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for applying the Precautionary Principle to Biodiversity Conservation
and Natural Resource Management
Precautionary Principle Project
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The uncertainty surrounding potential threats to the environment
has frequently been used as a reason to avoid taking action to protect
the environment. However, it is not always possible to have clear
evidence of a threat to the environment before the damage occurs.
Precaution – the "Precautionary Principle" or "Precautionary
Approach" – is a response to this uncertainty.
Principle has been widely incorporated, in various forms, in international
environmental agreements and declarations and further developed
in some national legislation. An element common to the various formulations
of the Precautionary Principle is the recognition that lack of certainty
regarding the threat of environmental harm should not be used as
an excuse for not taking action to avert that threat (See Box 1).
The Precautionary Principle recognizes that delaying action until
there is compelling evidence of harm will often mean that it is
then too costly or impossible to avert the threat. Use of the principle
promotes action to avert risks of serious or irreversible harm to
the environment in such cases. The Principle therefore provides
an important policy basis to anticipate, prevent and mitigate threats
to the environment.
1: Some examples of different formulations of the Precautionary
Declaration, 1992, Principle 15
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
on Biological Diversity, 1992, Preamble
[W]here there is a threat of significant reduction or loss
of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty
should be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid
or minimize such a threat.
Bio-diversity Action Plan, 1994, para 6.8
In line with the precautionary principle, where interactions
are complex and where the available evidence suggests that
there is a significant chance of damage to our bio-diversity
heritage occurring, conservation measures are appropriate,
even in the absence of conclusive scientific evidence that
the damage will occur.
on international Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna
and Flora, Resolution Conf 9.24 (Rev CoP 13)
parties shall, by virtue of the precautionary approach and
in case of uncertainty either as regards the status of a species
or the impact of trade on the conservation of a species, act
in the best interest of the conservation of the species concerned
and adopt measures that are proportionate to the anticipated
risks to the species.
There has been
much debate about the nature of the concept of precaution, in particular
whether it should be accepted as a legal principle in addition to
being a sound policy approach. 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 threats. While it
is undisputed that in an increasing number of specific contexts
there are clear legal requirements to apply precaution, there is
an ongoing debate on whether precaution has become part of international
customary law. The development of these guidelines has not been
shaped by this distinction. The term 'Precautionary Principle' has
been used throughout these guidelines for consistency.
This document provides guidance on the application of the Precautionary
Principle to the conservation of biodiversity and natural resource
management. Throughout this document the term natural resource management
(or NRM) refers only to the management of living natural resources.
These guidelines have been formulated through focusing on forestry,
fisheries, protected areas, invasive alien species, and wildlife
conservation, management, use and trade. They may also be relevant
to decision-making in other sectors that impact on biodiversity.
The primary target audience of these guidelines is policymakers,
legislators and practitioners, but they also aim to create a culture
of precaution in all sectors relevant to biodiversity conservation
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