The world has been thrust into a global health and economic crisis that will reverberate long after COVID-19 has passed. In the midst of all this, wildlife and the environment, often taking a back seat when economic policies are being discussed, are emerging as some of the ways through which the world could course correct. People are waking up to the fact that we can no longer treat the environment as an afterthought without suffering devastating consequences — we need to let nature thrive.
It is no secret that the recent events experienced from every corner — be it zoonotic diseases, cyclones, or locust migrations — are all a result of increased human pressure on natural resources over the years.
This year’s World Environment Day calls for a deep reflection on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on biodiversity and conservation, as well as the role of tropical biologists and conservationists in a world undergoing rapid change during and after a public health crisis. It also provides an opportunity for driving the momentum and public awareness of nature as a key aspect of sustainable development models.
Africa’s political and economic vulnerability means it is disproportionately affected by the effects of biodiversity loss. Instances of hunger and natural disasters are becoming, unsurprisingly, ever more common. According to United Nations-Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and models, Africa will be the most affected continent due to global climate change.
Believing in Africa also means believing in, you, young people. Africa is a teenager; the median age in sub-Saharan Africa is 19 years. By the year 2050, the number of people in Africa aged between 15-24 will double, making it the youngest continent in the world.
You must interrogate development plans that rob you of national parks, forests and iconic species because you now understand that your very health depends on the health of these natural ecosystems.
We cannot develop proper structures to address biodiversity loss in Africa without working with local communities to ensure that our efforts are not only informed but also shaped by local needs and experiences. Leveraging indigenous knowledge and experience with nature is not just common sense, it is good science. In the definitive Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report produced by the United Nations last year, scientists found that although the world is losing biodiversity at unprecedented rates, and that over 1 million species are facing extinction, lands managed by indigenous communities continue to thrive and suffer the least degradation.
Successful community ownership and management depend on communities working together with the local government under a shared vision, which is empowered by enabling national frameworks. Policies either provide enabling structures for or barriers to the rights of communities to access resources.
As rightly put by African Wildlife Foundation Trustee, His Excellency Hon. Benjamin Mkapa, former President, Republic of Tanzania, "As humanity, we must start to see nature as our insurance policy against diseases like COVID-19. It lays bare the consequences of neglecting nature and thinking that human health and economic development are separate from it. Rich and healthy biodiversity and ecosystems provide us with food, medicines, wood energy, and one of the scarcest resources of all, clean water."
As we join together in celebrating World Environment Day, the challenge remains: how will Africa align today’s development goals and blueprints and marshal the various interests they represent to ensure wildlife has a robust future in modern Africa? You cannot talk about a modernizing Africa without acknowledging the very real issues of growing population pressure on fast diminishing land resources fueled by the conversion of wildlife habitats into settlement areas and the hunger for subterranean minerals.
AWF is tackling this challenge, still, the commitment must come from a multitude of stakeholders — governments, industry leaders, private sector and civil society — all working together to make Africa more sustainable.