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12.2: Environmental Laws and Policies

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    When conservation priorities have been identified, there are several options available to preserve biodiversity. One option could involve the establishment of protected areas where ecological restoration (Section 10.3) and species conservation projects (Chapter 11) can be carried out. Conservation biologists could also start an environmental education program (Section 15.5) that would help people live more sustainably on unprotected lands (Chapter 14). Under certain conditions, however, especially when control and protection measures fail, restrictions or outright bans of some human activities may be necessary (Keeley and Scoones, 2014). The most effective restrictions and bans involve legislative actions that also establish mechanisms to enforce environmental laws and regulations, and mechanisms that reduce consumer demand (Challender and MacMillan, 2014).

    Environmental laws and regulations are implemented at three different levels: international treaties, national laws, and local laws. While the scope of each of these levels differs, they are intricately connected with one another. International treaties influence national laws, but also depend on their enforcement to succeed, while national laws are guided by local needs as well as customary laws that have been in place for generations. Ideally speaking, international and national laws set minimum benchmarks, which regional and local governments adopt and enforce. Local and regional laws may sometimes set stricter standards in areas where the environment is more sensitive, more damaged, or more important for human well-being. Local and national legislatures may also choose to ignore broader legislation, through non-cooperation and non-enforcement. But this is not advisable as it may lead to further environmental deterioration, loss of funding, and even trade embargoes and sanctions (Section 12.4.4) that could harm local economies.

    International agreements

    International agreements provide frameworks that allow countries to work together to protect biodiversity (Sands and Peel, 2012). These international agreements, called treaties or conventions, are needed for five important reasons: (1) many species migrate and disperse across administrative borders, (2) ecosystems do not follow administrative boundaries, (3) pollution spreads by air and water across regions and around the globe, (4) many biological products are traded internationally, and (5) some environmental problems (e.g. climate change and pollution) require global cooperation and coordination. To pass international treaties, agreements are negotiated at international conferences under the authority of international bodies such as the UN, UNEP, or IUCN and come into force when they are ratified by an agreed-upon number of countries. These treaties are then implemented at the local level when signatory countries pass national laws to enforce them.

    International agreements provide frameworks that allow countries to work together to protect biodiversity.

    One of the most important international environmental treaties is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, The CBD formulated and signed following the UN Earth Summit (also called Rio Summit) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, has played a major role in raising awareness of the value of biodiversity to humanity. At this meeting, representatives from 178 countries formulated and eventually signed the CBD, obligating signatory countries to protect biodiversity through careful management of nature for the benefit of humans. The CBD was expanded in 2010 to also include recommendations for the protection of IUCN Red Listed species and ecosystems, as part of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (Table 12.1).

    Table 12.1 The UN, with governments across the world, have agreed to work on five strategic goals and 20 specific targets (collectively known as Aichi Biodiversity Targets) to halt the loss of biodiversity and protect and restore what remains.

    CBD strategic goal

    Aichi Target


    Address underlying causes of biodiversity losses

    1. Improve awareness of biodiversity values

    2. Integrate biodiversity values into development

    3. Eliminate perverse subsidies; incentivise sustainability

    4. Implement plans for sustainable consumption and production


    Reduce pressures on biodiversity

    5. Reduce the rate of habitat loss by at least 50%

    6. Ensure sustainable use of marine resources

    7. Ensure sustainable agriculture, aquaculture, and forestry

    8. Reduce pollution to non-detrimental levels

    9. Identify and control priority invasive species

    10. Reduce pressures on climate-sensitive ecosystems


    Safeguard ecosystems, species, and genetic diversity

    11. Increase coverage of well-managed protected areas

    12. Prevent the extinction of threatened species

    13. Prevent genetic erosion of biodiversity


    Enable more people to enjoy the benefits of biodiversity

    14. Restore and safeguard ecosystems and essential services

    15. Restore and enhance resilience of degraded ecosystems

    16. Ensure fair and equitable sharing of ecosystem services


    Implement participatory biodiversity strategies

    17. Implement participatory national biodiversity strategies

    18. Respect and conserve traditional knowledge

    19. Improve, share, and apply biodiversity knowledge

    20. Mobilise resources to address Aichi Targets


    There are also several international agreements seeking the direct protection of targeted threatened species. One of the most important treaties of this nature is CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora,, agreed upon in 1973 in Washington, DC. This treaty, ratified by 175 countries, establishes lists (known as Appendices) of species for which member nations agree to ban, restrict, control, and monitor international trade. Over 35,000 species of plants and animals appear on these appendices, many also listed as threatened by the IUCN. With a few exceptions, the international trade of wild-caught specimens on Appendix I is prohibited; trade in Appendix II species is strictly regulated to ensure sustainability, while trade in Appendix III species require a certification of origin. Once member countries pass local laws to comply with CITES, police, customs inspectors, wildlife officers, and governmental agents appointed for that purpose can arrest individuals possessing or trading in products from the listed species. The World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), which operates within UNEP, is tasked with managing the CITES database and monitoring whether member countries are enforcing recommendations.

    The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (sometimes shortened to Bonn Convention, is another important treaty that seeks the protection of specifically targeted species. The Bonn Convention came into force in 1983, and has over 120 Parties, including 37 from Sub-Saharan Africa. As with CITES, the Bonn Convention categorises species under Appendices. Species on Appendix I are threatened with extinction; “Range States” to Appendix I species are obliged to afford those species’ strict protections. Appendix II lists species whose populations would significantly benefit from international cooperation. Three important agreements that involve Sub-Saharan species have been concluded under the Bonn Convention: (1) the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (, which, amongst others, things bans the use of lead shot around aquatic ecosystems; (2) the Gorilla Agreement (, which binds Parties to protect gorillas in their habitats; and the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (, which coordinates international efforts to mitigate known threats to seabirds.

    Several international agreements seek the protection of important ecosystems. Perhaps the most prominent is Convention Concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage (, which protects natural (and cultural) areas of international significance. As of mid-2019, UNESCO (the organization managing the list of World Heritage Sites) recognized 35 natural World Heritage Sites in Sub-Saharan Africa; this includes some of the world’s most famous conservation areas, such as Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Bwindi Impenetrable Park in Uganda, and the Aldabra Atoll of the Seychelles. In addition, five World Heritage Sites are recognized for their natural and cultural significance: this includes Gabon’s Ecosystem and Relict Cultural Landscape of Lopé-Okanda, Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and the Maloti-Drakensberg Park—a transboundary site composed of South Africa’s Drakensberg National Park and Lesotho’s Sehlathebe National Park (Figure 12.2).

    Figure 12.2 The Maloti-Drakenberg Park World Heritage Site, on the borders of South Africa and Lesotho, protects globally significant natural and cultural heritage. Photograph by Diriye Amey,, CC BY 4.0.

    Another important treaty that seems ecosystem protection is the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (, which recognizes the ecological, scientific, economic, cultural, and recreational value of freshwater, estuarine, and coastal marine ecosystems. All but three Sub-Saharan African countries have signed the Ramsar Convention; this binds each member country to conserve and sustainably utilise its wetlands (particularly those that support migratory waterfowl), and to officially declare at least one internationally significant wetland as protected. As of mid-2019, 252 Sub-Saharan African wetlands, covering over 1 million km2, were declared internationally significant under Ramsar guidelines. South Africa and Burkina Faso have the most Ramsar Wetlands (23 and 22, respectively), while the Republic of the Congo has the largest area (138,138 km2) designated. The world’s largest Ramsar wetland, the DRC’s Ngiri-Tumba-Maidombe, is 65,696 km2 in size (over twice the size of Lesotho!).

    International treaties are particularly important to the marine environment, since about two-thirds of the world’s oceans (50% of the planet) fall outside any country’s jurisdiction.

    International treaties are particularly important to the marine environment, since about two-thirds of the world’s oceans (50% of the planet) are considered international waters—that is, being outside any country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), all states have the freedom to fish, travel, do research, etc. in these areas. Three examples of international agreements protecting such marine ecosystems are (1) the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter ( which regulates pollutants into the marine environment, (2) the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea ( which establishes guidelines for management of marine natural resources, and (3) the 2009 Agreement on Port State Measures ( which sanctions monitoring for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing at shipping ports.

    In addition to being party to these and other global treaties, several African countries are also members of agreements that address regional environmental concerns. Among the most prominent is the 2003 Revised African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (or Maputo Convention). The most progressive reforms of the Maputo Convention include the recognition that nature is a finite resource, that the needs of future generations and traditional peoples must be considered, and that the harmful impacts of civil strife on the environment must be mitigated.

    The 2016 Paris Agreement, which deals with greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate change mitigation, serves to illustrate the difficult political negotiations (Figure 12.3) involved in the adoption of an international treaty. Although the negative effects of climate change have been known for several decades (Section 6.1), until recently there has been a distinct lack of action to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. For example, as an early call to action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, representatives from 154 countries signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Earth Summit in May 1992. In the following years, negotiations during annual UNFCCC conferences (formally known as “Conference of the Parties”, or COPs) led in the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in Japan in 1997, which marked the first attempt to set legally binding emission reduction targets. Despite broad appeal among its 192 parties, the Kyoto Protocol faced an uphill battle from the start because the USA (the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter at the time) refused to ratify it, and China (which recently overtook the USA as the biggest emitter) was exempted from compliance. While this has left the Kyoto Protocol largely a failure, it provided important lessons that contributed to the successful passing of the Paris Agreement (, which was negotiated and adopted through consensus by 195 countries (this time including the USA and China) in December 2015. The Paris Agreement went into effect on 4 November 2016 after the minimum 55 countries ratified it, marking a breakthrough in the decades-long battle to curb global greenhouse gas emissions. By mid-2019, all but one country in the world (the non-signatory being the Holy See, who as UNFCCC observer nation that cannot sign but strongly support the Agreement) have signed and/or ratified the Agreement. Most relevant to African member states are the mechanisms set up to provide developing countries with large amount of aid for climate change mitigation and adaption, much of which involves ecosystem conservation (see REDD+, Sections 15.3).

    Figure 12.3 A small group of COP21 delegates, led by UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, negotiating the final terms of the Paris Agreement before its adoption on 12 December 2015. Photograph by Benjamin Géminel,, CC0.

    While it is still too early to judge the effectiveness of the Paris Agreement, the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer ( illustrates how international cooperation can be effective in preventing environmental disasters. In the 1970s, scientists discovered that a range of chemicals (primarily chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs) commonly used in agriculture, energy production, and even common household items (such as refrigerators and aerosol spray canisters) were depleting the atmospheric ozone layer. The ozone layer is critical for human life; by cutting the amount of harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun that reaches the Earth’s surface, protection from the ozone layer reduces skin cancer, cataracts, and crop damage. In response to this threat, the Montreal Protocol aimed to phase out those substances that were responsible for ozone depletion. Since then, the ozone layer has steadily recovered; current projections suggest that the ozone layer will return to 1980 levels in the second half of the 21st century. Towards the end of his tenure as Secretary General of the UN (1997–2006), Ghana’s Kofi Annan declared, “Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol”. The Montreal Protocol’s success is directly due to this widespread adoption and implementation.

    National and local laws

    Traditional African societies have long recognized that preserving the environment is important for human well-being. Consequently, many African cultures had mechanisms in place before the arrival of European colonists that allowed these historical societies to exploit communal resources on a long-term, sustainable basis. These mechanisms included mystical beliefs, local customs, and cultural taboos that ensured the protection of wildlife and land with cultural and spiritual significance. While sacred forests are prominent examples, not all sacred sites are/were forested. For example, the sandy beaches on Guinea-Bissau’s Poilão Island was also regarded as sacred by the people of the Bijagós Archipelago, ensuring the protection of one of the world’s most important green turtle (Chelonia mydas, EN) nesting sites (Catry et al., 2002). These mechanisms, referred to as customary laws, also limited access to certain territories and imposed restrictions on harvesting methods, harvest times, and types of individuals that may be harvested. Strict sanctions for violations ensured that customary laws were generally followed, often through self-policing. In some ways, this traditional approach to natural resource management was not so different from certain wildlife management systems in Europe and elsewhere at the time—or even from today’s more formal law systems—which place restrictions on how we utilise nature. While some customary laws continue to regulate activities in certain regions of Africa (e.g. Walters et al., 2015), in many areas, they were lost when European authorities replaced traditional authorities during colonisation.

    Today, an increasing number of international treaties and environmental organizations are achieving their conservation goals by promoting respect for and inclusion of the cultural and spiritual values that traditional peoples attach to the environment. This includes the CBD, UN, IUCN, and African Union, all promoting the integration of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in conservation activities and regulations (Mauro and Hardison, 2000). A growing number of national governments are also institutionalising these efforts by passing laws recognizing traditional rights, providing traditional peoples with land titles, and declaring areas of spiritual and cultural significance as protected. Conservation scientists are also increasingly relying on TEK to better understand ecological networks (Sileshi et al., 2009; Gómez-Baggethun et al., 2013), to ensure sustainable utilisation of natural resources (Mbata et al., 2002; Terer et al., 2012), and to secure the continued survival of severely threatened species such as the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli, CR), of which fewer than 300 individuals remain (Etiendem et al., 2011).

    While governments are becoming increasingly respectful of customary laws and traditional lifestyles, in many areas the customs inherent to them have fallen by the wayside under increased industrialisation, urbanisation, and globalisation. An increasing number of traders of traditional products are also using more effective collection and harvesting techniques, thereby pushing many species to extinction (Section 7.2). To fill these regulatory voids and to ensure sustainable utilisation of natural resources, statuary (passed by legislatures); regulatory (passed by regulatory agencies; and case (passed by judicial bodies) laws are playing an important role in protecting Africa’s natural heritage.

    Laws that protect the environment (and which can be passed by local or national branches of government) can generally be divided into three categories:

    • Natural resource management laws, which define the limits of fair and sustainable use of land, water, minerals, and biodiversity.
    • Pollution laws, which regulate dumping of waste and other harmful substances into the environment.
    • Tax incentives, which encourage environmentally responsible behaviors.

    Environmental laws that address natural resource use are well known because they impact the activities of the public and some businesses. These include hunting, trapping, and fishing regulations that limit the size and number of animal and plant products that can be collected, and the equipment that can be used for harvesting. Such regulations are typically enforced through licencing requirements, harvest reporting, and law enforcement patrols. Authorities may also set up mechanisms to restrict the sale, transport, and killing of sensitive species, including restricting the sale of firearms and ammunition.

    Many people have also been exposed to restrictions that control the ways in which land is used to protect biodiversity. For example, uncontrolled fires may severely damage natural communities, so practices (such as building campfires) that contribute to accidental fires are often rigidly controlled. In some areas, vehicles and even foot traffic may be restricted to protect ecosystems and resources that are sensitive to disturbance, such as bird and turtle nesting areas on beaches, or sources of drinking water. One of the most popular methods of restricting activities in sensitive ecosystems and around sensitive resources is to pass laws that establish protected areas (Chapter 13).

    Commercial operations are also subject to laws that govern natural resource use. Zoning laws, for example, prevent development of sensitive areas, such as riparian forests, beaches, wetlands, and floodplains. In areas where development is permitted, national laws typically require environmental impact assessments (EIAs, see Dana et al. 2012; Biamah et al. 2013) prior to development (Figure 12.4). Construction sites are surveyed during these assessments to ensure that damage is not done to threatened species or sensitive ecosystems. For major regional and national projects such as dams, mines, oil extraction, and highway construction, environmental impact statements must often be prepared that describe a project’s potential damage, and mediatory actions taken.

    Figure 12.4 The steps required in a typical environmental impact assessment (EIA). EIAs are generally performed prior to a new development to assess potential environmental damage the development may cause, and to identify steps that can be taken to mitigate the damage. After Biamah et al., 2013, CC BY 4.0.

    For industries that exploit threatened species and ecosystems, certification of a product’s origin is increasingly being used as a mechanism to ensure that wild populations are not depleted by illegal collections (Poole and Shepherd, 2016). These certifications may state that environmental regulations, sustainable practices, and socially responsible methods have been followed, or that products were farmed, captive reared, or horticulturally derived rather than collected in the wild. To offset the damage caused by deforestation, various governments have recently made a concerted effort to minimise threats to their forests, including announcing timber export bans and moratoriums on commercial logging. Further afield, the USA, European Union, and Australia have also started placing bans on imported timber that was illegally harvested, some of which was sourced in Africa. Such bans are very effective in reducing the market value of unsustainably sourced products, while also increasing the market share for responsible businesses.

    In recognizing the immense harm invasive species inflict on the environment (Section 7.4), some countries have also enacted laws aimed at combatting invasive species. One example is South Africa, where over 500 current and potential invasive species are classified under three categories ( Category 1 (destroy immediately, may not be owned), Category 2 (kept only with permit, no trade), and Category 3 (no trade, no breeding, but no need to remove) (Zengeya et al., 2017). Category 2 includes popular pets, such as mallards (Anas platyrhynchos, LC), that can hybridise with native waterfowl, as well as plants, such as gum trees (Eucalyptus spp.) that reduce local water availability (Section 7.4.2). Complementing this effort, the city of Cape Town’s local government launched a competition ( (with prizes) during the first half of 2017 for people who report the location for any of 28 priority invasive species.

    Laws that regulate waste management and prevent pollution (Section 7.1) deal with aspects such as air emissions, sewage treatment, hazardous waste, solid waste, and wastewater dumping. In the unfortunate event that pollution ends up in the environment, such laws may also sanction contaminant clean-up. The primary aim of most pollution laws is to protect human health, property, and natural resources such as drinking water, forests, and commercial and sport fisheries. At the same time, they also protect biological communities that would otherwise be destroyed by pollution. For example, air pollution that exacerbates respiratory disease (in humans and animals) also damages commercial forests. Similarly, drinking water pollution which sickens people also kills aquatic species, such as turtles, amphibians, and fish. These examples once again show how intricately human health and economic well-being are linked to the health of the environment.

    Tax incentives can encourage environmentally responsible behaviors and reward individuals who contribute to biodiversity conservation.

    Most laws meant to protect biodiversity are restrictive in nature, but some regulations take a different tact by rewarding individuals who contribute to biodiversity conservation. Although under-utilised in Africa, perhaps the most popular regulatory reward mechanisms are subsidies and tax incentives. For example, several industrialized countries provide subsidies and tax rebates for citizens and industries that install sustainable energy alternatives, such as solar panels, acquire greener transport options, such as hybrid and electric vehicles, and invest in green infrastructure, such as green roofs and permeable surfaces (Section 14.2). South Africa took its first step of this kind in 2016, when BirdLife South Africa’s Fiscal Benefits Project influenced the introduction of a new tax incentive into national legislation that rewards citizens for making conservation commitments on their land (Stevens, 2017). This tax incentive allows landowners to pay reduced taxes based on the value of their land they have formally declared and manage as a protected area. (For a detailed financial analysis of a similar incentive in Canada, see Schuster et al., 2017). By financially rewarding responsible citizens, national governments can put a smile on their citizens’ faces, while also saving money over the long term given that it is often cheaper to protect intact ecosystem services than restoring damaged ecosystems.

    This page titled 12.2: Environmental Laws and Policies is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.