In 2020, the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has raged through the world like a wildfire, infecting tens of millions, killing hundreds of thousands, and bringing the world, as we know it, to a halt. Much of the world has been in lockdown and economies have stuttered and faltered. While people were shut [...]


A time for change


In 2020, the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has raged through the world like a wildfire, infecting tens of millions, killing hundreds of thousands, and bringing the world, as we know it, to a halt. Much of the world has been in lockdown and economies have stuttered and faltered.

While people were shut in their houses, the Earth heaved a sigh of relief. Scientists dubbed ‘this period of reduced human mobility’ the ‘anthropause.’ Peacocks ventured out in New Delhi; ducks waddled through the Place Colette in Paris; mountain goats wandered through Llandudno, in Wales; and dolphins frolicked in the Ganges. The waters in the polluted canals of Venice and the mighty Ganges River became cleaner. The hazy sky seen from my balcony cleared, as it did in China, India, Italy, Spain, and the USA.

Nature showed us how easy it was to reverse the destruction we had wreaked on her. We could have heeded her. We should have heeded her. Environmentalists and conservation biologists hoped that the anthropause — that ‘transported us back to levels of human mobility observed a few decades — not centuries — ago’ would show us how minor adjustments in our daily lives could have enormous environmental benefits, so that we may live in harmony with the myriad other species on Earth.

We should have heeded Nature, but we did not. We should have learned our lessons, but we did not.

As Sri Lanka’s curfew eased, we read about the battle for Vidattaltivu Nature Reserve, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Wildlife Conservation in the Mannar District. Viddattaltivu is the largest patch of shoreline mangroves in Sri Lanka. There is ample evidence to show that coastal ecosystems serve as physical barriers to protect coastal communities from extreme weather events. Mangroves absorb loads of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are also the nurseries for commercially important fish. The list goes on. Despite the importance of conserving these mangroves, and despite an integrated strategic environmental assessment that highlighted the importance of conserving this expanse of mangroves, there is now a proposal to de-gazette part of the reserve and to use the area to set up a 1,000 ha aquaculture park. Currently, a suite of prominent environmental NGOs, environmentalists and conservation biologists are protesting very strongly against this proposed development.

It seems as if we are replaying the struggle to save Sinharaja — the largest remaining patch of primary lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka— but in a different place. Remember, in the 1960s, there was a proposal to log the forests in Sabaragamuwa Province, including Sinharaja, for their timber? Then too,there was a public outcry from prominent environmental NGOs, environmentalists and conservation biologists, who showed that the forest was important not only for the wealth of flora and fauna that it housed (many of them found nowhere else in the world), but also for the protection of watersheds of the Gin Ganga and Kalu Ganga; conservation of soil and water; and the absorption of carbon dioxide from its verdant canopy. A commission was established, which acknowledged that there would be extensive environmental damage, the project was halted, the logging company lost, and now Sinharaja is a World Heritage Site and a national Wilderness Area.

I am a conservation biologist and for the last 27 years, I have been writing about or editing documents on biodiversity —about species and about ecosystems. Often, I write ‘Prime among the threats to our natural wealth is habitat destruction,’ and then pause, for I know I have written this phrase so many times before. I write again and again about habitat destruction, again and again about overexploitation and pollution; I caution about invasive alien species and emphasise the overarching negative impacts of climate change.I write about the need for sustainable use and sustainable development. I recommend over and over again that we must create more awareness, have inter-sectoral collaboration, stronger enforcement of laws and must mainstream biodiversity conservation.

And then, again and again, some part of our natural capital is threatened with destruction for development.

It is a process that we live through over and over again.

What we saw in relation to the environment during lockdown was indeed an anthropause, just a pause, just a blink — because for decades and decades, environmental issues have been and are repeatedly pitted against development. We conservationists and environmentalists must find a way break this cycle and show that environmental issues are integral and not peripheral to development,and that they ensure that development remains sustainable. We need to show that conserving ecosystem well-being assures human well-being. We need to show our decision-makers that we have been and are living through environmental crises —although those that are, as Ngwenya and his co-authors, in 2020, called ‘chronic, long-term crises. . . that are less visible and continue to worsen. We have failed to generate appropriate, long-term strategies to deal with these chronic crises although there has been a much better worldwide response to the acute crisis of COVID-19.

With the advent of the third decade of the 21st century, biologists are realising that we have repeatedly failed to meet global biodiversity targets. At the well-known Rio Summit in 1992, world leaders signed the multilateral treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity. A decade later, parties to the Convention committed to achieve, by 2010, a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss. The milestone came and went with a continuing loss of biodiversity. In 2010, the signatories to the Convention formulated 20 global biodiversity targets for 2020 (known as the Aichi targets). These also have not been achieved successfully. For climate change, in Paris, in 2010, many countries pledged (in the Paris Accord) to try to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C, but this target, again, has not been met. So,biodiversity continues to decrease, in tandem with the impacts of climate change, which continue to increase.

Biologists are now calling for attempts to flatten these environmental curves in the same way that governments have attempted to flatten COVID-19 infection curves. ‘The pandemic highlights that early action and acknowledgement of a crisis improves outcomes,’ state Ngwenya and his co-authors. Similarly, they say that ‘we must accept that our environmental predicament is a crisis and urgently address its chronic underlying causes, not just its symptoms.’

These biologists state that we are at a ‘critical moment in history.’We can go on with business as usual, fighting the same environment battles over and over again, repeating the same rhetoric over and over again, or we can find a new way to engage our decision-makers to understand that ecosystem well-being and human well-being are inter-twined.

As Greta Thunberg said ‘Sometimes we just simply have to find a way. The moment we decide to fulfil something, we can do anything. And I’m sure the moment we start behaving as if we were in an emergency, we can avoid climate and ecological catastrophe. Humans are very adaptable: we can still fix this. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We must start today. We have no more excuses.’

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