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Guidelines for applying the Precautionary Principle to Biodiversity Conservation
and Natural Resource Management

The Precautionary Principle Project
July 2005

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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.

The Precautionary 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.

Box 1: Some examples of different formulations of the Precautionary Principle

Rio 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 degradation.

Convention 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.

UK 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.

Convention on international Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Resolution Conf 9.24 (Rev CoP 13)
[T]he 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.

Scope and target audience
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 and NRM.

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