Revaluing biodiversity amid a global health and economic crisis

05/22/20
Andrea Athanas

May 22 marks the International Day for Biological Diversity. Themed “Our solutions are in nature,” it is a day to reflect on the importance of healthy natural ecosystems in our lives. But we are in the throes of a global pandemic — no nation or community is unscathed by the impacts of the COVID-19 virus. Governments all over the world are grappling with a highly communicable respiratory disease, instituting lockdowns and stay-at-home orders for millions of people. The ensuing economic crisis has exposed both the fragility and resilience of our socio-ecological systems.

As producers and consumers contend with severed transport routes, closed borders, a diminished workforce, and weaker markets, economies that were brought to a grinding halt and are only slowly, cautiously starting to come back. We are already seeing the knock-on effects. Across Africa, travel and transport disruptions in March triggered the near-total collapse of the wildlife tourism industry which is a mainstay of funding for conservation. Park authorities and conservancies across the continent have cut operations to reduce costs, leaving wildlife exposed to the pressures of poaching. So while the pandemic has made clear that humanity is inextricably dependent on nature, it has also exposed that the way we have been managing our interaction with wildlife is putting us at risk. The interconnectedness of life on earth permeates every part of our lives — from our health and well-being to the food we eat and the shelter we take.

Even before the pandemic, 2020 was considered a landmark for biodiversity, with a renewed commitment to nature at the heart of negotiations for a global biodiversity framework culminating with nearly every nation of the world coming together under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in October. Those timelines have been pushed out by the pandemic, but what remains clear is the growing commitment among leaders to embed sustainable natural resource use into national and regional development plans. To this end, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals provide a unified measure for nations to build more resilient economies that help protect the planet. However current growth paths tend to favor extractive strategies, exposing us all to various risks, as the pandemic has shown.

Some years ago, the renowned environmental economist Pavan Sukhdev shared with me an early-stage diagram of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals stacked up like a wedding cake. This insightful model, launched by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, places ecological protection at the core of global development. Goals relating to the Biosphere (Life on Land, Life Below Water, Clean Water and Sanitation, and Climate Action) provide the foundation for Society and the Economy. Eight SDGs relate directly to Society: No Poverty, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Peace Justice and Strong Institutions, Affordable and Clean Energy, Good Health and Well-Being, Quality Education, Gender Equality, and Zero Hunger. The goals underpinning the Economy are Decent Work and Economic Growth, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, Reduced Inequalities, and Responsible Consumption and Production.

The model has always resonated with me, particularly now as it points to the opportunity we have in this time of crisis to transition our way of living on this planet to a path that will sustain not just our species, but the abundance and diversity of other species here with us.

Sustainable Development Goals wedding cake model

The wedding cake model of the Sustainable Development Goals prioritizes ecological protection (Azote Images for Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University)

Sustainable agriculture can boost Africa’s economic resilience

My life’s work has been to strengthen that foundation piece — the biosphere — and to engage partners working to improve society and the economy in ways that deliver on the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals. African Wildlife Foundation’s work in biodiversity-rich landscapes across Africa shows that there are multiple strategies to transform food systems, energy systems, and local economies such that they sustain and restore biodiversity rather than undermine it.

Our work with smallholder farmers and large agriculture conglomerates in places like Kilombero, Tanzania and the Dja Faunal Reserve in Cameroon shows how sustainable food production can protect river catchments and forest landscapes that are home to vulnerable great apes, elephants, and Africa’s iconic big cats. Our work with partners like Solar Sister demonstrates how providing renewable energy solutions through female entrepreneurship can reduce deforestation while creating economic opportunities in remote rural areas. Our experience with tourism enterprises like Rwanda’s Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, which hosts visitors from around the world in awe of Africa’s majestic wildlife and wild lands, shows how local economies can be transformed through the entrepreneurship and drive of empowered communities working with visionary business leaders.

And while we know there are ways to transform our economic systems so that they sustain society and protect and restore the biosphere, the opposite is more often what happens. Land is allocated to unscrupulous agriculture producers who clear forests and evict communities to supply an insatiable global appetite for commodities that undermine our health and well-being. Packaging from overproduction and consumption pollutes our rivers and oceans. Minerals are extracted from pits in the earth without a care for the scar that is left for generations to come. In the end, unsustainable approaches to economic growth undermine the ambitions set out by the world.

But there is a new breed of businesses that are reshaping the relationships between the economy, society, and the biosphere. These businesses are geared to contribute to the well-being of people and the protection and restoration of our natural systems. A decade ago, AWF started a modest impact investment vehicle, African Wildlife Capital, to finance enterprises that deliver tangible conservation outcomes in landscapes across Africa. Together with our partner Conservation Capital we invested USD $7 million in nine companies in the tourism and agriculture sectors to help them grow in ways that were sustainable and good for nature.

AWF learned much about impact investing through that work, and today we are scaling the approach with Okavango Capital Partners, an impact investing group specialized in conservation investments, to reach more companies, more landscapes, and more sectors of the economy so that we can play a positive role in transitioning to a development model that sustains people and the biosphere while building economic resilience.

2020 marks a turning point for humanity. COVID-19 has been a wake-up call forcing world leaders and for us all to rethink economic systems and pursue new development paths. We need to take this opportunity to double down on efforts to transition to a way of life that sustains us all.

> Find out how AWF's community-based wildlife conservation projects contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals


About the Author

Andrea Athanas is African Wildlife Foundation’s Program Design Director, Europe. Building on her background in economics, she has experience developing business practices for biodiversity conservation and advising companies such as Shell, Nestle Nespresso, and Rio Tinto on managing their environmental footprints. She has also worked at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, implementing the Business and Biodiversity Program integrate economic thinking and tools into conservation. She remains committed to advancing inclusive development strategies, bringing wildlife conservation into the transformation of African economies with a focus on agriculture and energy. Andrea is based in AWF’s Switzerland office and focuses on building strategic partnerships in Europe for AWF in her current portfolio.