Law Across Scales

Law Across Scales

As a group of legal specialists who work with communities, Natural Justice is constantly exposed to the gap that exists between international and national law on human rights and the environment and the daily reality for Indigenous peoples and local communities at the local level.

Communities are securing increasingly important rights under international laws such as multilateral environmental agreements, human rights instruments, United Nations (UN) agencies’ policy documents, and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) resolutions. Yet the harsh paradox is that even when hard-fought negotiations result in communities’ rights being enshrined in law, their local effects are often muted because of the complex socio-political contexts within which communities live. A number of exhaustive reviews of international and national legal instruments illustrate the scale of communities’ rights agreed at the international level. However, their telling conclusion is that “good law and policy is just a starting point, good practice is more difficult to achieve.” Despite a growing international recognition of communities’ rights to self-determine their futures and manage their natural resources, international rights are far from a panacea against local disempowerment or the denial of procedural and substantive justice. This manifests itself in communities routinely being denied substantive and procedural rights at the local level, leading to forms of social and environmental injustice that fuel the loss of biocultural diversity. There is widespread agreement among practitioners that enshrining rights at the international and national level must be augmented by improved use of rights at the local level.

In efforts to secure their rights over natural resources and traditional knowledge and protect their ways of life, communities continue the international struggle for the recognition of their rights across a number of legislative and policy frameworks. These include:

  • UN CBD: access and benefit sharing (ABS) and Programme of Work on Protected Areas (PoWPA),
  • UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC): REDD and climate adaptation,
  • UN Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD): marginal lands issues,
  • UN Committee on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) under the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO): farmers’ rights and livestock keepers’ rights,
  • World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Intergovernmental Committee: cultural heritage, and
  • IUCN World Parks Congresses: Indigenous and community conserved areas.

However, as set out in Diversity and the Law, Indigenous peoples and local communities face inherent challenges with legal systems in ways which undermine their best interests.



Conservation and Citizenship: Democratizing Natural Resource Governance in Africa (Nelson, 2010)
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Conservation and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights: Must One Come at the Expense of the Other? (Morel, 2010)
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Rights-based Approaches: Exploring Issues and Opportunities for Conservation (Campese et al. (Eds.), 2009)
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Tenure in REDD – Start-point or afterthought? (Cotula and Mayers, 2009)
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Biocultural Community Protocols: Articulating Stewardship, Asserting Rights, Affirming Responsibilities
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Biodiversity and Culture: Exploring community protocols, rights and consent (IIED Participatory Learning and Action 65, 2012)
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Biocultural Community Protocols: Articulating and Asserting Stewardship (Moving Images & Natural Justice, 2012)
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Rooibos Robbery: A Story of Bioprospecting in South Africa (Steps Southern Africa, 2012)
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Maldhari Biocultural Community Protocol Photo Story (Sahjeevan & Natural Justice, 2012)
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Latest Publication

Biocultural Community Protocols: A Toolkit for Community Facilitators
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Images from our work in Africa, Asia, and the Americas
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