Stewardship is a Human Right

A conversation with Sanjay Bavikatte on solidarity and the environment

By Dan Gluesenkamp

Sanjay Bavikatte

For years, I have felt there is a jarring discordance in conservation, between our personal feelings and our public communications. Personally, we’re all drawn to this work by a feeling of love for wild places and special species. Our work focuses on saving that which most enchants us. We work to exhaustion, not just to save what we cherish, but also because it makes us feel personally fulfilled and of value to our broadest community.

But those compelling and very human motivations feel increasingly crowded out by pressure to justify our deep love for the natural world in transactional terms. Rather than a field of wildflowers or clean mountain spring being of inherent value, we must demonstrate the ways in which they support our economy, providing limited but quantifiable value in the form of “ecosystem services.” It’s a lens that quickly grows tedious and loses sight of what actually motivates people to act.

Human life is deeply intertwined with the flourishing of the ecosystem in which people find themselves. To care for it is natural.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have had the words to explain why I disagree with that approach. I would have said that if we listen instead of talk, we’d hear that people already love nature, butterflies, and flowers – not because they underpin ecosystem services, but because we all resonate and share a fundamental love for living things. Before reading works like Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte’s, Stewarding the Earth: Rethinking Property and the Emergence of Biocultural Rights, I wouldn’t have had the language.

I wouldn’t have known that there is a movement out there: anthropologists and legal scholars who have studied “neoliberalization of conservation,” and explored the harm done by defining conservation value in strictly market-oriented terms.

I feel biocultural rights are at the core of the CNPS ethos, that we are driven not by the economics of gain but rather by a hunger to contribute. I believe kinship with non-human life more accurately describes our motivation than do economic models. And so I asked Sanjay to talk with me about these ideas and share his perspective with Flora readers. I hope you enjoy the result and welcome the continued discussion

The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples established a framework of collective and individual rights of Indigenous peoples, including the right to care for their landscapes and seascapes.


D: Sanjay, you work on biocultural rights, especially within the context of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). What are biocultural rights and how are they essential to biodiversity protection?

S: ‘Biocultural rights’ speaks about the right to stewardship, and the right to care for, tend, and nurture landscapes and seascapes. This is something that communities in different parts of the world have done for many generations, and something that only recently is becoming recognized in law. Indigenous peoples now have the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007, that articulates a variety of rights to self-determination, including the right to care for their landscapes and seascapes. Much of the activism around this came out of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, where the push was to recognize the rights of traditional stewards to govern and manage their territories.

D: In the US environmental movement, the ‘tragedy of the commons’ was one of the seminal concepts. Tragedy of the commons assumes that common resources are going to be harmed because people will act only out of their own self-interest and therein spoil them. The work you’re doing comes from kind of the opposite perspective.

S: Indeed. It does. The term ‘tragedy of the commons’ was coined by Garrett Hardin. Essentially it was based on the idea that human beings are rational maximizers of self-interest.

D: But you — and others — find evidence of humans behaving in a different way. Can you explain that?

S: Yes. So if you had a group of people who were collective users of a shared resource, each individual would maximize what they could take, which would lead   to a collapse of the resource. This was disabused by Eleanor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics saying, ‘This whole idea is patently false and doesn’t take seriously thousands and thousands of examples across the world where communities have effectively managed and governed shared resources.’ Virtually  every  region of the world has countless examples of this. The heart of this is stewardship, the understanding that human life or community life is deeply intertwined with the flourishing of the ecosystem in which people find themselves. To care for it is natural. People’s natural inclination is to work together to conserve and share.

D: Can you talk more about the rights of Indigenous peoples (and all people) to exercise custodial duties in the absence of title or possession? This is about taking care of places that we don’t own or maybe even that shouldn’t be owned by anybody. It’s something that’s at the heart of what CNPSers do: They take care of places, save species from extinction, teach biodiversity gardening, and spend weekends on someone else’s land stewarding it. There is another kind of ownership, beyond holding title to the land, that we all sense. Can you talk about how this connects to our personhood, and what happens to us when we lose it?

S: This becomes an interesting question because of certain myths that we believe in. For example, we tend to view property as a thing instead of a right. Property is a right. It’s not a thing. Things are just things. When you say, ‘This is my property,’ it’s an exercise of a right. Just because I own the plot of land on which my house is in Oakland,
it doesn’t mean I have the right to drill for oil there. Now, in the context of CNPS, this is an exercise of the right to stewardship. A piece of land may not necessarily belong to a steward, they may not have legal title. It could be government land or it could be private land. But they care for it and they care for species that are on it. This is the kind of tension that we are all experiencing because we are living at a time when species loss doesn’t only affect the property owner but it affects everybody else: plants, the air, clean water, etc. They all are public goods.

All these negotiations, whether it’s the Paris Agreement, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or the Convention on Biological Diversity, say there’s a global commons to some extent. There is an existential question that confronts humanity as a whole at this point in time, and this is something that’s been reinforced by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which recently said that over a million species are now in danger of extinction. Biodiversity itself becomes public good to some extent.

Co-Management in California

Photos and captions by Charles Striplen

Under the watchful gaze of 2000-plus-year-old redwoods (the very same individual trees described by the Portola Expedition in October of 1769) at the ancient site of Mitinne (main town of the Quiroste) — a cadre of Native researchers, non-native scholars and park staff, tribal volunteers, and watershed neighbors simultaneously prep the ground for study and restore it to a more productive condition. Having undergone decades of benign neglect, this historic Quiroste village was overrun with brush and invasive conifers, and in 2003 became the site of more than a decade of study and stewardship under the leadership of members of the region’s original people. Science and traditional knowledge worked in parallel to understand this watershed area under an Indigenous management framework — largely focusing on the use of fire to maintain a productive coastal ecosystem. This research now serves as the basis for management of this new State Cultural Preserve.


I think it’s helpful for your volunteers and members to see the work they’re doing and see themselves as part of a larger movement across the world, fundamentally helping with the enforcement of international obligations.

D: I love the way this connects biodiversity and cultural diversity and shows they’re intimately related. It reveals that places have an array of rights: a place may be bound by property rights of the owner, while also carrying stewardship rights for communities, the rights of peoples to define themselves in terms of their ancestral place, and even the rights of all humankind to maintain a functioning biosphere. All of a sudden, a piece of land becomes so much richer and more complicated!

S: Indeed. As you start looking at it you see more than just one flat set of rights. There are multiple dimensions.
And once you expand those dimensions you see multiple dimensions of solutions for some of the problems that are posed by just one-dimensional property rights.

D: Your book talks about a growing literature and science around our collective estrangement from nature. You say that ‘well-being has been replaced by well-having.’ How did you start working on these things? How did you come to realize this was important and something that you wanted to address?

S: I started out as a human rights lawyer, doing civil liberties work. My work led me to interface with Indigenous peoples, in a South African context where I slowly began to realize that there are entire groups of peoples for
whom individual rights are imbricated deeply in their relationships with nature, in their relationships with land. These people were asking a fundamental question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ They saw who they were as people not so much as sealed entities but as nodes in a web that was interconnected. And what they were fighting for was that interconnectedness as opposed to a sense of uniqueness. That was an important thing. It gave me an opportunity to use environmental law as a way of reinforcing basic human rights.

D: I like that you use the word ‘imbricated,’ which is also a botanical term. So we’ve touched on the United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity, and you helped negotiate the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing. Can you talk about how you see cultures and NGOs like CNPS being able to use them in domestic activism going forward?

S: The Convention on Biological Diversity treaty came to life in 1992. Perhaps the most seminal environmental treaty in the world, signed by all UN member states — with the exception of the United States –- it emphasizes conservation of biodiversity, sustainable use, and equitable sharing of benefits. I wasn’t around in negotiating the Convention, but I was definitely involved in including the Nagoya Protocol. I saw my role as expanding and clarifying the obligation of states to protect the lifeways of Indigenous peoples and local communities integral to conserving and sustainably using biological diversity. Article 10c and article 8j.

My involvement with the Convention was to clarify these lifeways, these rights. I felt that was really, really important. Now we’re in a place where all this is fairly ubiquitous, some of the conversation we’re having now we take it a bit for granted. We don’t realize that it is a result of many, many years of activism. Going forward the point is to constantly expand and clarify the scope of this and to really use it well. I think the danger is to think that just because it’s on paper that’s the endpoint. The fact that we have it on paper as a constitution in some sense is a really important milestone. But the other part is about how we effectively implement it.

D: Okay. So, staying on the focus on the UN Convention, as our ambitious new California Biodiversity Initiative grows and achieves successes here in California, we specifically intend to leverage those successes to advance global biodiversity protection at the UN meetings in 2020. What guidance would you share with this growing California team, given your experience in these kind of negotiations? How should we be thinking about the larger context as we focus on saving California?

S: I think California has been leading the effort to say that you don’t need the federal government to take action, subnationals like states can act on their own. If California can say, Okay, what are our obligations under the Convention of Biological Diversity? What are US obligations under the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?’ And then say, ‘What then can local actors do to uphold these obligations?’ I think that’s a great way to do it because local initiatives are where the rubber meets the road, where the real difference happens in terms of landscapes and ecosystems. I think it’s helpful for your volunteers and members to see the work they’re doing and see themselves as part of a larger movement across the world, fundamentally helping with the enforcement of international obligations.

D: Last summer, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a formal apology to California tribes on behalf of California, for what is now officially recognized as genocide. At the same time, Brazil’s Bolsonaro has been making headlines for waging war against the Amazon, where his policies are devastating Brazilian First Nations along with the forests they’ve occupied for millennia. This contrast, between developed California now apologizing for genocide and Brazil embarking on the same course is stunning. We have to stop it, but how do developed countries say, ‘Don’t do what we did. We have all the money and power now but we did it wrong.’ It seems like that’s an obstacle to us being able to really be righteously outraged, and I wonder what your thoughts are on wealthy countries preaching to developing countries, and how we move forward in recognizing the rights of countries to develop, but without destroying our history and our future?

S: Today, what is very important to acknowledge is that we are confronting an existential question for the whole of humanity. Nobody is exempt from this. Within the next 11 years, if we are not able to limit greenhouse
gas emissions and stop temperature increases, then all bets are off. So I think some of these debates become academic. I think the reality isn’t so much about the “First World” versus the “Third World,” because there are First Worlds in the Third World and Third Worlds in the First World. It is really important to
acknowledge that there are social movements, and there are people, that are fundamentally challenging a certain development paradigm which sees nature as a resource to be exploited or to be consumed. And it doesn’t matter whether one is in China or in India or in the United States.

In the context of what you tell Bolsonaro’s government, one has to stand with the Indigenous tribes in the Amazon. It’s no longer about geographic borders anymore because essentially none of us are safe if the Amazon is destroyed. It affects everybody. That was the reason for the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Peoples — to say that whether we’re living
in the US or whether we’re living in Brazil, our fates are indelibly linked and we sink or swim together. Of course, the impact on wealthy people in the United States may be slower than the impact for the Indigenous or rural communities living in the mangroves of Bangladesh, but the fact is that everybody will be affected.

This is the time for solidarity, this is a time for broad social movement, this is the time for backing Indigenous people. This is also a time for backing the environmental movement. Many European countries are taking the stand now, and I feel that the US should also fall in line. The impact is highly local, whether it’s forest fires or massive heatwaves, but the impacts you experience are due to global forces that transcend national boundaries. So action has to be global in nature.

D: I’ve been reading about the ‘neoliberalization of conservation,’ the increasing dominance by a worldview that sees conservation value in economic terms. For example, we must save species because their genes are the engineering material we need to be able to live on planet Earth in the future; we have to save ecosystems because they clean air and water and store carbon. You write about a multidimensional universe of worldviews, each a distinctive ecosystem of potential solutions, and the danger of flattening this to a single dimension of solutions. You make the point that, by saving cultures that look at the world in different ways, it gives us access to a lot more potential solutions. Can you talk a little bit about how we might break free and discover a richer ecosystem of ideas and solutions?

S: The point ultimately comes down to relationships. If we understand our relationship to each other or to non- human species as fundamentally instrumental, and say, ‘What can I get out of this for myself,’ then we fall back into the same trope that got us into this problem in the first place: that we are rational maximizers of self-interest. We are pushing forward to step away from this radical individualism to a sense of connectedness, where we do realize our individuality, but also that our sense of self is a result of the relationships that we are embedded in. We are relational beings. I think we need the kind of cosmovision that Indigenous peoples are talking about.
To not only seek to transform things outside of ourselves, but to also allow ourselves to be transformed by them.
We won’t know the extent of human potential if we limit ourselves to one way of relating to the world: ‘How can I produce or how can I consume or how can I use something?’ But if we change that perspective and open ourselves up to be transformed by these things, then we don’t know where that would take us. Parents understand it. They don’t just say, ‘How do I put my kids to work so that they will benefit me as some kind of social insurance when I’m older?’ They say, ‘How does being a parent transform me as a person?’ That is the leap that we have to take. And we’re not leaping into the unknown. There are thousands of years where this is the view that people had. The world was enchanted and we were a part of a conversation, a much richer conversation. We need to re-enchant the world in that way. That’s important. And I think that needs to be brought in over and over again. It will come. I think that this is only the beginning.

D: That reminds me of the quote that ends your book (which everyone needs to read). Joji Carino of the International Alliance of Indigenous Tribal People speaking to the United Nations says, “The campaigns of Indigenous communities are misjudged as the ignorance of primitives unschooled in modern economic realities. But make no mistake. We are not peoples of the past — we are your contemporaries and in some ways maybe your guides toward more sustainable futures in the 21st century.” I just love that quote.


S: Yeah. There’s a great line in Elliot’s “Four Quartets” where he says, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” It’s a return to something but with new eyes. No one is advocating turning back the clock or a romanticism about “the good old days.” It’s about saying, “Having done all of this, having seen all of this, what is of true importance for us now as a people, as a species?” If we’re going to remake  the world, and we have to because we are on the edge of a precipice, what truly matters and what new versions of the brave new world can be built based on this?

Local is Global

Habitat restoration volunteers Photo: Linda Brodman

CNPS chapters are exercising a right to stewardship across California and Baja, Calif. Local habitat projects like those featured here require ongoing, steadfast work. These efforts continue thanks largely (and sometimes only) to volunteers who give their time season after season to care for the places they call home. “People by nature want to conserve and share,” says Bavikatte, who challenges assumptions that humans act only in self interest.


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