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Whose ecosystem is it anyway? Private and public rights under new approaches to biodiversity conservation

Colin T Reid and Walters Nsoh

Keywords: biodiversity; human rights; property rights; nature conservation; biodiversity offsetting; ecosystem services

A range of legal tools is increasingly being used for the conservation of biodiversity. These tools include conservation covenants, biodiversity offsets and payment for ecosystem services. There are benefits to these approaches, but also challenges to be met if these mechanisms are to be applied successfully.

Among the challenges is the fact that these schemes generate new relationships between land, people and the environment, especially wildlife. This requires consideration of the basic position of ownership of wild flora and fauna, the extent of the property rights of landowners and others with interests in the land, and of how far the state is justified in restricting, and even taking over, these rights for conservation purposes. The restriction of property rights for environmental purposes has already given rise to litigation under the European Convention on Human Rights, and as ideas of long-term stewardship in land or new rights in relation to ecosystem services develop, there are questions over the nature and extent of the rights being recognized. Moreover, there are concerns over the acceptability of an approach that converts nature from a ‘common heritage’ to a bundle of property rights. Mechanisms that confer rights on nature add a further dimension to the discussion. Using examples from the United Kingdom and other jurisdictions, this article attempts to highlight the different ways in which rights can be viewed in the context of developments in conservation law and the need to appreciate the consequences from different perspectives.

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