Giulia Sajeva, PhD

(Namib Desert, 1992)

My name is Giulia Sajeva and I come from Palermo, Sicily. I began to explore the interface between environmental protection and human rights during my MSc in Conservation Science (Imperial College London, 2009), as my thesis focused on the circumstances that influence the success of Access and Benefit Sharing agreements between indigenous peoples and third parties. This involved fieldwork in the Kalahari Desert (South Africa) and the Okavango Delta (Botswana), conducting semi-structured interviews with #Khomani and Khwe San indigenous peoples, with the support of the international NGO Natural Justice: Lawyers for Community and the Environment.

(Bwabwata National Park, Namibia, 2013)

I then took up an internship at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Conventions and Policies Section, in 2010, where I contributed to drafting ethical guidelines for botanical research with indigenous peoples and local communities.

In 2012, I began a PhD in Human Rights at the Department of Law, Università degli Studi di Palermo, Italy, on the novel and controversial idea of biocultural rights.

The PhD allowed me to hone my research skills and knowledge of the relationship between human rights and the environment, indigenous peoples’ rights and sustainable practices (from a conservation science and ethnobiological point of view), as well as to address a new subject and its methodology: legal theory. I spent 6 months in Cape Town (2013) as a visiting researcher with Natural Justice, to participate in organizing a workshop around creating a Biocultural Community Protocol – an instrument to promote indigenous rights’ awareness and recognition – with Khwe indigenous peoples in Bwabwata National Park, Namibia.

(Bwabwata National Park, Namibia, 2013)

In 2015, I enrolled in the MSc in Rule of Law and Constitutional Democracy, at the Università degli Studi di Genova, in Italy. The MSc allowed me to specialise in ethical, legal and political issues concerning the application of the rule of law, and the structure and development of constitutional democracies. I wrote a thesis on the recognition of rights to the environment in the new Ecuadorian Constitution and its relationship with indigenous peoples’ ethics and worldviews.

My interdisciplinary interests led me to be elected as Vice-President of the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group of the Society of Conservation Biology, which works on the relationship between conservation science and diverse faith communities.

After my PhD, I engaged in seminars, reading groups, and examinations with undergraduate and postgraduate students at the Università degli Studi di Palermo; I was invited to present my research at various universities; co-organised a symposium for the 5th European Congress of Conservation Biology on biocultural approaches to conservation, and presented at numerous conferences and congresses.

My Academia profile

My Strathclyde Pure Profile

Previous research

(Bwabwata National Park, 2013)

My previous research mainly focused on Intellectual Property Rights and Traditional Knowledge, on research ethics with indigenous peoples, and on the difficult relationship existing between human rights and the protection of the environment.

“Do human rights help or hinder the environment?” wonders C. Gearty. And viceversa?

Nature conservation and human rights have a controversial relationship characterized by strong dependence, conflicts, win-win scenarios threatened by concealed problems, different actors with different responsibilities, and often unfairly-shared burdens. The need to protect the environment shall not disguise the fact that certain actions aimed at nature’s conservation actually threaten human rights.

Indigenous peoples and local communities represent an example of such uneasy relationship between the conservation of the environment and the protection of human rights.

Ironically, precisely those peoples and communities that have less contributed to the detriment of the Earth find themselves in particularly difficult conditions when it comes to act for the conservation of the environment. Their close dependency and reliance on nature place them more easily “on the way” of conservation activities, as for example when new protected areas may be created.

However, it emerges that a change in conservation activities and projects is occurring. Though not completely realized, a change towards rights-based conservation approaches and the concomitant recognition of indigenous peoples and local communities’ potential role as conservation allies has taken flight.

Most of my work concentrated on the concept of biocultural rights and on its nuances and challenges as a response to the deep interdependence between protection of the environment and human rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

The concept of biocultural rights was developed in 2010 predominantly by Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte, as those rights that indigenous peoples and local communities need in order to maintain their role as stewards of the environment of their lands and waters.

They build on the understanding that those communities and peoples, whose ways of life are erected on the idea of care for the environment, need to be recognized a cluster of rights in order to maintain those practices and ways of life that make them environmental stewards.

Biocultural rights ground on two different foundations/interests, belonging to the two different subjects that biocultural rights aim at protecting. A first foundation being the interest of indigenous peoples and local communities to live according to their self-determined practices and worldviews in their traditional lands. A second foundation being the conservation of the environment, which may be declined as an interest of nature itself.

The double foundation of biocultural rights, which protects the interests of two distinct subjects, leads to some troubling implications, which differentiate them from indigenous peoples rights. As there is no necessary, perpetual, coincidence between the interests of indigenous peoples and local communities and the environment, biocultural rights face potential conflicts that may arise between their two foundations and interests-holders. Such conflicts lead to the raise of internal limits to biocultural rights, in fact, the basket of rights to self-government and to land and to cultural diversity granted through biocultural rights appears as not only limited by other rights or very important considerations concerning the general interest, but also by the interest for the protection of the environment. Moreover, indigenous peoples and local communities who claim biocultural rights are called to a duty of sustainability. Finally, only indigenous peoples and local communities that live sustainably may be recognized as holders of biocultural rights (while to be holder of indigenous peoples rights it is sufficient to be indigenous).

(Bwabwata National Park, Namibia, 2013)

However, biocultural rights are a powerful tool in the hands of indigenous peoples whose indigenous status (and hence rights) is denied by the State they reside in, or whose rights are limited by environmental interests of the State (because they, for example, live in a protected area the State is not willing to degazette).

Moreover, biocultural rights are particularly important because they propose the recognition of a set of human rights to local communities – which currently lack a full recognition as subjects of international law and are only timidly seeing collective human rights recognized to them.

For a list of publications relevant to the understanding of biocultural rights, click here.



Sajeva, G. (2018). When Rights Embrace Responsibilities: Biocultural Rights and the Conservation of the Environment. Oxford University Press.


The conservation of environment and the protection of human rights are two of the most compelling needs of our time. Unfortunately, they are not always easy to combine and too often result in mutual harm. This book analyses the idea of biocultural rights as a proposal for harmonizing the needs of environmental and human rights. These rights, considered as a basket of group rights, are those deemed necessary to protect the stewardship role that certain indigenous peoples and local communities have played towards the environment. With a view to understanding the value and merits, as well as the threats that biocultural rights entail, the book critically assesses their foundations, content, and implications, and develops new perspectives and ideas concerning their potential applicability for promoting the socio-economic interests of indigenous people and local communities. It further explores the controversial relationship of interdependence and conflict between conservation of environment and protection of human rights.

Articles and Reports

Sajeva G. (2021). Anthropocene: New Encounters, Old Patterns. A Few Comments on Payments for Ecosystem Services. In Soft Power, 13, 7(2).


This paper focuses on one of the answers proposed to the question: what type of change is to be pursued to limit human impact on the Earth while considering the needs of poor and disadvantaged communities? The paper looks a proposal that falls within sustainable development approaches based on market mechanisms and top-down technocratic responses: Payments for Ecosystem Services frameworks. They have been been criticized by many points of view, but this paper questions, in particular, their very reliance on the market, considering it inappropriate for the regulation of conservation activities and their interaction with local communities.

Sajeva G. (2020). Earth Jurisprudence: new paths ahead. Diritto and & questioni pubbliche, XX(2).

I have edited the 2020/2 monographic section of the journal Diritto e questioni pubbliche on Earth Jurisprudence, with contributions by Rodrigo Míguez Núñez, Livio Perra, Sofia Ciuffoletti, Matija Žgur, Giada Giacomini, and myself.

Sajeva G. (2020). Earth Jurisprudence: Looking for change in old new friends. Diritto e questioni pubbliche, XX(2).


The article introduces the reader to the theory of Earth Jurisprudence through an analysis of the writings of Thomas Berry, Cormac Cullinan and Peter Burdon. After looking at the main revisions that the scholars of Earth Jurisprudence propose to the theory of law, the article recognizes the fact that they all move in the direction of natural law theories and questions the opportunity to take this path in order to change the relationship between human law and the environment.

Sajeva, G. (2019). Inside-out. Internal and external limits to rights: does it matter? Diritto e questioni pubbliche19(2), 201-223.


Literature is rich on whether and how rights are limited by external considerations, such as other rights or particularly important general interests. This article concentrates on what could be a different type of limit of rights: internal limits stemming from the very foundations of a right. Its aim is to understand whether these hypothetically different internal limits actually collapse on the idea of internal limits of coherence theories; or whether they are equivalent, in terms of effects, to external limits to rights. In order to show the origin of the troubling with internal limits, the article begins with a brief introduction of biocultural rights of indigenous peoples and local communities and of the challenges they encountered, allegedly, because of the internal limits that rose from their foundations. It then concentrates on coherence theories and the internal limits they envisage, and continues with the analysis of two examples – freedom of expression and parental rights – in order to understand whether turning external limits into internal ones causes any change in the arising normative positions. Building on this thought experiment, it tries to explain which of the sui generis features of biocultural rights are, actually, due to their double foundation and which, instead, are generated by other, concealed operations. Finally, after recognizing the complexities of the idea of care and stewardship between two subjects/interests, it points out the more subtle implications of internal limits of rights, opening the way to considerations concerning the way legal concepts are used and interpreted.

Sajeva, G., Borrini-Feyerabend, G., & Niederberger, T. (2019). Meanings and More…: Policy Brief of the ICCA Consortium no. 7.


In 2018, the Council of the ICCA Consortium decided to develop a lexicon of meaningful concepts and terms frequently used in its work, policies and relations with its Members and Partners. Many felt that such a reference compendium would be particularly useful as the Consortium has highlighted and adopted new ways of referring to phenomena that, historically, had not been conceptually analysed. First among them are the very ICCAs—territories of life at the heart of the Consortium’s work. This document is the result of the Council’s decision. It is a rich beginning, compiled with the contributions of many members of the Consortium and expected to evolve and be further integrated and enriched in the years to come. The document is now out to stimulate thinking, debate, joint analysis, learning and action within the Consortium’s membership, which is where the true meanings of our collective language will emerge (and evolve).

Sajeva, G. (2019). Un passo avanti e un passo indietro nell’Antropocene: Rights for Ecosystem Services, comunità locali e REDD. Diritto e questioni pubbliche, 19(1), 275-289.


The author of the book When Rights Embrace Responsibilities. Biocultural Rights and Conservation of the Environment replies to the comments raised by Francesco Viola and Gianfrancesco Zanetti in the present journal issue. She also dwells on some topics of her book which deserve further clarification and speculates on possible future developments of biocultural rights.

Sajeva, G. (2017). Human rights and the environment: a hard balance to strike. Ragion Pratica, 2017(2), 525-552.


This article is dedicated to the analysis of the uneasy relationship between human rights and the environment. Its first part focuses on new proposals such as the greening of human rights, the development of procedural environmental rights and the creation of specific environmental rights, aimed at the harmonization between human rights and environmental protection. The second part focuses on groups whose rights are particularly at risk vis à vis environmental protection activities: indigenous peoples and local communities. The article then analyses current trends of change in the relationship between indigenous peoples and local communities rights and the protection of the environment thanks to the increased recognition of their role as conservation allies.

Sajeva, G. (2017). The conservation of the environment in Ecuador’s constitution. Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica, (2), 359-381.


The 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution is often presented as building on the local traditions of indigenous peoples in order to propose a non-anthropocentric approach to the conservation of the environment, based on the concept of buen vivir. After providing a short introduction on anthropocentric and non-anthropo-centric approaches to the environment, with attention to indigenous worldviews, this article attempts to: analyse the concept of buen vivir, appearing to have unclear boundaries; understand whether or not it is a concept derived from indigenous worldviews; and explore the innovative non-anthropocentric feature of the recognition of rights to the environment. Finally, the article uses the idea of rights of the environment as a key to interpret the fuzzy concept of buen vivir in the most effective way to enhance the conservation of the environment.

Sajeva, G., & Žgur, M. (2016). Human Rights & Democracy: Proceedings of the 1st Palermo Graduate Workshop. Diritto e questioni pubbliche, 16(2), 7-9.

Sajeva, G. (2015). Rights with limits: biocultural rights – between self-determination and conservation of the environment. Journal of Human Rights and the Environment, 6(1), 30-54.


Kabir Bavikatte has recently argued that a new ‘basket’ of group rights is emerging from the interpretation of multilateral environmental agreements, domestic law and case law, and from shifts in the development discourse and the struggles of communities. He refers to this new set of rights as ‘biocultural rights’ and defines them as being all the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities required to secure their stewardship role over their lands and waters. Biocultural rights build on two foundations: the self-determination and cultural diversity of indigenous peoples and local communities, and the conservation of the environment. This article suggests that the second foundation is what makes biocultural rights potentially more appealing than other human rights but that it is also the reason for their sui generis potential. Unlike human rights generally, biocultural rights seem to be aimed at protecting not only the interests of their right-holders, indigenous peoples and local communities, but also seem to protect a general interest of humankind in the conservation of the environment through the impositions of stewardship duties on rights-holders. Therefore, it is suggested that while biocultural rights provide a promising instrument for the promotion and protection of the interests of indigenous peoples and local communities, they also require such peoples and communities to be conscious of the fact that they, as biocultural rights-holders, take on a potentially inequitable duty towards environmental sustainability that limits their self-determination interests. The article explores some of the conceptual tensions emerging from this possibility and from the fact that indigenous peoples and local communities are presented as co-referents for the same umbrella of rights.

Sajeva, M., McGough, H., Garrett, L., Luethy, J., Tse-Laurence, M., Rutherford, C., & Sajeva, G. (2012). CITES and Cacti: A User’s Guide.


This user’s guide covers the widely traded cactus family and how it is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Written for the non-expert, the guide explores the major groups of cacti in trade, their distribution, conservation status, use and levels of trade as well as the likelihood of illegal trade.

Sajeva, G., & Zanetti, G. (2012). Il caso Hoodia: successo o fallimento? La Protezione Giuridica delle Conoscenze Tradizionali. Diritto e Giurisprudenza Agraria, Alimentare e dell’Ambiente, XXI(1), 17-19.


Tse-Laurence, M., Sajeva, G., & Williams, C. (2012). Working with Traditional Knowledge: Information for Botanical Fieldwork.


Botanical research can often involve access to traditional knowledge, as well as to botanical material held or managed by Indigenous and Local Communities (ILCs). There is a large and growing body of local, national and international laws, declarations and codes of conduct to guide best practice in this area. Researchers and students must be aware of this changing framework before collecting material and information in areas inhabited by ILCs.

Sajeva, G. (2011). Culture, biodiversity and endogenous development: introducing the BioCultural Community Protocols. In G. Barbera, E. Castelli, M. Nencioni, & M. Sajeva (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2nd conference “Konso Cultural Landscape: Terracing and Moringa, Addis Ababa (pp. 71-77). Firenze.

Sajeva, M., & Sajeva, G. (2011). International Environmental Conventions: the conservation of biodiversity and Moringa stenopetala. In G. Barbera, E. Castelli, M. Nencioni, & M. Sajeva (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2nd conference “Konso Cultural Landscape: Terracing and Moringa, Addis Ababa (pp. 65-69). Firenze.

Sajeva, G., & Salvo, I. (2010). Un manuale per gli orti botanici sulla convenzione per la biodiversità. Informatore Botanico, 41.


Translated of the contribution: Davis, K., 2008. A CBD manual for botanic gardens. Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Richmond, United Kingdom.

Sajeva, G., & Vitucci, C. (2008). L’applicazione della CITES in Europa. Informatore Botanico Italiano, 40, 15-21.


This article describes the peculiarites of CITES application in Europe. First, it shows the necessity of internal acts of implementation to any international convention. Then, it explains why the EC decided to give a common implementation of CITES and gives a brief outline of the relevant regulations, known as Wildlife Trade Regulation. The consequences of the common European implementation are finally explored to show the need for the EC Accession to CITES.

For a list of talks, conference presentations and conference and workshop organizations, see