The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN; officially International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) is an international organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. It is involved in data gathering and analysis, research, field projects, advocacy, and education. IUCN's mission is to "influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable".
Over the past decades, IUCN has widened its focus beyond conservation ecology and now incorporates issues related to sustainable development in its projects. Unlike many other international environmental organisations, IUCN does not itself aim to mobilize the public in support of nature conservation. It tries to influence the actions of governments, business and other stakeholders by providing information and advice, and through building partnerships. The organization is best known to the wider public for compiling and publishing the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which assesses the conservation status of species worldwide.
IUCN has a membership of over 1400 governmental and non-governmental organizations. Some 16,000 scientists and experts participate in the work of IUCN commissions on a voluntary basis. It employs approximately 1000 full-time staff in more than 50 countries. Its headquarters are in Gland, Switzerland.
IUCN has observer and consultative status at the United Nations, and plays a role in the implementation of several international conventions on nature conservation and biodiversity. It was involved in establishing the World Wide Fund for Nature and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. In the past, IUCN has been criticized for placing the interests of nature over those of indigenous peoples. In recent years, its closer relations with the business sector have caused controversy.
IUCN was established in 1948. It was previously called the International Union for Protection of Nature (1948–1956) and the World Conservation Union (1990–2008).
|Founded||5 October 1948
(as International Union for Protection of Nature)|
|Focus||Nature conservation, biodiversity|
|Inger Andersen (Director General)
Zhang Xinsheng (President)
|CHF 114 million / US$ 116 million (2013)|
|Over 1,000 (worldwide)|
|Mission||"Influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable."|
IUCN was established on 5 October 1948, in Fontainebleau, France, when representatives of governments and conservation organizations signed a formal act constituting the International Union for Protection of Nature (IUPN). The initiative to set up the new organisation came from UNESCO and especially from its first Director General, the British biologist Julian Huxley. It is considered to be the first GONGO, i.e. Governmental and Non-Governmental Organization.
The objectives of the new Union were to encourage international cooperation in the protection of nature, to promote national and international action and to compile, analyse and distribute information. At the time of its founding IUPN was the only international organisation focusing on the entire spectrum of nature conservation (an international organisation for the protection of birds, now BirdLife International, had been established in 1922.)
Early years: 1948–1956
IUPN started out with 65 members. Its secretariat was located in Brussels. Its first work program focused on saving species and habitats, increasing and applying knowledge, advancing education, promoting international agreements and promoting conservation. Providing a solid scientific base for conservation action was the heart of all activities; commissions were set up to involve experts and scientists.
IUPN and UNESCO were closely associated. They jointly organized the 1949 Conference on Protection of Nature (Lake Success, USA). In preparation for this conference a list of gravely endangered species was drawn up for the first time, a precursor of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In the early years of its existence IUPN depended almost entirely on UNESCO funding and was forced to temporarily scale down activities when this ended unexpectedly in 1954.
IUPN was successful in engaging prominent scientists and identifying important issues such as the harmful effects of pesticides on wildlife but not many of the ideas it developed were turned into action. This was caused by unwillingness to act on the part of governments, uncertainty about the IUPN mandate and lack of resources. In 1956, IUPN changed its name to International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
Increased profile and recognition: 1956–1965
In the 1950s and 1960s Europe entered a period of economic growth and formal colonies became independent. Both developments had impact on the work of IUCN. Through the voluntary (i.e. pro bono) involvement of experts in its Commissions IUCN was able to get a lot of work done while still operating on a low budget. It expanded its relations with UN-agencies and established links with the Council of Europe. In 1961, at the request of ECOSOC, the United Nations Economic and Social Council, IUCN published the first global list of national parks and protected areas which it has updated ever since. IUCN's best known publication, the Red Data Book on the conservation status of species, was first published in 1964.
IUCN began to play a part in the development of international treaties and conventions, starting with the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Environmental law and policy making became a new area of expertise.
Africa was the focus of many of the early IUCN conservation field projects. IUCN supported the ‘Yellowstone model’ of protected area management, which severely restricted human presence and activity in order to protect nature. IUCN and other conservation organisations were criticized for protecting nature against people rather than with people. This model was initially also applied in Africa and played a role in the decision to remove the Maasai people from Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
To establish a stable financial basis for its work, IUCN participated in setting up the World Wildlife Fund (1961) (now the World Wide Fund for Nature WWF). WWF would work on fundraising, public relations, and increasing public support. IUCN would continue to focus on providing sound science and data, and developing ties with international bodies. Funds raised by WWF would be used to cover part of the operational costs of IUCN. Also in 1961, the IUCN headquarters moved from Belgium to Morges in Switzerland.
Consolidating its position in the international environmental movement: 1966–1975
Public concerns about the state of the environment in the sixties and seventies led to the establishment of new NGOs, some of which (e.g. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth) also worked globally. Many of these new organisations were more activist and critical of government than IUCN which remained committed to providing science-based advice to governments. As a result, IUCN was criticized by some as being old-fashioned and irrelevant.
IUCN’s membership still grew (from 200 in 1961 to 350 in 1974) and its formal standing and influence increased. A grant from the Ford Foundation in 1969 enabled it to boost its secretariat and expand operations. During the 1960s, IUCN lobbied the UN General Assembly to create a new status for NGOs. Resolution 1296, adopted in 1968, granted 'consultative' status to NGOs. IUCN itself was eventually accredited with six UN organizations. IUCN was one of the few environmental organisations formally involved in the preparations of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972). The Stockholm Conference eventually led to three new international conventions, with IUCN involved in their drafting and implementation:
IUCN entered into an agreement with the United Nations Environment Programme UNEP to provide regular reviews of world conservation. The income this generated, combined with growing revenue via WWF, put the organisation on relatively sound financial footing for the first time since 1948.
This period saw the beginning of a gradual change in IUCN’s approach to conservation. Ensuring the survival of habitats and species remained its key objective, but there was a growing awareness that economic and social demands had to be taken into account. IUCN started to publish guidelines on sustainable development. In 1975 the IUCN General Assembly passed a resolution to retain indigenous peoples and cater for their traditional rights in National Parks and protected areas. As a result, IUCN became more appealing to organisations and governments in the developing world.
The World Conservation Strategy 1975–1985
In the late seventies, between its General Assemblies in Kinshasha (1975) and Ashkabad (1978), IUCN went through a phase of turbulence in governance and management. Its work program continued to grow, in part as a result of the partnership with WWF. In 1978, IUCN was running 137 projects, largely in the global south. The involvement of representatives from the developing world in the IUCN Council, Committees and staff increased.
In 1975 IUCN started work on the World Conservation Strategy.
The drafting process – and the discussions with the UN agencies involved – led to an evolution in thinking within IUCN and growing acceptance of the fact that conservation of nature by banning human presence no longer worked. (The debate about the balance between strict nature protection and conservation through sustainable development would, however, continue within IUCN well into the 1999
s.) The World Conservation Strategy was launched in 35 countries simultaneously on 5 March 1980. It set out fundamental principles and objectives for conservation worldwide, and identified priorities for national and international action. It is considered one of the most influential documents in 20th century nature conservation and one of the first official documents to introduce the concept of sustainable development. The Strategy was followed in 1982 by the World Charter for Nature, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, after preparation by IUCN.
In 1980, IUCN and WWF moved into shared new offices in Gland, Switzerland. This marked a phase of closer cooperation with WWF. It was the support of WWF that allowed IUCN to weather a financial crisis in 1980–1982. The close ties between IUCN and WWF were severed in 1985 when WWF decided to take control of its own field projects, which so far had been run by IUCN. In 1989, IUCN moved into a separate building in Gland, close to the offices it had shared with WWF.
Sustainable development and regionalisation: 1985 to present day
In 1982, IUCN set up a Conservation for Development Centre within its secretariat. The Centre undertook projects to ensure that nature conservation was integrated in development aid and in the economic policies of developing countries. Over the years, it supported the development of national conservation strategies in 30 countries. Several European countries began to channel considerable amounts of bilateral aid via IUCN’s projects. Management of these projects was primarily done by IUCN staff, often working from the new regional and country offices IUCN set up around the world. This marked a shift within the organisation. Previously the volunteer Commissions had been very influential, now the Secretariat and its staff began to play a more dominant role. Initially, the focus of power was still with the Headquarters in Gland but the regional offices and regional members’ groups gradually got a bigger say in operations.
In spite of the increased attention for sustainable development, the protection of habitats and species remained a core activity of IUCN. Special programs were developed for Antarctica, tropical forests and wetlands, and IUCN expanded its operations in Latin America.
In 1991, IUCN (together with UNEP and WWF) published Caring for the Earth, a successor to the World Conservation Strategy. It was published in the run-up to the Earth Summit, the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The World Conservation Strategy, Caring for the Earth, and the Global Diversity Strategy (also published in 1992 by UNEP, IUCN, and WRI) are considered hugely influential in shaping the global environmental agenda. They lay the foundations for the Convention on Biological Diversity, a new global treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity developed by UNEP with support from IUCN, the Framework Convention on Climate Change and Agenda 21.
Social aspects of conservation were now integrated in IUCN’s work; projects began to take account of the role of women in natural resource management and to value the knowledge indigenous peoples have about their natural environment. At the General Assembly in 1994 the IUCN mission was redrafted to its current wording to include the equitable and ecologically use of natural resources.
IUCN’s current work makes direct contributions towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. In particular, IUCN’s Programme 2017-2020 focusing on SDG 1 (No poverty), SDG 2 (Zero hunger), SDG 3 (Good health and well-being), SDG 5 (Gender equality), SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation), SDG 10 (Reduced inequalities), SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities), SDG 13 (Climate action), SDG 14 (Life below water), SDG 15 (Life on land), SDG 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions), SDG 17 (Partnerships for the goals).
Closer to business: 2000 to present day
Since the creation of IUCN in 1948, IUCN Members have passed more than 300 resolutions that include or focus on business related activities. The range of topics covers in these resolutions varies greatly, including a focus on fisheries, tourism, agriculture, the extractive industries and the business sector in general.
The increased attention on sustainable development as a means to protect nature brought IUCN closer to the corporate sector. A discussion started about cooperation with business, including the question if commercial companies could become IUCN members. The members decided against this, but IUCN did forge a partnership with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. IUCN renewed a multi-year MOU with them with WBCSD in December 2015.
In 1996, after decades of seeking to address specific business issues, IUCN’s Members asked for a comprehensive approach to engaging the business sector. Resolution 1.81 of the IUCN World Conservation Congress held that year “urged IUCN Members and the Director General, based on the need to influence private sector policies in support of the Mission of IUCN, to expand dialogue and productive relationships with the private sector and find new ways to interact with members of the business community”.
The IUCN Global Business and Biodiversity Program (BBP) was established in 2003 to influence and support private partners in addressing environmental and social issues. The Program wants to engage with business sectors that have a significant impact on natural resources and livelihoods to promote sustainable use of natural resources. In 2004, the first IUCN Private Sector Engagement Strategy was developed (in response to Council Decision C/58/41). Most prominent in the Business and Biodiversity Program is the five-year collaboration IUCN started with the energy company Shell International in 2007. The aim was to mitigate the environmental impact of Shell's operations. The partnership almost immediately came under fire from IUCN's members, especially the NGO-members who feared for IUCN’s reputation. At the World Conservation Congress (formerly the IUCN General Assembly) in Barcelona in 2008 NGO-members tabled a motion to terminate the Shell contract. The proposal was narrowly defeated.
In 2012, at the World Conservation Congress held in the Republic of South Korea, the Union adopted a more focused approach to enable IUCN to deliver both on‐the‐ground results and fit‐for‐purpose knowledge products, working with many agencies, including business. The Business Engagement Strategy (2012) calls on IUCN to prioritise engagement with business sectors that have a significant impact on natural resources and livelihoods. These include: large 'footprint' industries, such as: mining and oil and gas; biodiversity-dependent industries including fishing, agriculture and forestry; and, financial services and “green” enterprises such as organic farming, renewable energy and nature-based tourism.
Furthermore, the IUCN Operational Guidelines for Business Engagement offer critical support to the implementation of the IUCN Business Engagement Strategy. First developed in 2006, and then revised in 2009 and again in 2015, they provide a consistent approach to the management of risks associated with engaging business, as well as outline the opportunities between the different types of engagement.
Today, the Business and Biodiversity Programme continues to set the strategic direction, coordinate IUCN’s overall approach and provide institutional quality assurance in all business engagements. The Programme ensures that the Business Engagement Strategy is implemented through IUCN’s global thematic and regional programmes as well as helps guide the work of IUCN’s six Commissions.
Championing Nature-based Solutions: 2009 to present day
The emergence of the NbS concept in environmental sciences and nature conservation contexts came as international organisations, such as IUCN and the World Bank, searched for solutions to work with ecosystems rather than relying on conventional engineering interventions (such as seawalls), to adapt to and mitigate climate change effects, while improving sustainable livelihoods and protecting natural ecosystems and biodiversity.
IUCN actively promoted the NbS concept in its 2009 position paper on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP 15, and in 2012 IUCN formally adopted NbS as one of the three areas of work within its 2013-2016 Programme.
At the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2016, IUCN Members agreed on a definition of nature-based solutions. Nature-based Solutions are defined as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”. Members also called for governments to include nature-based solutions in strategies to combat climate change . A report, Nature-based solutions to address global societal challenges, was launched at the Congress, and includes a set of general principles for any NbS intervention.
Implementing NbS at scale can help countries achieve the targets of Sustainable Development Goals. It can also help them achieve the land degradation neutrality goal of the UNCCD, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the CBD, and the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Some key dates in the growth and development of IUCN:
According to its website, IUCN works on the following themes: business, climate change, economics, ecosystems, environmental law, forest conservation, gender, global policy, marine and polar, protected areas, science and knowledge, social policy, species, water and world heritage.
IUCN works on the basis of four-year programs, determined by the membership. In the IUCN Programme for 2017–2020 conserving nature and biodiversity is inextricably linked to sustainable development and poverty reduction. IUCN states that it aims to have a solid factual base for its work and takes into account the knowledge held by indigenous groups and other traditional users of natural resources.
The IUCN Programme 2017–2020 identifies three priority areas:
1. Valuing and conserving nature.
2. Promoting and supporting effective and equitable governance of natural resources
Unlike other environmental organisations, IUCN does not itself aim to directly mobilize the general public. Education has been part of IUCN's work program since the early days but the focus is on stakeholder involvement and strategic communication rather than mass-campaigns.
IUCN runs field projects for habitat and species conservation around the world. It produces the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems which in a similar way measures risks to ecosystems. The IUCN Red List of Ecosystems is a global standard to assess the conservation status of ecosystems. It is applicable at local, national, regional and global levels. It is based on a set of rules, or criteria, for performing evidence-based, scientific assessments of the risk of ecosystem collapse, as measured by reductions in geographical distribution or degradation of the key processes and components of ecosystems.
IUCN participates in efforts to restore critically endangered species. In 2012 it published a list of the world's 100 most threatened species. It wants to expand the global network of national parks and other protected areas and promote good management of such areas, for example through the publication of the Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas. IUCN is the governing body responsible for the development of the Protected Area Management Categories into which each protected area is divided depending on its conservation requirements and management aims. It also developed a standard to identify Key Biodiversity Areas — places of international importance for conservation. In particular, it focuses on greater protection of the oceans and marine habitats.
Examples of endangered species and threatened habitats that are the focus of IUCN programs
IUCN has a growing program of partnerships with the corporate sector to promote sustainable use of natural resources. Globally, IUCN collaborates with Black Mountain Mining, Nespresso, Rio Tinto, Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd, Shell, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, Ltd., the International Olympic Committee, Natural Capital Coalition, Renova Foundation, Tiffany Foundation, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and others.
At the national and regional level, IUCN also works with Marriott International in Thailand, the Zambezi Valley Development Agency (ADPP) in Mozambique, Minh Phu – the largest shrimp exporter in Vietnam, Xingzhitianxia Media Company in China, the Secretariat of the Southern Agriculture Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT), Tata Steel in India, Engro Elengy Terminal (Pvt) Ltd in Pakistan, to name a few.
On the national level, IUCN helps governments prepare national biodiversity policies. Internationally, IUCN provides advice to environmental conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, CITES and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. It advises UNESCO on natural world heritage.
It has a formally accredited permanent observer mission to the United Nations in New York. According to its own website, IUCN is the only international observer organization in the UN General Assembly with expertise in issues concerning the environment, specifically biodiversity, nature conservation and sustainable natural resource use.
IUCN has official relations with the Council of Europe, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
As an organization, IUCN has three components: the member organizations, the six scientific commissions, and the secretariat.
IUCN Members are states (making IUCN a supranational GONGO), government agencies, international nongovernmental organizations, national nongovernmental organizations, and indigenous peoples’ organisations. In 2017, IUCN had 1400 members. The members can organize themselves in national or regional committees to promote cooperation. In 2016, there were 62 national committees and 7 regional committees.
The six IUCN Commissions involve 16,000 volunteer experts from a range of disciplines. They 'assess the state of the world’s natural resources and provide the Union with sound know-how and policy advice on conservation issues'.
The Secretariat is led by the Director General. For management of its operations IUCN distinguishes eight geographical regions; each is led by a director who reports to the Director General.
The IUCN head office is in Gland, Switzerland. Eight regional offices implement IUCN’s program in their respective territories. Since 1980, IUCN has established offices in more than 50 countries. The total number of staff grew from 100 (1980) to around 1,000 (2014); nearly all this growth was in the national and regional offices. Approximately 150 staff are based in the head office.
The World Conservation Congress (Members’ Assembly) is IUCN’s highest decision-making body. The Congress convenes every four years, most recently in Hawaii (2016) and previously in Jeju, South Korea (2012). It elects the Council, including the President, and approves IUCN’s workprogram for the next four years, and budget.
The IUCN Council is the principal governing body of IUCN. The Council provides strategic direction for the activities of the Union, discusses specific policy issues and provides guidance on finance and the membership development of the Union. The Council is composed of the President, four Vice Presidents (elected by the Council from among its members), the Treasurer, the Chairs of IUCN's six Commissions, three Regional Councillors from each of IUCN's eight Statutory Regions and a Councillor from the State in which IUCN has its seat (Switzerland). IUCN's current President is Zhang Xinsheng.
The Council appoints a Director General, who is responsible for the overall management of IUCN and the running of the Secretariat. Inger Andersen is IUCN Director General since January 2015. She succeeded Julia Marton-Lefèvre.
IUCN Presidents since 1948
IUCN Directors General since 1948
IUCN’s total income in 2013 was 114 million CHF, equaling approximately 95 million Euro or 116 million US dollar.
IUCN’s funding mainly comes from Official Development Assistance budgets of bilateral and multilateral agencies. This represented 61% of its income in 2013. Additional sources of income are the membership fees, as well as grants and project funding from foundations, institutions and corporations.
IUCN is considered one of the most influential conservation organisations in the world and, together with WWF and the World Resources Institute (WRI), is seen as a driving force behind the rise of the influence of environmental organisations at the UN and around the world.
It has established a network covering all aspects of global conservation via its worldwide membership of governmental and non-governmental organisations, the participation of experts in the IUCN Commissions, formal involvement in international agreements, ties to intergovernmental organisations and increasingly partnerships with international business. The World Conservation Congress and the World Parks Congress events organised by IUCN are the largest gatherings of organisations and individuals involved in conservation worldwide. They involve governmental organisations, NGOs, media, academia and the corporate sector.
According to some, IUCN is not only a major global player in conservation action, but also has considerable influence in defining what nature conservation actually is. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems determine which species and natural areas merit protection. Through the Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas and the system of IUCN protected area categories IUCN influences how protected areas are managed.
The relevance of the scientific insights and the data that IUCN produces are not often drawn into question, but IUCN has encountered criticism in other matters.
It has been claimed that IUCN put the needs of nature above those of humans, disregarding economic considerations and the interests of indigenous peoples and other traditional users of the land. Until the 1980s IUCN favored the "Yellowstone Model’ of conservation which called for the removal of humans from protected areas. The expulsion of the Maasai people from Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is perhaps the best known example of this approach.
This is linked to another criticism that has been directed at IUCN, namely that throughout its history it has mainly been ‘Northern focused’, i.e. had a West-European or North-American perspective on global conservation. Some critics point to the fact that many individuals involved in the establishment of IUCN had been leading figures in the British Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of Empire, which wanted to protect species against the impact of ‘native’ hunting pressure in order to safeguard hunting by Europeans. The fact that at least until the 1990s, most of IUCN staff, the chairs of the Commissions and the IUCN President came from western countries has also led to criticism. Over the past decade, IUCN has changed its approach. It now aims to work in close cooperation with indigenous groups. It has also become more regionalized in its operations and more truly global in its staffing. At the 2016 World Conservation Congress, IUCN introduced a new membership category for indigenous peoples’ organisations in recognition of their role in conserving the planet.
More recently, activist environmental groups have argued that IUCN is too closely associated with governmental organisations and with the commercial sector. IUCN’s cooperation with Shell came in for criticism, also from its own membership. IUCN's close partnership with Coca Cola in Vietnam - where they have together been launching Coca Cola focused community centers - has also drawn some criticism and allegations of greenwashing. Its decision to hold the 2012 World Conservation Congress on Jeju Island, South Korea, where the local community and international environmental activists were protesting against the construction of a navy base also led to controversy. IUCN remains committed to its partnerships with the business sector, seeing sustainable development as the way to ensure long-term protection of natural areas and species.
IUCN has a wide range of publications, reports, guidelines and databases related to conservation and sustainable development. It publishes or co-authors more than 100 books and major assessments every year, along with hundreds of reports, documents and guidelines. In 2015, 76 IUCN articles were published in peer reviewed scientific journals.
A report, released at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney on 13 November 2014 showed that the 209,000 conservation reserves around the world now cover 15.4 per cent of the total land area. The new figures are a step in the right direction of protecting 17 percent of land and 10 percent of ocean environments on Earth by 2020 since an agreement between the world's nations at the Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Japan in 2010.
At its World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in 2016, the IUCN launched a report Explaining ocean warming: causes, scale, effects and consequences, one of the most comprehensive reviews to date on ocean warming.
The organisation changed its name to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 1956 with the acronym IUCN (or UICN in French and Spanish). This remains our full legal name to this day.