People and nature: lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic

People and nature: lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic

May 29, 2020

People and nature: lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic

Sandra Díaz and Eduardo Brondizio, co-chairs of the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, help us to understand the reasons behind and consequences of the new coronavirus pandemic.


Future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today” experts from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) wrote in an Expert Guest Article recently published. “Most immediately we need to ensure that the actions being taken to reduce the impacts of the current pandemic aren’t themselves amplifying the risks of future outbreaks and crises” they added.

How did humans contribute to the origin and the spreading of the pandemic?

Sandra Díaz. Viral diseases are part of nature, but the fact that a coronavirus that likely originated in forests of South Asia and lived there without causing any major harm has now infected more than 4 million people all over the world is definitely caused by our activities. This is because we are opening up ecosystems where the fauna was never before in touch with humans so closely and so frequently. We do this for example by expanding the agricultural, forestry and mining frontiers into previously unfragmented ecosystems, such as forests and swamps.

Wild animals are hunted or trapped and kept under crowded conditions in markets, often many wild species, domestic species and people very close to each other, under appalling conditions of hygiene.This gives the perfect conditions for the viruses to mutate and jump from its original hosts to new hosts, including domestic animals and people. The wildlife trade is an excellent vehicle for pathogens to spread around the world. Besides, once a virus can infect domestic animals, factory farming with its crowded conditions provide the perfect conditions for further spread and mutation. And, of course, once the virus acquires the capacity to infect people, with our massive transport of goods and travellers around the world it can go to one city to the other, from one continent to the other, extremely quickly.

Which are the most vulnerable populations in this pandemic? 

Sandra Díaz. I would say that pandemic is not “egalitarian”. Quite to the contrary: clearly, the virus is hitting more those that have positions of less power in societies like the poor, the old, the ethnic minorities. It tends to affect people who are more in direct touch with wild animals, especially if they have poor sanitation. And once it spreads around, it tends to attack much more seriously those that have pre-existing conditions. Finally, once people get sick, not everyone gets the same quality of medical care…

This pandemic is not making us all equal; I think it is very likely to exacerbate pre-existing inequalities.  

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How the choices made to face the pandemic could influence the future risk of new ones and the planetary wellbeing?

Eduardo Brondizio. The global economy has expanded 4-fold and trade 10-fold during the past 50 years, following a model of development based on intensive use of ever more distant natural resources, extensive conversion of ecosystems, and accepting pollution as a given.

This is a model that has dramatically reconfigured the biosphere and is progressively eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, health, water, and food security, and quality of life, but unequally. The analysis of development pathways during this period also shows that this model of development has largely maintained global inequalities in both the appropriation of benefits and distribution of burdens. In other words, the destruction of nature is not translating in economic development that is environmentally sustainable and socially just. Today, we are in the face of the immense and shameful predicament of rural and urban poverty and inequalities in access to infrastructure, social services, and a healthy environment.

The importance of economic subsidies is likely to grow following the pandemic. Currently, subsidies to sectors like agriculture, fisheries, mining, energy, fossil fuels and so forth, are known to create perverse incentives for wasteful, polluting, degrading, and corrupting practices.

There is an opportunity to turn these perverse subsidies into incentives towards promoting environmental and social responsibility, accountability, and transparency across entire supply chains

In many sectors, such as waste and sanitation, energy, and transportation, there are opportunities for a technological transition that lower Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, pollution, and negative impact on ecosystems. There are also opportunities to advance more preventive, adaptive, and inclusive governance approaches.  

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So, in choosing how to implement recovery and economic stimulus plans, history shows that business-as-usual economic development models will not address current problems but likely exacerbate them. 

Do you think it is possible to drastically change the actual systems? What this change should consist in? 

Eduardo Brondizio. The problems we are facing are not new, but they are ever-more compounding, and the window to avoid ever more drastic [and unequal] impact is narrowing. This is the context in which we talk about transformative change and the importance of the coming decade for society to come to grasp with confronting the inter-related challenges of sustainable development, climate change, and biodiversity.  

When we refer to transformative change, we are considering a combination of advancing existing efforts as well as both promoting incremental and systemic changes in economic and financial systems and sectors such as agricultural and industrial production, resource management, infrastructure development, as well as consumption. The IPBES Global Assessment (GA) presents pathways and management approaches, sectoral and cross-sectoral, to reconcile food production in land and water, restoration and conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems, climate change mitigation, and energy and infrastructure. Knowledge and experiences exist, many efforts are underway.

Specifically, the GA calls for the deployment of existing instruments and better coordination of policies across levels and sectors. It is important to recognize, replicate and scale successful policies and projects

It is important to remember that promoting these changes call for inclusive and integrated governance in urban and rural areas, including recognizing and supporting the contributions of Indigenous peoples and local communities who held and manage a significant portion of the terrestrial global area where some of the most conserved ecosystems are still present. 

More broadly, there is a need to incorporate natural capital and internalize environmental and social impacts into financial and economic decision-making and promote mechanisms to monitor responsibility, accountability, and transparency throughout the supply chain, from production to consumption. 

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