What Sustainable Use Is, And What It Is Not
What Sustainable Use Is, And What It Is Not
by Dr Jon Hutton, Chair, IUCN SSC Sustainable Use SG
- People have always used natural resources and will continue to do so.
- In situations of overexploitation the conservation community has followed one of two paths: To stop use or to impose the management needed to deliver sustainable use.
- For many of the world’s rural populations it is not possible to stop use and therefore the challenge is to push for sustainability in many contexts.
- Unfortunately, arguments about sustainable use have become more and more polemic. This is due in part to confusion about what we mean by ‘Sustainable Use’ and our failure to distinguish between, and label, the different concepts within the term.
- Different communities mean very different things when they talk of ‘Sustainable Use’. The IUCN adheres to the guidance presented by the CBD when it uses the term only in the context of living wild resources. However, others appear to use the term as a synonym for sustainable development.
- The sustainable use of resources subject to exploitation is an imperative. Under some circumstances Sustainable Use may also be a conservation strategy that seeks to conserve specific resources and prevent the conversion of land uses that are less compatible with biodiversity conservation.
- The IUCN policy seeks to reflect the argument that sustainable use can be a conservation strategy, but conflict may be reduced if different labels are applied to different concepts.
This presentation derives from our observation that the term “sustainable use” means very different things to different people and groups of people. Within the IUCN we talk only of the sustainable use of living, wild resources. However others, including the European Commission and perhaps on occasion the German Government, appear to use the term as a synonym for sustainable development.
Even within the IUCN, where the scope of the concept of sustainable use is reasonably clear, there is disagreement over what it precisely means as well as how to achieve it. This disagreement is, at least in part, the result of the confusion of the different concepts that are found under the umbrella of “sustainable use” and in our failure to derive adequate terminology to distinguish between these concepts.
Sustainable Use is an Imperative
Human society has always depended on the extractive use of wild species and ecosystems. With the domestication of species and the steady conversion of land for agricultural purposes that dependence may have decreased, but the consumptive use of wild species is still commonly the foundation for human survival in the developing world. And when we consider fisheries and forestry it is clear that the exploitation of wild species is still of enormous importance to many of the World’s largest and most industrialized economies as well. In Tanzania a recent study of six typical rural villages has demonstrated that 58% of household income is derived from the harvesting and sale of wild honey, wild fruits, charcoal and fuel wood (Monela et al. 1999).
Where human well-being is markedly dependent on biodiversity resources, the exploitation of wild species and ecosystems is not going to stop. Indeed, extraction rates are likely to rise for the foreseeable future as human populations increase and people in developing countries seek to meet their needs from “free” wild resources under a range of adverse economic and environmental conditions. At the same time, however, it is clear that in biological terms many, if not most, wild resources are already being overexploited.
The prognosis is an unhappy one, both for the biodiversity resources that are being over-used and for the people who have constructed their livelihoods around the exploitation of these resources.
In response to this scenario, some IUCN members argue that the best strategy to conserve nature is to leave it alone and not use it at all. However, this view ignores reality and we think that there is a broad consensus amongst IUCN members that nature is dynamic, that natural ecosystems include people, that people use natural resources and that nature has to be managed. Furthermore we suggest that the key challenge in a world where use is inevitable is to introduce the management systems necessary to increase the likelihood that use will be biologically sustainable.
The IUCN concept of sustainable use is therefore completely in accordance with the definition in the Convention on Biological Diversity which is that sustainable use "means the use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations”.
In this narrative “sustainable use” is a clear goal to strive for. If we have any interest in resource conservation - whether our personal or professional focus is human welfare or biodiversity conservation - we should all be concerned with the art and science of sustainable use in which, drawing from IUCN’s own mission we will seek “to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.” It should be the least controversial and most pivotal of all the work of the IUCN.
This is not the case, of course. Instead sustainable use has probably been the most controversial of IUCN’s spheres of activity. We accept that part of this may be due to the fact that there are some, predominantly nature-centered, IUCN members who believe that ending use is not only an option – it is the preferred option. However, we suggest that the main reason is because there is widespread confusion over what sustainable use is – and what it isn’t. This confusion is compounded by inadequate and inappropriate terminology.
Sustainable Use isn’t...
Sustainable use is about managing the use of wild species and
ecosystems so that it falls within biologically sustainable limits:
1. Sustainable use does not require that all species be subject to use.
2. It doesn’t require that all species be valued only in financial terms.
3. It isn’t consumptive use – neither commercial nor subsistence.
4. It is not about the harvesting of charismatic megafauna – whales, elephants, seals and the like.
5. It is not wildlife trade.
6. It is not about poverty relief.
7. It doesn’t require that benefits of use be equitably distributed.
8. It doesn’t require that nature be managed by rural communities.
9. It is not about creating incentives and turning exploitation into a conservation tool.
10. It is not an alternative to protected areas.
There is widespread perception that sustainable use includes some – and often all – of the above. This is not the case - but it can include any of the above depending on context.
In our experience, one of the commonest confusions is that sustainable use is about creating incentives and turning exploitation into a conservation tool. It is true that in some parts of the world (Southern Africa for example) the sustainable exploitation of economically valuable species is part of a positive feedback system which provides conspicuous incentives for the conservation of savanna ecosystems that might otherwise be converted to agriculture. But where this happens, good management of exploited populations is delivering a welcome bonus. In many cases the first challenge is to make exploitation sustainable, and this is hard enough without always tagging on an additional requirement that sustainable use must provide broader incentives and benefits.
Sustainable Use and the IUCN
In some conservation circles sustainable use remains poorly understood and even contentious. Since it is inconceivable that any conservationist would object to the notion, as laid out by the CBD and enshrined in IUCN’s Mission, that any use of natural resources should be ecologically sustainable, we assume that the controversy lies with notion that exploitation can be a conservation tool. This is probably because exploitation and commerce make even mainstream conservationists very nervous indeed since this combination has been a major factor in the increased rate at which animals and plants have been over-harvested, locally extirpated and even driven to extinction in the last two centuries.
The IUCN has dedicated a great deal of time and thought to sustainable use and has helped raise both awareness and understanding on the subject. Much of its effort in this regard has been focused on the delivery of conservation and social benefits from exploitation. Thus, the IUCN policy statement on sustainable use includes the assertion that “Use of living wild resources, if sustainable, is an important conservation tool because the social and economic benefits derived from such use provide incentives for people to conserve them” and one of the goals of the IUCN/SSC Sustainable Use Specialist Group is to provide assistance which will “support and augment conditions that optimize benefits to both ecosystems and people when renewable natural resources are used.”
This is fine and appropriate. A greater understanding of the circumstances under which exploitation has positive or negative outcomes is important if we are to manage resources better in the future. However, in view of the ongoing controversy around sustainable use we would like to ask if it would help clarify thinking and reduce conflict if we separated out some of the different (but connected) concepts currently nested within ‘sustainable use’?
There may be a case for re-labeling some of the concepts nested within ‘sustainable use’ as ‘incentive-driven conservation”, “Conservation through exploitation” or, in those cases where commerce is involved, “market-led conservation”. By starting to separate out the different concepts that are currently nesting within ‘sustainable use’ we would be promoting clarity and, hopefully, reducing conflict as we strive to conserve our natural world.