The University of Arizona

From paper to practice? Assembling a rights-based conservation approach

Catherine Corson, Julia Worcester, Sabine Rogers, Isabel Flores-Ganley


Drawing on a collaborative ethnographic study of the 2016 International Union for the Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress (WCC), we analyze how Indigenous peoples and local community (IPLC) rights advocates have used a rights-based approach (RBA) to advance long-standing struggles to secure local communities' land and resource rights and advance governing authority in biodiversity conservation. The RBA has allowed IPLC advocates to draw legitimacy from the United Nations system—from its declarations to its special rapporteurs—and to build transnational strategic alliances in ways they could not with participatory discourses. Using it, they have brought attention to biodiversity as a basic human right and to the struggle to use, access, and own it as a human rights struggle. In this article, we show how the 2016 WCC provided a platform for building and reinforcing these alliances, advancing diverse procedural and substantive rights, redefining key principles and standards for a rights-based conservation approach, and leveraging international support for enforcement mechanisms on-the-ground. We argue that, as advocates staked out physical and discursive space at the venue, they secured the authority to shape conservation politics, shifting the terrain of struggle between strict conservationists and community activists and creating new conditions of possibility for advancing the human rights agenda in international conservation politics. Nonetheless, while RBAs have been politically successful at reconfiguring global discourse, numerous obstacles remain in translating that progress to secure human rights to resources "on the ground", and it is vital that the international conservation community finance the implementation of RBA in specific locales, demand that nation states create monitoring and grievance systems, and decolonize the ways in which they interact with IPLCs. Finally, we reflect on the value of the Collaborative Event Ethnography methodology, with its emphasis on capturing the mundane, meaningful and processual aspects of policymaking, in illuminating the on-going labor entailed in bringing together and aligning the disparate elements in dynamic assemblages.

Keywords: Human rights, global conservation governance, collaborative event ethnography, Indigenous peoples


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