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Over-exploitation of natural resources harms the health of ecosystems và the wellbeing of people. In the face of environmental crises và growing inequality, we need to lớn act, including developing extended producer responsibility và supply chain legislation, guaranteeing green public procurement, supporting technical innovation khổng lồ enhance resource circularity, and adopting decision-making processes that include và respect women, Indigenous Peoples, & local communities. (Download PDF) (See all the Still Only One Earth policy briefs)
ByJennifer Bansard, Mika SchröderonApril 15, 2021
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Natural resources are central khổng lồ human wellbeing. We cannot live without the clean air we breathe, the plants we eat, or the water we drink. We need natural resources lớn put roofs over our heads và heat our homes. We need them khổng lồ survive và to thrive.

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The concept of natural resources refers to naturally occurring living và non-living elements of the Earth system, including plants, fish, and fungi, but also water, soil, and minerals. A prominent way lớn think about natural resources is lớn look at them in terms of depletion risk: bởi vì they regenerate, and, if so, at what pace? Some resources, such as trees & plants, are renewable because they regenerate relatively quickly. Others, such as copper và oil, take much longer to lớn form & are considered non-renewable. Together, natural resources make up a dense web of interdependence, forming ecosystems that also include humans. As such, the distribution of resources shapes the face of our planet and the local distinctiveness of our environments. People have formed different types of cultural, spiritual, & subsistence-based relationships with the natural environment, adopting value-systems that go beyond economic framings.

Nature makes human development possible but our relentless demand for the earth’s resources is accelerating extinction rates & devastating the world’s ecosystems.

Joyce Msuya, Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme

The use of natural resources has long been considered an element of both human rights and economic development, leading the United Nations, amid its work on advancing decolonization in the 1960s, to declare that “he right of peoples và nations to permanent sovereignty over their natural wealth & resources must be exercised in the interest of their national development và of the well-being of the people of the State concerned” (UN General Assembly Resolution 1803 (XVII)).

Natural resources are often viewed as key assets driving development và wealth creation. Over time và with progressive industrialization, resource use increased. In some cases, exploitation levels came to lớn exceed resources’ natural regeneration rates. Such overexploitation ultimately threatens the livelihoods & wellbeing of people who depend on these resources, & jeopardizes the health of ecosystems. This risk of resource depletion, notably manifesting in the form of fishery collapses, demonstrates the need to regulate natural resource use lớn better preserve resources & their ecosystems. The very first UN conference on environmental issues, the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden, adopted fundamental principles in this regard.

Stockholm Declaration

Principle 2: “The natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land, flora and fauna and especially representative samples of natural ecosystems, must be safeguarded for the benefit of present & future generations through careful planning or management, as appropriate.”Principle 3: “The capacity of the earth to produce vital renewable resources must be maintained and, wherever practicable, restored or improved.”Principle 5: “The non-renewable resources of the earth must be employed in such a way as to lớn guard against the danger of their future exhaustion và to ensure that benefits from such employment are shared by all mankind.”

The Stockholm Declaration not only addressed resource depletion, but also benefit sharing: the objective lớn ensure that natural resource use not only benefits the few, but the many, both within và across countries. It also speaks lớn the principle of inter-generational equity: ensuring that today’s resource use does not compromise the availability of natural resources for future generations. In fact, natural resource use relates khổng lồ all three dimensions of sustainability: social justice, environmental health, và economic development. The sustainable use of natural resources strives for balance between these dimensions: maintaining the long-term use of resources while maximizing social benefits and minimizing environmental impacts.

Natural Resource Use Has More than Tripled since 1970

Although the 1972 Stockholm Declaration laid out the fundamental principles for sustainable resource governance, the state of play half a century later is sobering. The International Resource Panel (IRP), launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), found that the global average of material demand per capita grew from 7.4 tons in 1970 khổng lồ 12.2 tons in 2017, with significant adverse impacts on the environment, notably increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The IRP also showed that “the use of natural resources & the related benefits và environmental impacts are unevenly distributed across countries & regions” (IRP, 2019, p. 27). For one, the per capita material footprint in high-income countries is thirteen times more than in low-income countries: 27 tons and 2 tons per capita, respectively. As WWF notes, “If everyone lived like an average resident of the USA, a total of four Earths would be required khổng lồ regenerate humanity’s annual demand on nature.” What’s more, since they generally rely on resource extraction in other countries, high income countries outsource part of the environmental and social impacts of their consumption. At the same time, the IRP has reported that “the value created through these traded materials in the countries of origin is relatively low” (IRP, 2019, p 65). This imbalance highlights the global discrepancies in the distribution of benefits & negative impacts stemming from resource use, with countries “rich” in valuable resources not always benefitting from their extraction, distribution, và use, yet suffering the most environmental harm.

Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before.

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Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity và Ecosystem Services 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services

Fostering Sustainable Resource Governance

A vast array of norms, institutions, và actors influence decisions on natural resources, which is why we speak of natural resource governance. A plethora of national legislation, intergovernmental agreements, regional organizations, certification mechanisms, corporate codes of conduct, và multi-stakeholder partnerships create a complex website of rules affecting how natural resources are used và benefits thereof are distributed.


Source: UNEP and IRP (2020). Sustainable Trade in Resources: Global Material Flows, Circularity and Trade. United Nations Environment Programme.Since Stockholm, numerous multilateral agreements have developed a range of operational guidelines, targets, and standards. Some intergovernmental frameworks, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are broad in focus, while others are resource-specific (Minamata Convention on Mercury) or relate khổng lồ a specific geographical area (Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources). Industry initiatives and multi-stakeholder partnerships often focus on specific resources or sectors. Examples of such initiatives include the Forest Stewardship Council, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, và the Better cotton Initiative.

Citizens also have agency over natural resource use: through the representatives we elect lớn government, our activist engagement, & our consumption & transport choices. For instance, carefully considering food production cycles—what we eat, where & how it is grown, và how it arrives on our plate—can go towards addressing the impact that agricultural expansion has on forests, wetlands, and grassland ecosystems (FAO, 2018; IPBES, 2019). However, this needs to lớn be coupled with systemic change across governance structures.

These mechanisms & institutions are not always complementary; in fact, at times they stand in conflict with one another. Consider, for instance, an energy corporation invoking the Energy Charter Treaty to file arbitration claims against a country’s decision lớn phase-out coal—a decision taken in accordance with its obligations under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Balancing Rights và Interests over Natural Resources

Determining how people can—and should— access, benefit from, participate in decision-making on, & have responsibility over natural resources has been shaped by concepts such as property and rights

On the one hand, property rights divide lands và territories into: private property, where rights are held by individuals or companies; common property, where rights are shared by a community; public property, where rights are held by government; and open access areas, where no specific rights are assigned (Aggrawal và Elbow, 2006). Property rights are closely tied to lớn rights over natural resources, which include the right to use a resource, such as hunting in a forest; or management rights that grant authority to lớn decide on use, for example imposing seasonal hunting restrictions. In terms of governance, different types of ownership và access rights can be held simultaneously by several actors: a wetland can be owned by the state, managed by a local council, và used as fishing grounds by communities. 

The notion of tenure security indicates that an individual’s rights over natural resources & specific lands are recognized & enforceable. These rights are key khổng lồ avoiding conflict and fostering social security as well as long-term sustainable resource use.

On the other hand, there are individual & collective rights regarding unique of life. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants và Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), for example, stipulates that “

easants và other people working in rural areas have the right khổng lồ have access to & to use in a sustainable manner the natural resources present in their communities that are required to lớn enjoy adequate living conditions” & that they “have the right to lớn participate in the management of these resources” (Article 5). UNDROP highlights the importance of small-scale sustainable practices, và the need lớn strengthen the protection and recognition of groups who have experienced historical marginalization và violent conflict over resource use. 

Similarly, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) và International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 (ILO 169) protect the individual and collective rights of Indigenous Peoples. UNDRIP Article 8(2b) stipulates that states shall prevent và provide redress for “any kích hoạt which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources.” Both texts also speak khổng lồ the importance of ensuring the free, prior, và informed consent (FPIC) of Indigenous Peoples in relation lớn the use of their lands, with UNDRIP Articles 11(2) và 28 underscoring Indigenous Peoples’ right khổng lồ redress for past FPIC infringements.

There is also the right to a healthy environment, enshrined in regional treaties, including procedural rights on access to information and decision-making processes, as well as the right to clean air, a safe climate, healthy food, safe water, a safe environment for work and play, & healthy ecosystems (UN Human Rights Council, 2019). Ultimately, the effectiveness of these advances in international law depends upon national governments’ readiness lớn implement them. To lớn date, only 23 countries have ratified ILO 169, và many countries around the world have yet to lớn adopt appropriate legislation to lớn protect the rights enshrined in UNDRIP. To vì chưng so, and to protect associated rights under UNDROP & the right to a healthy environment, governments must adopt robust reforms across national policies, laws, programmes, and institutions that prompt shifts in country priorities & ensure the mainstreaming of environmental and social concerns across sectors, focusing especially on empowering marginalized groups. To lớn ensure that decisions across society better address ecological and social wellbeing, prominent actors, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights & the Environment, are calling for human rights-based approaches lớn natural resource governance.

Overall, this constitutes a complex architecture, one that is dynamic in nature, often builds on customary practices, và requires balancing “competing” rights và interests through law and policy. Structures are seldom straightforward: there are often overlapping or even conflicting systems in place, & this influences the sustainability of resource governance.

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States play a central role in balancing rights & interests. Regulations addressing the extractive sector determine how a corporation’s exclusive user rights may impact the general population’s right to a safe & healthy environment. Approaches to lớn this balancing act, and the distribution, recognition, and safeguarding of rights, & the implementation of associated responsibilities, vary across states & change over time.

At times, this balance of interests favors more powerful actors. Stemming from historical legacies và trajectories in decision-making, structural inequalities exist across resource access, ownership, & tenure security (Oxfam, 2014). These issues disproportionately impact women, rural communities, và Indigenous Peoples, who are often cast as passive recipients lớn policy change, as opposed to rights holders & key actors in the sustainable management of natural resources. 

Women have faced historical exclusion from decision-making processes related khổng lồ land & resources (UN Women, 2020). Due to enduring patriarchal gender norms across the world, they hold less control than men over the lands và resources they traditionally use và rely on for their livelihoods và wellbeing. Based on an analysis of 180 countries, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that out of the 164 countries that explicitly recognize women’s rights khổng lồ own, use, và make decisions regarding land on par with men, only 52 countries guarantee these rights in both law & practice (OECD, 2019). As such, it is important that states ensure that women’s rights over natural resources are realized and protected through appropriate mechanisms.