Happy Biodiversity Day!
As many parts of the world continue to grapple with the pandemic, the choices we make today will determine if future threats to humanity are mitigated or amplified. On this International Day of Biological Diversity, we look at ways we can rekindle our harmony with nature and prevent future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been far more than a health crisis: it has affected societies and economies at their core. As per a joint statement by the ILO, FAO, IFAD and WHO, millions of people are likely to slip into extreme poverty with nearly half of the world’s 3.3 billion global workforce at risk of losing their livelihoods. According to experts, the pandemic is by far the greatest threat to prosperity and well-being the US has encountered since the Great Depression.
At the beginning of 2020, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report for 2020 had already placed biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as a top global business risk in terms of both likelihood and impact over the coming decade. Around the world, forests, wetlands and our natural ecosystems, continue to degrade and decline at an alarming rate. Loss of our natural ecosystems and land degradation is directly undermining the wellbeing of some 3.2 billion people worldwide. This is also leading to the extinction of flora and fauna and worsening the impacts of climate change.
It is worth highlighting that seventy-five per cent of emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19, are zoonotic (diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans) – a direct result of disregarding the harmony with nature essential for our own survival and well-being.
This realization has come at a high cost. Leaving COVID-19 aside for a moment, the zoonotic diseases over the last two decades have caused a total economic damage of USD $100 billion. As for COVID 19, the economic impact in the US alone is estimated at more than $16 trillion, or roughly 90% of the annual GDP of the United States. COVID-19 is one of the worst zoonotic diseases we’ve seen, but it is not the first. Ebola, SARS, MERS, HIV, Lyme disease, Rift Valley fever and Lassa fever all preceded it.
This wildlife to human transmission of diseases is primarily a result of land-use change. The current pandemic and previous zoonotic epidemics highlight the extent to which we have stretched our ecosystems and the ecological balance. This has the potential to severely disrupt human health and socioeconomic development around the world, as we are now witnessing first-hand.
Science has provided us solid evidence to understand connections between deforestation and degradation of biodiverse habitats, the rise in illegal wildlife trade and consumption of wildlife and the rise of infectious diseases. The following facts further underline the severity of the issue:
- Over the last 100 years, we have had 2 virus spillovers from animals to humans every year.
- Communities near the edges of tropical forests affected by deforestation tend to be hotbeds for animal-to-human virus transmissions.
- Illegal trade of wildlife and wildlife markets increase transmission.
As we continue to grapple with the current crisis, this is also an opportunity to reflect on what we mean by, and how we achieve, economic prosperity.
The performance and resilience of our economic systems depend on the state of the natural environment and ecosystems. A mutually beneficial symbiotic relation between humans, the biodiversity around us and surrounding ecosystems is the answer to more resilient economies and societies.
With a basic understanding of the issue at hand and the impacts that we are still reeling under, it should be easy to understand that the benefits of conserving our biodiversity and ecosystems far outweigh the costs of losing nature and exposing ourselves to disease outbreaks. Let’s have a brief look at the economics of conserving biodiversity.
A study conducted by Dobson et al. (2020) found that investing about $260bn over 10 years into pandemic-prevention solutions could substantially reduce the risks of future outbreaks like COVID-19. This is just a fraction (2% or less) of the multi-trillion-dollar costs on our lives and economies worldwide.
Considering the major factors behind outbreaks like COVID-19 and other epidemics, experts have underlined the need to crack down on international wildlife trade and revitalize our forests and ecosystems, the harbors of biodiversity.
In this context, it is important to initiate urgent actions that align with the objectives of immediate socioeconomic recovery and conservation of our landscapes and biodiversity. Forests, wetlands and our biodiversity-rich ecosystems make up the natural capital that forms the very basis of our livelihoods and economy. Adopting and supporting nature-based solutions is crucial in shifting towards a more resilient future.
Furthermore, per Dobson et al.’s analysis, increased conservation spending would be evened out by the co-benefits of increased carbon sequestration and decreased carbon dioxide emissions driving the climate crisis.
As we mentioned earlier, ecological restoration has the potential to spur economic activity and provide employment to millions. Restoration activity can thus support livelihoods of the most underserved sections of the society who also happen to be the most vulnerable to the impacts of both climate change and disease outbreaks.
Greenstand has been contributing to the cause of supporting restoration since 2015. At our core, we have created a digital platform that can compensate local communities in developing countries to grow forests by linking them with socially- and environmentally- conscious global citizens and organizations.
The Treetracker app, our open-source mobile mapping and monitoring software enables a framework that goes beyond planting trees. The Treetracker platform, and more specifically our Web Map component, makes it easy to see ‘who planted what tree where’ and ‘how long each tree is surviving’. Greenstand is working to establish an ISO standard for planting, growing, and tracking trees. All individuals, organizations and donors can track and trade their ecological impact and the restoration value created through their support.
Greenstand created the Treetracker app as a response to the needs of single mothers in rural East Africa. These women survive and raise their children typically on less than one US dollar per day. Greenstand recognized the need for a sustainable source of income that did not force landowners to degrade their own natural resources. Our goal is simply to restore biodiversity while compensating stewards of the land, the local community.
Greenstand is in the process of implementing our Tree Value Matrix, which will determine a social and environmental value for each tracked tree. We anticipate the Tree Value Matrix to be fully deployed by the fall of 2021. Once it’s implemented, the Greenstand verification team will consider attributes such as ecological appropriateness, or in other words, whether a tree is indigenous to the environment in which it has been planted. Ecologically appropriate trees will have higher value Impact Tokens than non-native tree species. This creates incentive for tree growers to opt for biodiverse indigenous species, rather than resorting to monocropping or other ecologically harmful practices. Furthermore, by supporting restoration efforts in the fringe areas of natural forests, we help to recreate the buffers around and corridors between forests which play a critical role in conservation of wildlife and preventing zoonotic spillover.
The myriad environmental benefits of growing trees alongside other crops, in addition to creation of sustainable supplemental income, has made a world of difference for our Treetrackers.
Since the introduction of the Treetracker, Greenstand has verified over 900,000 trees growing across 47 countries, with many of them in the areas lying in the proximity of wildlife habitats and biodiversity hotspots.
Read more about Greenstand and the Treetracker here.
As the world continues to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, our collective choices in the long-term will determine if we can emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever. It is our responsibility to rekindle our harmony with nature, to choose actions that conserve nature, so that nature can protect us.
By supporting restoration initiatives through volunteering or financial contributions, speaking up against destruction of habitats and wildlife trade, or simply educating yourself about the issues of biodiversity and ecological restoration, you too can be a part of the solution.
Bhaskar Paul, Communications Contributor