The Precautionary Principle Project  [Printer-friendly version]
November 29, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: These guidelines have been formulated through
focusing on forestry, fisheries, protected areas, invasive alien
species, and wildlife conservation, management, use and trade. 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 natural resource management.]

These precautionary guidelines have been developed by The
Precautionary Principle Project -- a joint initiative of Fauna &
Flora International, IUCN- The World Conservation Union,
ResourceAfrica and TRAFFIC. They are the product of an
international consultative process carried out from 2002 to 2005,
involving a wide range of experts and stakeholders from different
regions, sectors, disciplines and perspectives. This process has
included three regional workshops (for East/Southern Africa, Latin
America, and South/South-East Asia), a commissioned set of case
studies, an open-access e-conference, and a final international review

The Guidelines are also informed by meetings and discussions held at
the World Summit for Sustainable Development, the IUCN World Parks
Congress and the IUCN World Conservation Congress. These Guidelines
are taken from the forthcoming publication Biodiversity and the
Precautionary Principle: Risk and Uncertainty in Conservation and
Sustainable Use (Earthscan, London), and do not necessarily reflect
the view of IUCN or other collaborating organisations.



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

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 not be used as a reason for
postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.

UK Biodiversity 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 biodiversity 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 CoP13)

[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


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


To apply the precautionary principle effectively:


Guideline 1: INCORPORATE

Incorporate the Precautionary Principle explicitly into appropriate
legal, institutional and policy frameworks for biodiversity
conservation and natural resource management.

Elaboration: Application of the principle requires a clear legal and
policy basis and an effective system of governance. It also requires
the establishment and maintenance of adequately resourced institutions
to carry out research into risk and uncertainty in environmental

Guideline 2: INTEGRATE

Integrate application of the Precautionary Principle with the
application of and support for other relevant principles and rights.

Elaboration Other principles and rights are also relevant to
conservation and NRM, including prevention, liability for
environmental damage, inter-generational and intra-generational
equity, the right to development, the right to a healthy environment
and human rights to food, water, health and shelter. These other
rights and principles must be borne in mind when applying the
Precautionary Principle. In some circumstances they may strengthen the
case for precautionary action, while in others the Precautionary
Principle may need to be weighed against these other rights and


Develop clear and context-specific obligations and operational
measures for particular sectors and contexts, or with respect to
specific conservation or management problems.

Elaboration: The Precautionary Principle is a general guide for
action; it is not a "rule" specifying that a particular decision
should be made or outcome reached. To have conservation impact, it
will typically require translation into concrete policy and management
measures that are readily understood, that address the conservation
problem and that identify actions to be taken in specific contexts.
Without these, incorporation of the principle in law or policy may
have little influence on practice. However, there is also a need for
flexibility: the specific decisions and management or policy measures
that it supports may vary over time and with changing circumstances.


Include all relevant stakeholders and rightholders in a transparent
process of assessment, decision-making and implementation

Elaboration: Precautionary decision-making involves making decisions
where there is uncertainty about the underlying threat. This means
that judgements, values and cultural perceptions of risk, threat and
required action must play a role. Therefore, it is important to
include stakeholders and rightholders and to be transparent throughout
the process of assessment, decision-making and implementation. Key
stakeholders include those who bear the costs of the potential threat,
such as those who will be impacted by degradation or loss of
biodiversity or natural resources, and those who bear costs of
precautionary action (if any), such as those whose legitimate use of
natural resources will be restricted. Indigenous peoples and local
communities often play a very important role in NRM or rely on
biodiversity and natural resources, and should be included. They
should have the opportunity and resources to represent themselves and
their interests effectively, and this should not be precluded by
logistical, technical or language barriers. The imperative of
including key stakeholders should, however, be balanced against
potential conservation costs of delaying a decision.


Base precautionary decision-making on the best available information,
including that relating to human drivers of threats, and traditional
and indigenous knowledge

Elaboration: All relevant information should be taken into account,
including that relating to human drivers of threats to biodiversity,
as well as biological and ecological information. The best available
scientific information should be used. In addition, traditional and
indigenous knowledge and practices may also be relevant and should
therefore be taken into account in decision-making.

Efforts should be made to ensure evidence and information is
independent, free of bias, and gathered in a transparent fashion. This
can be facilitated by ensuring it is gathered by independent and
publicly accountable institutions without conflict of interest. In
addition, taking into account multiple sources of information can help
minimise bias.



Characterise the threat(s), and assess the uncertainties surrounding
the ecological, social and economic drivers of changes in conservation

Elaboration: The threats addressed should include not only direct ones
but also indirect, secondary and long-term threats, and the
incremental impacts of multiple or repeated actions or decisions.
Their underlying causes and potential severity should be assessed, and
efforts made to determine what is known and not known, what knowledge
can be easily improved and what cannot. There should be explicit
recognition of ignorance, areas of uncertainty, gaps in information,
and limitations of the statistical power of available methods for
detecting threats. Where threats may interact or be inter-related
(e.g. action against one may exacerbate another) they should not be
addressed in isolation. However, there is a need to balance the
benefits of delaying a decision to gather more information against the
potential threats raised by such a delay.


Identify the available actions to address threats, and assess the
likely consequences of these various courses of action and inaction

Elaboration: The principle should guide a constructive search for
alternatives and practical solutions, and support positive measures to
anticipate, prevent and mitigate threats. The potential benefits and
threats raised by available courses of action and inaction should be
assessed -- these threats and benefits may be of various kinds, from
various sources, and may be short or long term. There may be threats
associated with all courses of action: often conservation and NRM
decisions involve a choice between "risk and risk" rather than between
"risk and caution". In assessing the likely consequences of
alternative courses of action and inaction the technical feasibility
of different approaches should be taken into account.


Allocate roles and responsibilities for providing information and
evidence of threat and/or safety according to who is proposing a
potentially harmful activity, who benefits from it, and who has access
to information and resources

Elaboration: In general, those who propose and/or derive benefits from
an activity which raises threats of serious or irreversible harm
should bear the responsibility and costs of providing evidence that
those activities are, in fact, safe. The information itself should be
the best available from a variety of sources (see Guideline 5).
However, if this would involve requiring poorer, vulnerable or
marginal groups to carry the responsibility and costs of showing that
their activities (particularly traditional and/or livelihood
activities) do not raise threats, either these responsibilities and
costs should be placed on relatively more powerful groups, or
financial/technical support should be provided. Moreover, in some
circumstances, the different options available will each raise
potentially significant conservation threats, in which case the
guidance for assessing threats in Guideline 7 is relevant.


Guideline 9: BE EXPLICIT

Specify that precautionary measures are being taken and be explicit
about the uncertainty to which the precautionary measures are

Elaboration: When decisions are made in situations of uncertainty, it
is important to be explicit about the uncertainty that is being
responded to, and to be explicit that precautionary measures are being
taken. This ensures transparency, and also provides a clear basis for
monitoring and feedback to decision-making/management.


In applying the Precautionary Principle adopt measures that are
proportionate to the potential threats

Elaboration: A reasonable balance must be struck between the
stringency of the precautionary measures, which may have associated
costs (inter alia financial, livelihood and opportunity costs) and the
seriousness and irreversibility of the potential threat. It should be
borne in mind that countries, communities or other constituencies may
have the right to establish their own chosen level of protection for
their own biodiversity and natural resources.

Guideline 11: BE EQUITABLE

Consider social and economic costs and benefits when applying the
Precautionary Principle and where decisions would have negative
impacts on the poor or vulnerable explore ways to avoid or mitigate

Elaboration: Attention should be directed to who benefits and who
loses from any decisions, and particular attention should be paid to
the consequences of decisions for groups which are already poor or
vulnerable. Where the benefits of an existing or proposed threatening
activity accrue only to a few, or only to the already powerful and
economically advantaged, or are only short-term, and potential costs
are borne by the public and communities, by poorer or vulnerable
groups, or over the long-term, this argues strongly in favour of
increased precaution. If the application of precautionary measures
would impact negatively on poor or vulnerable groups, ways to avoid or
mitigate impacts on these groups should be explored. Threats to
biodiversity and living natural resources may need to be weighed
against potential threats to livelihoods and food security, or
resources may need to be invested in compensation or in support for
alternative livelihoods.


Guideline 12: BE ADAPTIVE

Use an adaptive management approach, including the following core

** monitoring of impacts of management or decisions based on agreed
indicators; o promoting research, to reduce key uncertainties; o
ensuring periodic evaluation of the outcomes of implementation,
drawing of lessons and review and adjustment, as necessary, of the
measures or decisions adopted; o establishing an efficient and
effective compliance system. Elaboration: An adaptive approach is
particularly useful in the implementation of the Precautionary
Principle as it does not necessarily require having a high level of
certainty about the impact of management measures before taking
action, but involves taking such measures in the face of uncertainty,
as part of a rigorously planned and controlled trial, with careful
monitoring and periodic review to provide feedback, and amendment of
decisions in the light of new information.

Applying the Precautionary Principle may sometimes require strict
prohibition of activities. This is particularly likely in situations
where urgent measures are required to avert imminent threats, where
the threatened damage is likely to be immediately irreversible (such
as the spread of an invasive species), where particularly vulnerable
species or ecosystems are concerned, and where other measures are
likely to be ineffective. This situation is often the result of a
failure to apply more moderate measures at an earlier stage.

As precautionary measures are taken in the face of uncertainty and
inadequate evidence surrounding potential threats to the environment,
their application should be accompanied by monitoring and regular
review, both to examine whether knowledge and understanding of the
threat has increased, and to examine the effectiveness of the
precautionary measure in addressing the threat. Any new information
gained through monitoring and further research or information-
gathering can then be fed back to inform further management and
decision-making. While in some cases this may lead to the
precautionary measure no longer being needed, in others it may lead to
the determination that the threat is more serious than expected and
that more stringent measures are required.

If meaningful participation by stakeholders/rightholders is ensured
throughout the process for implementing the Precautionary Principle,
compliance is likely to be higher. The costs of compliance should be
borne by the parties with the capacity to do it and at the least cost
to society. Customary practices and social structures should be
considered and, where appropriate, incorporated into the compliance

The management programme should be consistent with the available
resource-base (monetary and non-monetary). Governments, private
organizations, communities and individuals can contribute to this
base. In determining this base, managers should consider the relative
benefits to the relevant parties. Resources must be employed
efficiently and tasks should be supportive of the management