Elephants in the Savanna-Copyright: © Shem Compion

SASSCAL participated in the high level and well-attended webinar on biodiversity and preventing future pandemics held on Wednesday 17 June 2020.  The Webinar was hosted by the  United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The minister of environment in the government of Rwanda Hon Dr Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya was the guest speaker.  She stated that pandemics like COVID-19 force us to rethink on how we manage our behaviour towards biodiversity. If we value biodiversity and respect nature, we stand a better chance as our lives depend on the services of biodiversity and nature. Hon Mujawamariya called on people to put nature at the heart of everything. She also emphasised that nature can survive without us, but we cannot survive without nature.

The SASSCAL Executive Director (ED), Dr Jane M. Olwoch, in her presentation at the webinar highlighted that all forms of life are dependent on biodiversity and ecosystems health, yet these important topics are neglected in many aspects. This dependency is evidence of the interconnection of food chains, people, animals and climate among others. Thus, the integrity of ecosystems maintains a healthy environment for both animals and humans, she noted. Dr Olwoch also showcased the interconnection of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With the COVID-19 pandemic, attainment of SDG 3 which aspires to ensure health and well-being for all, including a bold commitment to end AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other communicable diseases by 2030 has become even more urgent. The ED discussed how attaining this single SDG would contribute towards addressing other SDGs. For example, health and well-being for all is directly reliant on, no poverty (SDG 1), zero hunger (SDG 2),  quality education (SDG 4) clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), affordable clean energy (SDG 7), climate action (SDG 13) and partnerships to achieve the goals (SDG 17) among others.  Despite such evidence of interconnection, people continue to conduct research in silos resulting in duplication of efforts and wastage of resources.

central SDG 3: copyright ©Cristina Romanelli

Dr Olwoch pondered whether “at the moment, the human race could be demonstrating the peak of Hardin’s tragedy of the commons”. Climate change is not acting alone, there is high population growth, overexploitation of natural resources, rising of greenhouse gasses, and unsustainable land management practices. This results in the loss of biological diversity and thus diminishing nature’s defence system. People are indeed using and overexploiting natural resources for personal use and to their advantage without considering the good of a group, society and even future generations. The world’s carrying capacity is limited, overexploitation has a direct impact on the quality of lives. A rich biological diversity is fundamental for the protection of human health and well-being, she added.

The webinar concurred on the need for humanity to rethink its position on how to bring harmony between humans and nature. Humanity is totally dependent on the wellbeing of biodiversity as well as the attainment of international, regional and national targets like the SDGs and Africa Agenda 2063. Panellist also emphasised on the importance of indigenous knowledge towards sustainable development. There was a consensus that the African continent has many local research outputs yet there is evidence that most policies are not informed by science. The need to strengthen the science-policy interface remains crucial. For as long as there are limited conversations and insufficient dissemination of information, the continent with continue to languish in limited knowledge and uninformed policies. The webinar also called on the promotion of harmony between people and nature as well as solidarity and equity between generations.

In her closing remarks, Dr Olwoch advocated for the implementation of the vast research outcomes for the development of sustainable and resilient institutions, infrastructure, cities and countries. “There is an urgent need to prioritise land-use planning to safeguard ecosystem functioning”, she said. Climate change and ecosystem services are not localised. Strong and international partnerships are fundamental not only for preserving biodiversity and preventing future pandemics but also for addressing global challenges. Institutions must, therefore, explore new partnerships like the Future Earth Regional Office for Southern Africa  (FEROSA) that has the role to bring science and policy together.   Dr Olwoch also highlighted the need to invest and support renewable energy especially Green Hydrogen as a means of ensuring a greenhouse gases emission-free future.   She challenged the world to ‘rethink our ways and plan better’.

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