(On the occasion of the United Nations International Day for Biological Diversity, May 22)
By Danielle Evanson
The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been rapid, radical and relentless. Health protocols are in effect from home to hospital. Global trade and transport logistics have been disrupted. Many businesses have closed their doors, too many permanently. Thousands in the region and millions across the globe are unemployed. Conversely, ecological processes are slowly reclaiming some of their balance. Reduced pollution has made for cleaner air and rivers with wildlife exploring empty cities. NASA announced last week its investment in deeper research on the environmental impacts of these restrictions to understand how they can inform policy decisions as we emerge.
This state of affairs, for better or for worse, will not – nay cannot – persist indefinitely. Critical for governments is their vision for what their new economy and society will look like, and how they will treat the environment that supports them. In a year which was touted as pivotal for international climate negotiations and assessing progress to global environmental targets, the suspension of these activities highlights the possibility of failure to achieve the needed depth of international commitment. In a similarly stark spotlight is the opportunity presenting itself for countries to take the same kind of rapid, radical and relentless action for a long-promoted transition away from our current extractive, linear production model to a more circular, green model, which would build resilience against such disruptive shocks. As UNDP’s Administrator, Achim Steiner, recently said, “You have an opportunity to either invest in returning to yesterday’s economy or to invest into tomorrow’s economy.”
UNDP is actively supporting countries across the world in grappling with the effects of this pandemic. From drones and remote sensing to monitor illegal wildlife activity, to funds mobilised to assist nature-based tourism and agriculture-dependent communities, to supporting green economic and social stimulus packages by structurally integrating nature through infrastructure, creating green jobs, providing pro-nature incentives and repurposing subsidies. These types of interventions can be tailored to contexts across the globe. In Barbados, for example, we are collaborating with small farmers and fishers to reconnect them to their consumers digitally and expand their product market.
For small islands, including the Caribbean, where tourism is a mainstay of the economy, the cry for economic diversification and food security has grown to a mighty roar. Projections indicate it may take up to two years for tourism arrival volumes to be restored. However, a door opens to greater emphasis on attracting locals, the diaspora and the region to enjoy unique experiences in their homelands. As a global biodiversity hotspot with thousands of species of plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, preservation of biodiversity and ecosystem functions creates the foundation for ecological tourism with adventures in sightseeing, hiking, scuba diving, zip lining, swimming in marine parks. Biodiversity offers solutions for a better, more resilient Caribbean tourism sector.
Of course, this is dependent on the society being engaged in productive activity to have money to spend. Does biodiversity help stimulate and support economic activity? Undoubtedly yes! Embracing biodiversity in agriculture offers opportunities not only through traditional agro-processed goods such as sauces, jams, dried, frozen and canned produce. But it also creates a platform for value addition through rum and other industries earning global geographical indication for 100 percent local ingredients, and innovation through circular and regenerative food production systems restoring pollinator populations, increasing local varieties used and reusing waste, and applying GPS, sensors and robotics in precision farming. Renewable energy production, plastic alternatives, natural agrochemicals, fabrics, textiles, medicines, health and beauty products … the possibilities are endless. A strong and sustainable agriculture sector reduces food importation and buttresses a plethora of other sectors and businesses. Biodiversity is better for business and food security.
Moreover, efforts are already underway in corners to capture the historical knowledge of the healing properties of many Caribbean indigenous plants and to cultivate those not commercially grown. Coupled with local food production, this supports improved health through nutritious foods to combat non-communicable diseases such as obesity and diabetes. In addition to reducing public healthcare costs, a healthier population is a more productive population. Biodiversity is better for our health, and better health is better economics.
To facilitate this transformation requires bold and decisive action. Integrated land use planning and green business must not bend to quick economic returns but must actively maintain ecosystem services and incentivise natural resource management in business and industry. Every single thing that we extract, use, manipulate and waste on a daily basis originates in nature and therefore the solutions to the problems we have created are also found in ecosystem-compatible uses of nature. Especially for small islands, the finite nature of resources is glaring in the small land space and their expansive potential in the blue ocean space. We must therefore learn from the last 50 years and this current shared experience to deliberately protect and preserve our natural resources and commit to using them in sustainable ways. Biodiversity and nature-based solutions are better for our world.
Danielle Evanson heads of the Sustainable Solutions and Energy Cluster, UNDP Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean