Introduction to Sustainable Use

The term ‘sustainable use’ needs to be understood in relation to the different objectives, areas of work and terminology of the Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) that are reviewed in this module.


For the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity is one of the three objectives of the Convention (CBD Article 1) and the term appears frequently in the text of the convention and its decisions. Article 2 of the convention provides the following definition of sustainable use.

Sustainable use means the use of the components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations. (CBD Article 2)

The components of biological diversity can be divided into ecosystems, species and genetic material. Sustainable use, as understood in the context of the CBD, can, therefore, involve the use of each of these components.

2. Ramsar

One of the central concepts to which the Parties to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat (Ramsar) are committed is that of ‘wise use’. Under Article 3.1 of the convention they are required to ‘formulate and implement their planning so as to promote the conservation of wetlands included in the List and as far as possible the wise use of wetlands in their territory’. The Parties have devoted considerable effort to the elaboration of the notion of wise use and the development of guidelines for the wise use of wetlands. In doing so they have drawn explicitly on the concept of sustainable use as it is applied in the CBD. The following definition of ‘Wise use’ was adopted by the Parties to Ramsar in 2005:

Wise use of wetlands is the maintenance of their ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystems approaches within, within the context of sustainable development (Ramsar Resolution IX.1 Annex A, 22).


There is no explicit mention of sustainable use in the text of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Nevertheless, a very similar concept lies at the heart of CITES. Specifically, trade in specimens of species listed on Appendix I of CITES requires, inter alia, a finding that the export ‘will not be detrimental to the survival of that species’ (Article III.2 (a)). A non-detriment finding is also necessary for trade in Appendix II species. In addition, the export of Appendix II species requires that the species is maintained ‘throughout its range at a level consistent with its role in the ecosystems in which it occurs’ (Article IV.3). The requirement for non-detriment findings is equivalent to the requirement that the trade is sustainable. This sustainability is characterised in biological and ecological terms.

Moreover, in recent years the Parties to CITES have increasingly adopted the language of sustainable use. For example, the CITES vision statement, contained in the CITES Strategic Vision: 2008-2013, is as follows:

Conserve biodiversity and contribute to its sustainable use by ensuring that no species of wild fauna or flora becomes or remains subject to unsustainable exploitation through international trade, thereby contributing to the significant reduction of the rate of biodiversity loss

Moreover, one of the two purposes of the Strategic Vision is ‘to improve the working of the Convention, so that international trade in wild fauna & flora is conducted at sustainable levels’. CITES, then, addresses the issue of sustainable use, with a focus on one particular type of use involving the international trade in species.

4. CMS

As its name implies, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) focuses on migratory species. The convention itself does not mention sustainable use, but the preamble does include the clause:

AWARE that each generation of man holds the resources of the earth for future generations and has an obligation to ensure that this legacy is conserved and, where utilized, is used wisely;

Like CITES, CMS has a system of listing species on Appendices. Appendix II includes migratory species ‘which have an unfavourable conservation status and which require international agreements for their conservation and management, as well as those which have a conservation status which would significantly benefit from the international cooperation that could be achieved by an international agreement’ (CMS Article IV.1). The treaty provides guidelines for these agreements and states that where appropriate and feasible, such agreement should provide for, inter alia, ‘measures based on sound ecological principles to control and manage the taking of the migratory species’ (CMS Article V.5 (j)). In practice, this clause has been interpreted as one that requires that such ‘taking’ is sustainable, and the agreements that have emerged from the CMS have addressed this issue. References to sustainable use appear in a number of the resolutions and recommendations agreed by the Parties.

5. WHC

The World Heritage Convention (WHC) is concerned with the protection of the cultural and natural heritage. While the text of the convention does not explicitly mention the concept of sustainable use, some of the recommendations subsequently agreed by Parties for specific sites do include measures for ensuring that any use of biodiversity is sustainable. The Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention recognise that sustainable use can be consistent with the protection of cultural and natural sites.

The objective of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought. In several places the text of the convention emphasises the importance of the sustainable management of land and water. Article 10.4 states that Parties, in developing national action programmes, should include measures such as ‘sustainable management of natural resources’ and ‘sustainable agricultural practices’. References to sustainable use also appear in the some of the decisions of the Parties.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) contains the obligation on Parties to ‘Promote sustainable management, and promote and cooperate in the conservation and enhancement, as appropriate, of sinks and reservoirs of all greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol, including biomass, forests and oceans, as well as other terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems’ (UNFCCC Article 4 (d)). The Kyoto Protocol to UNFCCC calls on Annex I Parties to promote sustainable forest practices and sustainable forms of agriculture (Kyoto Protocol Article 2 (a) (ii) & (iii)).

Sustainable use in MEAs

In summary, the sustainable use of biological diversity is a central concept in the CBD. In Ramsar and CITES the sustainable use of particular categories of biodiversity is an important concern. The four other conventions reviewed here all include, to a greater or lesser extent, provisions relating to sustainable use. Moreover, in the case of CBD, Ramsar, CITES and CMS there is a trend towards shared thinking and approaches..

In 2004 the Conference of the Parties to CBD adopted the Addis Ababa Principles and Guidelines for the Sustainable Use of Biodiversity. Later in the same year the Conference of the Parties to CITES urged the Parties to make use of those Principles and Guidelines in making non-detriment findings. In 2005 the Parties to CMS decided to examine the applicability and usefulness of the Principles and Guidelines within the context of the CMS.

Which obligations are included?

In considering which obligations to include (and which to exclude) in this module it is not possible to use a simple terminological criterion since, as has been seen, the conventions do not use a uniform terminology for referring to sustainable use. Rather the approach taken focuses on whether – whatever the terminology employed – the obligation is substantively about sustainable use.

The choice about what to include and what to exclude is also shaped by the nature of the conventions themselves. CITES regulates the international trade in wild species through its system of appendices and the development of additional rules governing the use of the appendices. Decisions about the listing of individual species (or other taxa) on the Appendices have not been included in this module, on the grounds that while these listings do create obligations relating to sustainable use, they are too specific to be of value here. However, the obligations arising from decisions that address, in a more general way, the treatment of species listed on the CITES Appendices have, where they have a direct bearing on the sustainability of use, been included. Similarly, in the case of CMS, which also operates a system of appendices, decisions about the listing of species on the Appendices have not been included. However, the obligations that arise from the decisions that address, in a more general way, the treatment of species included in the CMS Appendices have, where they have a direct bearing on the sustainability of use, been included.

The module includes obligations addressing, in general, the sustainable use of genetic resources, but it does not include those obligations specifically concerned with access and benefit-sharing.

This module is divided into nine sections

  • Targets, indicators, monitoring and assessment: including targets for sustainable use and indicators of their achievement
  • Legislative measures and national policy: including institutions that regulate sustainable use
  • Management and regulation: including regulation of the trade in wild species
  • Economic Instruments: including incentives for sustainable use
  • Provision of resources: including the provision of financial and technical resources
  • Communication and research: including communication with the public and with MEA bodies
  • Cooperation: including cooperation between Parties, and in the implementation of two or more international agreements
  • Sustainable use and particular categories of biodiversity: including obligations relating to particular ecosystems and to particular taxa
  • Poverty and equity, indigenous and local communities: including the links between sustainable use and poverty

The relevant articles of MEAs are presented under the activities, followed by the obligations arising from decisions, resolutions or recommendations of the governing bodies. The obligations are presented in chronological order, with the most recent obligations first.

Where appropriate, commentary has been provided to highlight: i) synergy that may occur between obligations; ii) obligations that may need to be addressed together; and iii) to highlight elements of a CBD programme of work or guideline that is most relevant to a particular activity.

The following MEAs were reviewed to create the global components of this module:

  • Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
  • Convention on Wetlands of International Importance as Waterfowl Habitats (Ramsar)
  • Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS)
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
  • World Heritage Convention (WHC)
  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
  • United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

To have a better understanding of the structure and elements of the module, an overview has been provided for ease of navigation. The navigation bar on the left of the page can be used to go directly to specific sections within the module.

Regional parts for Europe and Africa have been developed for this module. Regional obligations have been embedded within the global module’s sections and activities.

Regional treaties reviewed to develop the European part of the module are:

  • EU Birds Directive
  • EU Habitats Directive
  • EC Regulation No 338/97 of 9 December 1996
  • Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern, 1979)
  • OSPAR - Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic
  • Pan-European Biological and Landscape Diversity Strategy (PEBLDS)

Regional treaties reviewed to develop the African part of the module currently focus on East and Southern Africa and are:

  • African Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA)
  • Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA)
  • Memorandum of Understanding for Cooperation on Environmental Management (MOU of CEM)
  • New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)
  • Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)
  • Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community (EAC)
  • LusakaAgreement on Cooperative Enforcement Operations Directed at Illegal Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora (Lusaka Agreement)
  • MauritiusDeclaration
  • Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Wildlife Conservation and Law Enforcement

The treaties included in the regional parts are representative of each region and the coverage is not comprehensive. It is recognised that there are many more regional treaties that contain sustainable use obligations. These will be incorporated at a later date.