents will often be economically powerful interests
which are appropriately placed to bear the burden of proof. But “proponents” of actions will
often be local resource-using communities seeking to meet basic needs, with few technical
resources. Should the burden of proof fall on them? A small community faced with a
well-funded international NGO arguing for precautionary exclusion of traditional uses will
have difficulty providing evidence to the contrary. Similarly, it will be difficult for developing
countries with limited technical and scientific capacity to gather scientific evidence to counter
precautionary import restrictions on wildlife products, supported by powerful States and
NGOs.
In the trade context, under WTO disciplines the burden of proof rests with those attempting
to demonstrate environmental harm – in the absence of adequate scientific evidence, trade-
restrictive environmental measures are difficult to justify. This may impose substantial burdens
on developing countries seeking to protect their biodiversity and natural resources with scarce
technical and financial resources. For instance, requirements under the SPS Agreement for
extensive scientific assessments to support precautionary action against threats such as in-
vasive alien species may impose major regulatory burdens.
Who decides?
Implementing precaution necessarily involves value judgements and subjective perceptions of
risks, costs and benefits. But whose values, judgements and perceptions count?
Precaution is generally understood as weighing on the side of more participatory, demo-
cratic and transparent forms of governance, emphasising broad stakeholder engagement rather
than narrow scientific/technical domination of decision-making. This is generally understood
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
38
as improving equitable and democratic decision-making, although some doubt the ability of the
public or other stakeholders to reach informed judgements in highly technical areas, rather than
reflecting propaganda of various advocates, ignorance, or ingrained/irrational fears or prefer-
ences.
However, precaution may be a central issue in conflicts between competing environmental
priorities or approaches, and can be used by more powerful groups to impose their own agenda
or viewpoints on others. In the WTO and at the World Summit on Sustainable Development,
for instance, developing countries have opposed the use of the precautionary principle, because
it could be used by the North to impose its own environmental agenda on developing countries,
which may have both different priorities and different conservation approaches. Advocates for
indigenous peoples’ rights have argued that precaution is used by government agencies,
donors, and NGOs in support of a Western conservation tradition of people and nature as
separate, against traditional wildlife use and management (Colchester, 2003).
Can precaution be “abused”?
A final challenge in implementing precaution is the potential for this open-ended principle to be
misused or abused to disguise undeclared motivations. In the international trade context,
suspicion has often been expressed that precaution can be abused to further illegitimate
trade-protectionist ends (eg, Winestock, 2001). Somewhat analogous concerns may arise with
respect to motivations for animal welfare and animal rights, which are not viewed in most
conservation decision-making arenas, particularly the international, as legitimate bases for
conservation decision-making. Widespread reliance on the precautionary principle by
Northern, animal-rights oriented NGOs to oppose consumptive utilization of some animals has
led some to view the precautionary principle as merely a rhetorical “tool of convenience” to
disguise ideological objections to utilization per se, rather than sustainability concerns. This
may be particularly true in relation to the “charismatic megafauna”, such as elephants and
whales. For these species it is not clear that any level of scientific/technical certainty would
preclude such an approach. Some view an over-emphasis on possible disasters and “crises” by
certain groups as geared more toward fundraising than conservation priorities (eg, Lomborg,
2001). Unfortunately, the potential for such misuses has without doubt contributed to corrosion
of the legitimacy of the precautionary principle within certain constituencies.
4. Implementing precaution in biodiversity and natural resource management
39
40
5. Conclusions and current directions
The precautionary principle is now a widespread and increasingly entrenched principle within
environmental law and policy. It emphasises anticipation, prevention and mitigation of
uncertain risks, for which definitive scientific evidence is not available. It counters a wide-
spread presumption in regulatory systems in favour of allowing development/economic
activity to proceed where there is uncertainty about its impacts. Uncertainty in NRM and
biodiversity conservation is fundamental, and the precautionary principle is of obvious and
widespread relevance. This paper has examined questions and issues surrounding the accept-
ance and implementation of the precautionary principle in the context of biodiversity conser-
vation and natural resource management. It is clear from this analysis that the precautionary
principle in this area is both complex and contentious, and its effective and equitable imple-
mentation will require careful consideration of a number of issues. Some preliminary con-
clusions can be drawn.
First, acceptance of precaution as a governance/management tool is highly inconsistent
across biodiversity-related policy sectors, and in general remains contentious. A wide range of
countries has incorporated the principle into general environmental, biodiversity or natural
resource law and policy. However, at multilateral level, it is very widely incorporated in
biodiversity conservation and fisheries management instruments, but very rare in forestry and
timber agreements and policy. In the trade context the precautionary principle is highly
controversial, and it appears only a circumscribed form of precautionary action is provided for
under relevant international trade agreements. This poses challenges for coherent environ-
mental policy at both international and national levels.
Second, the bare acceptance of the precautionary principle into biodiversity and natural
resource law and policy is likely to have little impact on decision-making or management
practice unless it is translated into more specific obligations and operational measures.
Third, the implementation and impacts of precaution will be shaped by the specificities of
the biodiversity/NRM context. There are a number of features of this sector which contrast with
those industrial sectors where precaution has received most attention. Uncertainty surrounding
the functioning and responses of biological systems is fundamental and persistent, and also
surrounds the socio-economic and political contexts which shape the impact of conservation
and resource decisions. Threats to biodiversity are often posed not by new, poorly understood
technologies or processes, but by the expansion or intensification of well-understood activities
such as harvesting wild species or clearing forests. Threats often derive from multiple rather
than singular sources, with different courses of action each raising potential risks. The cost of
precautionary measures may fall on poor or subsistence natural resource users and com-
munities, rather than on industrial interests. However, there are often close linkages between
biodiversity conservation and the long-term interests of those (resource users) whose actions
raise threats of harm.
Fourth, determining which specific management approaches or tools should be considered
precautionary is not straightforward. For instance, environmental impact assessment/risk
assessment, ecosystem-based management approaches, and adaptive management all provide
tools or approaches for addressing and managing uncertainty, and each is often discussed as
41
being closely linked to precaution. However, while each can be implemented in a precautionary
fashion, they do not necessarily translate to precautionary management.
Fifth, the precautionary principle should not be used to automatically both support pro-
tectionist approaches to conservation and oppose sustainable use of wild species. Determining
the precautionary strategy will require assessment of the relative conservation risks and
benefits posed by alternative strategies.
Sixth, while examination of scientific knowledge is often viewed as an appropriate starting
point for precautionary regulation or management, such assessments should also incorporate
indigenous, traditional and local resource user knowledge, and examination of the broader
socio-economic and political contexts which affect the impact of conservation decisions. The
frequent link made in legislation and policy between biological indicators of threat (such as
species status) and specific management responses (such as prohibitions on use or trade), often
justified on precautionary grounds, should be questioned.
Seventh, implementation of precaution involves a political and values-based balancing
between the interests of biodiversity/resource conservation, and other countervailing pressures
such as economic or livelihood interests. Different decision-making instruments, arenas or
contexts may demonstrate varying levels of risk-averseness, due in part to their different
objectives and the varying strength of different interest groups reflected therein. Where the
same issue is addressed by different policy or decision-making arenas, this can pose potential
conflicts.
Eighth, the more extreme or highly restrictive versions of precaution (the “when in doubt,
don’t” approach) are problematic for reasons of both pragmatism and equity. Many versions
incorporate the concept of proportionality between level of risk and measures adopted, and
include some form of analysis of the various costs and benefits involved, including socio-
economic.
Ninth, the equity implications of precaution are significant. The livelihood and socio-
economic impacts of the implementation of the precautionary principle in biodiversity conser-
vation and NRM can be negative, particularly for those dependent on the utilization of
biological resources to support livelihoods. Highly restrictive or protectionist approaches raise
particular problems in this respect. Attention should be paid to which groups bear the burdens
of precautionary restrictions, including who bears the burden of proof, and who participates
and influences decision-making.
Tenth, and finally, precaution can be misused by various groups to disguise motivations
which are not generally accepted as valid conservation concerns, such as animal rights-based
objections to utilization.
A number of key questions and issues require further examination. It is clear that imple-
mentation of the principle requires much greater shared understanding: how can precaution
best be translated into practice? What determines the wide variation in acceptance of precaution
across different decision-making contexts? How can potential conflicts between different
decision-making arenas be resolved? Governance issues are crucial: how can the costs and
obligations of precaution be equitably distributed? How can abuse be avoided? How should
science and other expertise be best incorporated into the decision-making process?
Precautionary Principle in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management
42
Towards best-practice guidance
The Precautionary Principle Project is tackling these and other questions through a broad
collaborative process of research, dialogue and policy development. The major aim of this
project is to develop best practice guidance for implementing the precautionary principle in
biodiversity conservation and natural resource management in an effective and equitable
manner. This aim is being pursued through:
(i) Regional workshops in developing country regions, drawing together practitioners,
decision-makers and academics to debate and share experience on application of the
precautionary principle;
(ii) Development of case studies on implementation of the precautionary principle across
different sectors, regions and at different policy levels, to be published in book form in
mid-2005;
(iii) Engagement with relevant conventions, including the Convention on Biological
Diversity, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild
Fauna and Flora, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Trade
Organization;
(iv) A final international review and dissemination workshop.
This best-practice guidance will be of interest and practical relevance to a wide range of
biodiversity and natural resource decision-makers, practitioners and policy-makers. It will be
available and widely disseminated in the latter half of 2005.
5. Conclusions and current directions
43
6. References
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Barnett, R. (2004). Impacts of precautionary wildlife law and policy on contribution of wild
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... Threat identification is part of the process and is used to justify status definition, management options and risk forecast [16]. They are arguably the most relevant information for effective conservation actions [17]. These species and threat assessments are mostly supported by experts willing to contribute to species conservation, and they frequently rely on empirical knowledge and tend to be precautionary [17], conservation-wise. ...
... They are arguably the most relevant information for effective conservation actions [17]. These species and threat assessments are mostly supported by experts willing to contribute to species conservation, and they frequently rely on empirical knowledge and tend to be precautionary [17], conservation-wise. In the most scientifically prolific era ever, traditional and specialist knowledge, although extremely relevant, should, when possible, also be supported by available knowledge published in scientific literature. ...
... This represents a twofold problem, as there is possibly little valid published information available [19] and the information that exists is being improperly used or used in an overly speculative fashion, or the evaluators were not given enough time to assimilate the available published information. Although understandable in the context of the precautionary principle in biodiversity conservation [17], the identification of threats by excess can lead to increasing difficulties in species conservation, having possible negative feedback effects, as managers usually face budget constraints and need to prioritize resource allocation. This non-literature-supported conservative approach hinders managers from correctly identifying and prioritizing the most relevant threats due to an over-dispersion of threats to endangered species and thus detracts from ecosystem rehabilitation and species conservation, which is the very purpose of identifying threats under the species conservation status assessment. ...
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Freshwater ecosystems are disproportionally important for biodiversity conservation, as they support more than 9% of known animal species while representing less than 1% of the Earth’s surface. However, the vast majority of the threats (99%, or 826 out of 837) identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species known to affect the 434 known freshwater-dependent fish and lampreys of Europe are not supported by validated published scientific knowledge. This general lack of information about freshwater-dependent fish and lamprey species may have deleterious effects on species conservation, and additional funding is required to fill baseline knowledge gaps.
... Therefore, the precautionary principle, or precautionary approach, should be applied (Lacey, 2010) to ensure the protection of Antarctic ecosystems. However, in spite of its importance, the implementation of this principle remains inconsistent, mainly because of economic and political interests (Cooney, 2004;SAT, 2014SAT, , 2019. ...
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Since the first explorers reached Antarctica, their activities have quickly impacted both land and sea and thus, together with the long-range transport, hazardous chemicals began to accumulate. It is commonly recognized that anthropogenic pollution in Antarctica can originate from either global or local sources. Heavy metals, organohalogenated compounds, hydrocarbons, and (more recently) plastic, have been found in Antarctic biota, soil sediments, seawater, air, snow and sea-ice. Studies in such remote areas are challenging and expensive, and the complexity of potential interactions occurring in such extreme climate conditions (i.e., low temperature) makes any accurate prediction on potential impacts difficult. The present review aims to summarize the current state of knowledge on occurrence and distribution of legacy and emerging pollutants in Antarctica, such as plastic, from either global or local sources. Future actions to monitor and mitigate any potential impact on Antarctic biodiversity are discussed.
... In addition to persecution by anglers, Bowfin are the target of a burgeoning caviar industry and regional populations, some of which may represent geographically restricted species, have the potential to suffer significant negative impacts to recruitment and standing genetic diversity due to overexploitation. Until such time as the full scope of Bowfin species and population-level diversity is understood, as well as the potential impact of threats (caviar and recreational fishing, habitat loss, invasive species, etc.) to that diversity, a 'precautionary principle' such as those advocated by the IUCN and other entities [45][46][47][48][49] might reasonably be considered to protect currently unrecognized Bowfin diversity. ...
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The Bowfin (Amia calva), as currently recognized, represents the sole living member of the family Amiidae, which dates back to approximately 150 Ma. Prior to 1896, 13 species of extant Bowfins had been described, but these were all placed into a single species with no rationale or analysis given. This situation has persisted until the present day, with little attention given to re-evaluation of those previously described nominal forms. Here, we present a phylogenomic analysis based on over 21,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) from 94 individuals that unambiguously demonstrates the presence of at least two independent evolutionary lineages within extant Amia populations that merit species-level standing, as well as the possibility of two more. These findings not only expand the recognizable species diversity in an iconic, ancient lineage, but also demonstrate the utility of such methods in addressing previously intractable questions of molecular systematics and phylogeography in slowly evolving groups of ancient fishes.
... Whenever inconsistent information between two or more sources were found, priority was given to the source reporting the newest reference. Furthermore, when the inconsistent information was reported by two references of the same year of publication, the "Precautionary Principle" (PP) approach (Cooney 2004) was followed: in face of inconsistent information on alien sh traits, the selected trait class or value was the one that potentially had higher impacts on native ecosystems following the introduction of the alien sh species. For example, since the adult trophic status of Vimba vimba is reported either as omnivore or invertivore by different sources, the PP approach led to classify the species' diet as omnivore since it can be more impactful on the native fauna than an invertivore one (Oberdorff et al. 2002). ...
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Full-text available
Despite the growing literature on the topic of freshwater fish invasion, few studies employed a comprehensive analysis of the stages characterizing the invasion process (i.e. invasion pathway), thereby demanding a deeper knowledge to avoid incomplete and unbiased conclusions and give support to adequate management strategies. The aim of the present study was to provide a complete analysis of the species traits and invasion history leading an alien freshwater fish species to successfully pass through the invasion pathway stages in European river basins. To predict how likely a freshwater fish species moves from each stage of the invasion pathway - release , establishment , spread and impact - to the next one, Generalized Linear Mixed Models were run, using as predictors 23 functional and ecological species traits, and seven variables describing introduction history for 127 established alien freshwater fish species in Europe. Results showed that the release and spread stages were primarily driven by variables related to the invasion history (i.e. the type and number of causes of introduction). The establishment stage was mainly driven by functional and ecological traits, while the impact stage was driven both by functional and ecological traits and invasion history. By identifying the main drivers of alien species success at a given invasion stage, this study provides scientific knowledge to design target management actions to specific stages of the invasion thus contributing to control their populations more effectively.
... Um die Priorisierung von Managementmaßnahmen zu unterstützen, muss eine Analyse der Bedrohungen und eine Bewertung der Risiken durch verschiedene Arten menschlicher Aktivitäten und natürlicher Veränderungen vorgenommen werden (siehe Abschnitt 6 für Details). Die Prinzipien und Methodik der strategischen Umweltprüfung und der Umweltverträglichkeitsprüfung sowie die Anwendung des Vorsorgeprinzips liefern wertvolle Vorlagen (Cooney, 2004;Cooney & Dickson, 2005). ...
... Mapas do recuo de um glaciar islandês no Parque Nacional de Vatnajökull. © Roger Crofts estratégica e da avaliação de impacto ambiental, assim como a aplicação do princípio da precaução, fornecem modelos importantes para este contexto (Cooney, 2004;Cooney & Dickson, 2005). ...
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... In such cases, precautionary conservation is often applied (Carr and Raimondi, 1999;Pan and Huntington, 2015;Sampaio et al., 2015). This approach deals with uncertainty using defensive intervention, and typically advocates action even in data-poor contexts (Cooney, 2004). However, precautionary conservation can increase the risk of suboptimal outcomes and inefficient use of time and resources, as interventions are more poorly informed and might not target key problems effectively (VanderWerf et al., 2006). ...
Article
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Conservation management requires evidence, but robust data on key parameters such as threats are often unavailable. Conservation-relevant insights might be available within datasets collected for other reasons, making it important to determine the information content of available data for threatened species and identify remaining data-gaps before investing time and resources in novel data collection. The Yangtze finless porpoise ( Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis ) has declined severely across the middle-lower Yangtze, but multiple threats exist in this system and the relative impact of different anthropogenic activities is unclear, preventing identification of appropriate mitigation strategies. Several datasets containing information on porpoises or potential threats are available from past boat-based and fishing community surveys, which might provide novel insights into causes of porpoise mortality and decline. We employed multiple analytical approaches to investigate spatial relationships between live and dead porpoises and different threats, reproductive trends over time, and sustainable offtake levels, to assess whether evidence-based conservation is feasible under current data availability. Our combined analyses provide new evidence that mortality is spatially associated with increased cargo traffic; observed mortality levels (probably a substantial underestimate of true levels) are unsustainable; and population recruitment is decreasing, although multiple factors could be responsible (pollutants, declining fish stocks, anthropogenic noise, reduced genetic diversity). Available data show little correlation between patterns of mortality and fishing activity even when analyzed across multiple spatial scales; however, interview data can be affected by multiple biases that potentially complicate attempts to reconstruct levels of bycatch, and new data are required to understand dynamics and sustainability of porpoise-fisheries interactions. This critical assessment of existing data thus suggests that in situ porpoise conservation management must target multiple co-occurring threats. Even limited available datasets can provide new insights for understanding declines, and we demonstrate the importance of an integrative approach for investigating complex conservation problems and maximizing evidence in conservation planning for poorly known taxa.
... Vent habitats are small, isolated, and characterized by high levels of endemism, so the impacts of sediment plumes from mining cannot be realistically compared with similar impacts in nearshore environments. In line with the IUCN's precautionary principle (Cooney, 2004), an 80-km minimum threshold to separate vent fields into different locations ensures that a mining event at one location will not affect another. Therefore, a location encompasses all vent fields within a prescribed management area with a biologically and geologically coherent identity and within 80 km of each other. ...
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