In 1947, the Swiss League for the Protection of Nature organised an international conference on the protection of nature in Brunnen (Switzerland). Afterwards, the 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). It is considered to be the first government-organized non-governmental organization. The initiative to set up the new organisation came from UNESCO and especially from its first Director General, the British biologist Julian Huxley.
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 400 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 NGOs 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:Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972). IUCN provides technical evaluations and monitoring
CITES- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1974) IUCN is a signatory party and the CITES secretariat was originally lodged with IUCN
Ramsar Convention – Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (1975). The secretariat is still administered from IUCN's headquarters.
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 1990s.) 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: 1985–2000
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.
Closer to business: 2000 to present day
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.
The IUCN Global Business and Biodiversity Program (BBP) was established in 2003. 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. 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.
Some key dates in the growth and development of IUCN:
According to its website, IUCN works on the following topics: business, economics, ecosystems, education, environmental law, forest conservation, gender, global policy, marine and polar, protected areas, science and knowledge, social policy, species, wildlife trade, water and world heritage.
IUCN works on the basis of four-year programs, determined by the membership. In the IUCN Program for 2013–2016 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 2013–2016 work program identifies three program areas:
- Valuing and conserving nature.
- Effective and equitable governance of nature’s use.
- Deploying Nature Based Solutions to global challenges in climate, food and development.
Unlike other environmental NGOs, 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 well-managed protected 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 is also developing 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. In its Annual Report over 2013 IUCN list cooperation with Global Blue, Groupe Danone, Holcim, Nokia Corporation, Rio Tinto Group, Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Limited, Shell Nigeria, Marriott International and Nespresso.
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, government agencies, international nongovernmental organizations, national nongovernmental organizations or other affiliates. In 2014, IUCN had 1218 members. The members can organize themselves in national or regional committees to promote cooperation. In 2014, there were 56 national committees and 7 regional committees.
The six IUCN Commissions involve 10,000 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'.Commission on Education and Communication (CEC): communication, learning and knowledge management in IUCN and the wider conservation community. Members: 1,200
Commission on Environmental, Economic, and Social Policy (CEESP): economic and social factors for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Members: 1465.
World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL): developing new legal concepts and instruments, and building the capacity of societies to employ environmental law for conservation and sustainable development. Members: 800.
Commission on Ecosystem Management(CEM): integrated ecosystem approaches to the management of natural and modified ecosystems. Members: 1000.
Species Survival Commission (SSC): technical aspects of species conservation and action for species that are threatened with extinction. Members: 7500.
World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA): establishment and effective management of a network of terrestrial and marine protected areas. Members: 1300.
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 45 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 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’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 national, international or intergovernmental institutions. 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 NGO influence 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 event 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 well-managed protected 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 throughout its history. Its actions can still lead to controversy.
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.
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. 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 150 books and major assessments every year, along with hundreds of reports, documents and guidelines. Since 2006, every year around 40 scientific papers listing "IUCN" as an author’s affiliation have been published in the peer-reviewed literature indexed in the Web of Science. This is a tenfold increase since the 1980s.
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 worlds 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.