World Conservation Union Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The World Conservation Union was founded to protect and conserve nature and global resources. It went on to become a leading force in international environmental law and lobbying.

Summary of Event

In October, 1948, a conference attended by representatives from government and nongovernment agencies was held in Fontainebleau, France, to found an umbrella organization for the conservation of nature and natural resources throughout the world. The resulting association was known as the International Union for the Protection of Nature (IUPN). World Conservation Union Environmental organizations;World Conservation Union International Union for the Protection of Nature Fontainebleau Conference (1948) [kw]World Conservation Union Is Founded (Oct. 5, 1948) [kw]Union Is Founded, World Conservation (Oct. 5, 1948) [kw]Union Is Founded, World Conservation (Oct. 5, 1948) World Conservation Union Environmental organizations;World Conservation Union International Union for the Protection of Nature Fontainebleau Conference (1948) [g]Europe;Oct. 5, 1948: World Conservation Union Is Founded[02630] [g]France;Oct. 5, 1948: World Conservation Union Is Founded[02630] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 5, 1948: World Conservation Union Is Founded[02630] [c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 5, 1948: World Conservation Union Is Founded[02630] Buttikofer, J. I. Bernard, Charles J. Harroy, Jean-Paul Coolidge, Harold J., Jr.

The World Conservation Union’s headquarters in Gland, Switzerland in 2006.

(Erich Iseli)

With the end of World War II, European and international attention turned to the future and to rebuilding, restoration, and preservation. Attention could again be given to the natural environment, which had suffered badly during the catastrophic war years.

Soon after the war ended, two conferences organized by the Swiss League for the Protection of Nature were held in Switzerland in 1946 and 1947. The second of these, held at Brunnen between June 28 and July 3, 1947, led to the creation of the Provisional International Union for the Protection of Nature. The Swiss League for the Protection of Nature, in particular its executive secretary, J. I. Buttikofer, collaborated with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization UNESCO (UNESCO) to establish a permanent union. France, too, although still recovering from the war, made a commitment to the cause by undertaking to convene, in cooperation with UNESCO, a conference at Fountainebleau with the express purpose of establishing a permanent union.

Invitations to the conference, which took place between September 30 and October 7, 1948, were accepted by 123 delegates representing twenty-three governments and 126 organizations from thirty-three countries, as well as UNESCO, the Pan-American Union, the International Office for the Protection of Nature, the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens, the International Council of Scientific Unions, the International Union of Biological Sciences, and the International Committee for Bird Preservation. The original thirty-three countries represented at the conference were Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Finland, France, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Luxembourg, Mexico, Monaco, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, Poland, Siam, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the United States of America, and Venezuela.

The conference was a success and resulted in the founding, subject to ratification by the respective governments, of the International Union for the Protection of Nature. The preamble of the new organization’s constitution defined the “protection of nature” as the preservation of the global biotic community and the natural environment of humankind, including the renewable natural resources of which the earth is composed and on which rests the foundation of human civilization.

The objectives of the union included encouraging cooperation between governments and national or international organizations concerned with the protection of nature; promoting national and international action for the preservation of world wildlife and the environment (including the protection and preservation, through legislation and the establishment of national parks and refuges, of areas, fauna, and flora having scientific, historic, or aesthetic significance); and promoting public knowledge about the protection of nature through educational programs and scientific research.

Once the union’s constitution was adopted on October 5, 1948, the program and budget were decided and officers elected at the first general assembly, which followed on October 5-7. Charles J. Bernard of Switzerland became the first president and Jean-Paul Harroy of Belgium the secretary-general; Harold J. Coolidge, Jr., of the United States, Henry G. Maurice of the United Kingdom, and Roger Heim of France were named vice presidents, and ten executive board members were also named. It was decided to place the seat of the union in Brussels, where the Belgian government had offered to provide offices and other assistance and where the International Office for the Protection of Nature, which possessed a magnificent environmental library, was located. It was arranged that the two organizations would share office space and resources.

In conjunction with the Fontainebleau Conference, UNESCO hosted a symposium on nature conservation and related topics. To continue the dialogue begun there, one of the union’s first undertakings was the organization of an International Technical Conference on the Protection of Nature International Technical Conference on the Protection of Nature (1949) , which was eventually held at Lake Success, New York, in August, 1949, the first of several technical meetings sponsored by the union during the succeeding years.

In addition to organizing the Lake Success conference, the union was during its first two years primarily occupied with administration, program organization, and establishing relationships with governments throughout the world. Only thirty-four countries were represented at the second general assembly, which was held in Brussels in October, 1950. Few countries had fully ratified the union’s constitution, but by the end of the assembly, 115 governments and nongovernment organizations had declared their support.

Among the programs underway at this early stage were the publication of a report on the status of nature protection throughout the world, the preparation of materials to be used by teachers, and the implementation of a Survival Service for endangered species. The first was considered an important contribution to the state of knowledge, since so little was then known about the status of global environmental conditions. The second emphasized the importance accorded environmental education, one of the basic objectives of the union. The third program addressed the need to protect endangered species, particularly the 27 species listed as endangered by the Lake Success conference.

The headquarters eventually moved to Switzerland— first to Morges, and then to Gland. Brussels had initially been chosen because of the Belgian government’s generous support, but the headquarters were moved to Switzerland because of that country’s neutrality and because it had never held any colonies (a position favored by some of the union’s underdeveloped members). In 1956, the organization’s name was changed to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Although this has remained the legal name of the union, an abbreviated name, the World Conservation Union, was adopted in 1990.


The union grew considerably over the years as its influence on environmental matters increased and became recognized. It gradually established a number of commissions to oversee specific projects. The Commission on Ecology ensures that the management of natural ecosystems is done on a sound scientific basis; its major programs are concerned with global changes, world parks, and the conservation of marine and coastal areas, wetlands, and forests. The Commission on Education and Communication develops regional networks to stimulate education, which the union regards as an essential tool for achieving its goals. The Commission on Environmental Law assists with the establishment of regional and international laws and treaties to protect the environment. The union also supports an Environmental Law Center in Bonn, Germany; it has also developed programs for protecting biological diversity and the environment in times of armed conflict, and for providing legal assistance to regional activities.

The Commission on Environmental Strategy and Planning develops and implements strategies for environmental protection. Some of the programs include the establishment of conservation corps, the protection of biodiversity on private lands, the promotion of a global conservation ethic, the application of landscape ecology in conservation, and the promotion of integrated regional resource management. The Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas promotes the establishment and effective management of a worldwide network of protected ecosystems, which include nature reserves and wilderness areas, national parks and monuments, habitat and species management areas, protected landscape and seascape areas, and managed-resource protected areas. The Species Survival Commission assesses the conservation status of species worldwide, develops and promotes policies for species conservation, and provides a resource network for the conservation of biodiversity. In a related effort, the union supports the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Kew and Cambridge, England, as well as a Trade Specialist Group in Cambridge and a Captive Breeding Specialist Group in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The union’s primary objective remains national, regional, and international cooperation to conserve the integrity, productivity, and diversity of nature and to promote the appropriate use of natural resources. Ongoing activities include the support of existing treaties and conventions such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and cooperative efforts with closely related organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund. The union was and continues to be the primary international influence behind the achievement of environmental protection, conservation, and sustainable use. World Conservation Union Environmental organizations;World Conservation Union International Union for the Protection of Nature Fontainebleau Conference (1948)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coolidge, Harold J., Jr. “The Birth of a Union.” National Parks Magazine 23 (April-June, 1949): 35-38. An account of the Fountainebleau Conference written by a member of the American delegation. A brief but very good firsthand account of how the conference established the World Conservation Union.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“The First Quarter Century of IUCN: Looking Back and Looking Ahead.” IUCN Yearbook: Annual Report of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources for 1973. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, 1974. An excellent and comprehensive history of the founding and first twenty-five years of the union. Lists the first eleven general assemblies and the associated officers of the union and includes firsthand accounts by individuals involved with the union’s history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holdgate, Martin. The Green Web: A Union for World Conservation. London: Earthscan, 1999. Book-length history of the World Conservation Union, its founding, policies, and accomplishments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“International Union for the Protection of Nature.” Journal of the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire 58 (1948): 12-17. British perspective on the Fountainebleau Conference that established the World Conservation Union. Summarizes the activities that led up to the conference, the conference itself, and basic information about the newly created union and its expected functions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Westwood, Richard W. “I.U.P.N. Meets in Brussels.” National Parks Magazine 25 (January-March, 1951): 16-17. An account of the second general assembly of the World Conservation Union, the first working meeting of the union after its establishment at the Fountainebleau Conference. Written by a member of the American delegation. Summarizes the activities and agenda of the assembly and provides a brief firsthand account of the early activities of the union.

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Categories: History