The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, Union internationale pour la conservation de la nature (UICN), in French) is an international organization dedicated to finding “pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges.” The organization publishes the IUCN Red List, compiling information from a network of conservation organizations to rate which species are most endangered.
The IUCN supports scientific research, manages field projects all over the world and brings governments, non-government organizations, United Nations agencies, companies and local communities together to develop and implement policy, laws and best practice. IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network – a democratic membership union with more than 1,000 government and NGO member organizations, and almost 11,000 volunteer scientists in more than 160 countries. IUCN’s work is supported by more than 1,000 professional staff in 60 offices and hundreds of partners in public, NGO and private sectors around the world. The Union’s headquarters are located in Gland, near Geneva, Switzerland.
IUCN’s stated vision is “a just world that values and conserves nature.” Its mission is to “influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and biodiversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.”
The first Director General of UNESCO, (Sir Julian Huxley), wishing to give UNESCO a more scientific base, sponsored a congress to establish a new environmental institution to help serve this purpose. At that first congress (held at Fontainebleau, France), on 5 October 1948, 18 governments, 7 international organizations, and 107 national nature conservation organizations all agreed to form the institution and signed a “constitutive act” creating an International Union for the Protection of Nature.
From this beginning, the overriding strategy and policy of the institution has been to explore and promote mutually beneficial conservation arrangements that suit those promoting development as well as assisting people and nations to better preserve their flora and fauna. When approached in 1978 by primatologist Richard Wrangham to contribute funds to the new Digit Fund to prevent further poaching of mountain gorillas near Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Research Station in Rwanda, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declined to provide funds to the cause. Instead, the IUCN supported opening the Virunga Volcanoes to tourism as a way to encourage the Rwandan government to preserve the gorillas.
At all times, the institution (in all its forms) has heavily emphasized as a key operating principle the strong need to cater to and address the needs of local nations, communities and peoples, so that those nations, communities and peoples can take ownership of future, long term conservation goals and objectives in their local areas: “Protected areas and threatened species could most effectively be safeguarded if local people considered it in their own interest to do so. Working with rather than against local people became a major working principle for IUCN. ” — Page 61
The IUCN’s World Conservation Strategy (1980) was founded upon this kind of principle, and clearly announced the IUCN’s ambitions to more effectively enter into dialogue with the promoters of human development. The strategy was internationally applauded by many and served to secure the IUCN funds from several donors who did not themselves feel they could open up effective dialogue in the world’s developing countries, nor that United Nations organizations and international banks would effectively engage in such dialogue.
Since the World Conservation Strategy and the dawn of the sustainable development era, however, these goals have come to sit uneasily with attempts by institutions such as The World Bank to “mainstream the environment.” This has led to pressure from more powerful institutions, such as The Bank itself as well as the UNDP and UNEP, to help promote the expansion of the free-market onto the environment, renamed “natural resources,” thus giving wealthy investors and multinationals the right to purchase rights to things previously considered intangible and common property, such as water, genetic resources, and the right to pollute the atmosphere.
With the pre-eminence of the concept of sustainable development, the IUCN has expanded into many of the nations around the world, making available the services of a large pool of mainly voluntary specialists, providing local level advice and conservation services, and expanding its networks of Committees and regional advisory bodies into increasing numbers of countries. It remains to be seen how well the IUCN will be able to reconcile its founding ideals with the pressures of incorporation into the development institutions.