By Anushree Bhattacharjee, IUCN CEM Young Professional.
The World Health Organization had sent a small team to China in July 2020 for laying the groundwork towards a larger mission for finding the exact origin of the COVID-19 virus, and its first transmission to humans1. However, there is a common consensus that the jump of the virus from its usual animal host (probably bats) to humans is the cascading effect of the destruction of nature and biodiversity. Many viruses survive on wild animal hosts without causing any harm. However, when the wild animal’s habitat is destroyed, or the animal is captured, the increased stress levels often cause these viruses to jump from the original host to other animals and even humans, evolving in the process to cause deadly zoonotic diseases.
Many articles have been penned on how nature is ringing out a warning bell for the havoc that humans have wrecked upon its resources2, 3. Several research institutes, international conservation organizations, as well as the various UN organizations, agree on the urgent need for humans to adopt a more sustainable, environment-friendly model of development. During the virtual celebrations of International Day for Biological Diversity (22 May) and World Environment Day (5 June) this year, I heard many global leaders, policymakers and senior government officials pledge to protect biodiversity and reduce deforestation, and implore the general public to lead more sustainable lives. Thus, imagine my consternation when every day I read about the unsustainable development models still being practised by most countries!
In the early weeks of the lockdown, many stories cropped up on social media about nature’s miraculous recovery, but several of them turned out to be fake news4, 5. On the other hand, the lockdown period has been accompanied by increasing poaching incidents from across South Asia6. In India, poaching incidents have more than doubled7. In Africa, while poaching may have gone down, hunting for local consumption is on the rise in forests outside protected areas8. While China has placed a temporary ban on the farming and consumption of wild animals since February, no moratorium has been placed or is likely to be placed on the use of wildlife in traditional Chinese medicines9, an estimated US$130 billion industry.
According to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, the country has already lost 0.1 million hectares of Amazon rainforest to wildfires and illegal deforestation from January-April this year. Data from Global Forest Watch10, an open-source web application to monitor global forests in near real-time, found that many countries like Australia, Kenya, Ghana, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Vietnam, among others, reported higher number of forest disturbances in 2020 as compared to previous years, while countries like the USA and China reported similar number of incidents as previous years, with a few unusually high number of incidents around April-May. This is a cause for great concern, especially since the enforcement agencies have had a shortage of available manpower since the lockdown.
Environment and wildlife enforcement agencies across the world are also facing severe budget crunches. Home to nearly two-third of the Amazon rainforest, Brazil has had its environment budget slashed by 43% in April this year11. In Kenya, private conservancies, which are more in number than national parks, have been badly affected due to the loss of tourism revenue and are having to let go of their ground staff12. The same is true for other African countries like Tanzania, Zambia, Namibia, as well as South American and Asian countries that rely heavily on the tourism sector.
In fact, going by global trends, the COVID-19 crisis may end up providing more overwhelming evidence of how much more we care about macro-economic indicators and short-term industrial gains over sustainable and equitable development. In India, the Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC) of the environment ministry has already considered and given clearances in the months of April-May to 17 large scale mining, infrastructure, and industrial projects, while recommending 30 other projects for environmental clearances13. These projects would mean further loss of forests and trees; quite ironic, especially since the government has been exhorting the general public to conserve nature on its social media accounts. The new draft of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification being proposed by the Government of India has also come under criticism from environmentalists and civil society organizations for being anti-environment and anti-people14, 15, 16.
Across the world, countries are struggling with economic downturn and inadequate healthcare systems in dealing with the pandemic. Environment has unfortunately taken a backseat on the priority list. However, as we have learnt the hard way during this crisis, sometimes prevention is the only viable solution, and protecting nature and wildlife is a vital strategy to ensure that such zoonotic diseases do not crop up again. The next pandemic could very well emerge from the Amazonian forests of South America, or the Western Ghats of India. As we hold our respective governments accountable for protecting the economy and providing social security for all, we also need to ensure that they protect our natural resources. Else, in the mad rush to improve the economy from slowing down, we are at greater risk of losing our forests and biodiversity, ultimately finding ourselves staring down the barrel of yet another pandemic. And who knows if we can survive that!
Ms Anushree Bhattacharjee currently Chevening Research, Science, and Innovation Leadership Fellow at the University of Oxford.