IUCN - A brief history

Since its establishment in 1948, IUCN has become the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it. The knowledge and the tools IUCN provides are critical for ensuring that human progress, economic development and nature conservation take place together.

IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, was established on 5 October 1948 in the French town of Fontainebleau. As the first global environmental union, it brought together governments and civil society organisations with a shared goal to protect nature. Its aim was to encourage international cooperation and provide scientific knowledge and tools to guide conservation action.

During the first decade of its existence, IUCN’s primary focus was to examine the impact of human activities on nature. It flagged the damaging effects of pesticides on biodiversity, and promoted the use of environmental impact assessments, which have since become the norm across sectors and industries.

Much of IUCN’s subsequent work in the 1960s and 1970s was devoted to the protection of species and the habitats necessary for their survival. In 1964, IUCN established the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, which has since evolved into the world’s most comprehensive data source on the global extinction risk of species.

IUCN also played a fundamental role in the creation of key international conventions, including the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (1971), the World Heritage Convention (1972), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, (1974) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992).

In 1980, IUCN – in partnership with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – published the World Conservation Strategy, a ground-breaking document which helped define the concept of ‘sustainable development’ and shaped the global conservation and sustainable development agenda.

A subsequent version of the strategy, Caring for the Earth, was published by the three organisations in the run-up to the 1992 Earth Summit. It served as the basis for international environmental policy and guided the creation of the Rio Conventions on biodiversity (CBD), climate change (UNFCCC) and desertification (UNCCD).

In 1999, as environmental issues continued to gain importance at the international stage, IUCN was granted official observer status to the United Nations. Today it remains the only environmental organisation with such status.

In the early 2000s, IUCN developed its business engagement strategy. Prioritising sectors with a significant impact on nature and livelihoods, such as mining and oil and gas, its aim is to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.

Later in the 2000s, IUCN pioneered ‘nature-based solutions’ – actions to conserve nature which also address global challenges, such as food and water security, climate change and poverty reduction.

Today, with the expertise and reach of its more than 1,300 Members – including States, government agencies, NGOs and Indigenous Peoples’ Organisations – and over 10,000 international experts, IUCN is the world’s largest and most diverse environmental network. It continues to champion nature-based solutions as key to the implementation of international agreements such as the Paris climate change agreement and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

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