Rights for Ecosystem Services

While environmental protection is increasingly gaining recognition as an essential element for the fullfilment of human rights of societies at large, it remains unclear whether human rights offer sufficient protection precisely for those portions of society that contribute the most to environmental protection.

In 2017, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment stressed how “protecting the human rights of indigenous peoples and local communities has been shown to result in improved protection for ecosystems and biodiversity,” which in turn contributes to the protection of fundamental rights of society at large.

Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ traditional knowledge, practices and ways of life have been recognized as beneficial for the conservation of the environment by an increasing number of environment-focused international documents.

In particular, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment called for special attention to the role of non-indigenous local communities for environmental protection, raising awareness on their lack of effective legal protection. In parallel, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas, aimed at overcoming the fact that, regardless of their special needs and vulnerabilities, the rights of local communities are not currently protected by ad hoc international human rights law.

Local communities, that include peasant farmers, small landholders, fisher-folk, and herders, and are, according to the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, among the most marginalized and vulnerable groups and make up for the 80% of people living in hunger.

Even though many local communities contribute to environmental protection through their sustainable practices to the benefit of all, they suffer from eviction from their traditional lands, the enclosure of sacred natural sites, the imposition of strict rules on traditional seeds exchanges, and pressures arising from large-scale natural resource development.

(Bwabwata National Park, Namibia, 2013)

Against this background, my project takes as point of departure the challenging idea of biocultural rights as the basket of rights that indigenous peoples and local communities need in order to maintain their role as stewards of the environment.

Balancing Environmental Responsibilities. Seminar held at John Hopkins University, 2019.

The project actually seeks to go beyond biocultural rights while at the same time responding to the call of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services to move beyond the economy-focused notion of Payments for Ecosystem Services so to propose a framing that embeds rights-based approaches to the conservation of nature through the recognition of the importance of cultural pluralism.

When they were first officially introduced in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) were pictured as a panacea, a win-win solution able to speak the language of politicians and markets (monetary benefits) and tackle, at once, poverty and environmental issues. Conceived as payments made for the preservation, and reward of, positive environmental practices of local communities, PES were meant to promote the protection of important ecosystem services entering them into the market. However, PES have been criticized by many points of view, with some critics concerning the wrong functioning of their market mechanisms, and others picturing the entire market approach as inadequate to fit with the heterogenous cultural and social specificities of local communities, and unable to counteract important issues such marginalization, power asymmetries and injustices. As a response to these critiques, and alike more classic conservation approaches (such as protected areas), PES have received increased pressure to incorporate human rights and equity issues and to find alternative paths able to take in considerations the rights of local communities.


(Botswana, 2006)

My project explores the idea of Rights for Ecosystem Services (RES) to be recognized to sustainable traditional and non-traditional sustainable local communities that contribute to the conservation of ecosystems, with the aim of protecting, and fostering their environmentally-beneficial actions. They would be rights (such as property rights, and natural resources use rights, etc) granted in exchange for the conservation of ecosystem services, based on two concurring foundations: the special link with a certain territory and the commitment to the conservation of the environment. Their double foundation – which incorporates environmental as well as human interests – leads to the rise of a set of internal limits, which turns them into environmentally-conditioned human rights. RES would, in fact, be local communities’ rights with environmental duties and may help reconceptualize (some) rights as embracing both human interests and the protection of the environment, thereby overcoming the classic anthropocentric/eco-centric dichotomy, and abandoning the market-based approach of PES. As an innovative theoretical and legal framework, RES may help to guide policy and legal developments towards reducing the risk of local communities abandoning their sustainable practices due to the lack of effective protection.

Rights for Ecosystem Services, a very short introduction.