Time to heal: Why restoring ecosystems is essential to human health
Vincent Sweeney, Didier Trebucq
26 July 2021
2030 Agenda and the SDGs
The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration has begun. The UN has appealed to leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean — a region containing seven of the most biodiverse countries in the world — to scale up commitments made to restore our much-needed ecosystems. This plea comes as Caribbean countries brace for an active hurricane season.
Excellent work has been done to reverse the ongoing degradation of ecosystems in the Caribbean. The painful truth, however, is that those efforts are falling short.
All across Latin America and the Caribbean, countries have pledged to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, and they are working diligently to mitigate the effects of future crises. For this work to be fruitful, we must prioritize the recovery and restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity.
At this year’s Forum of Ministers of Environment for Latin America and the Caribbean, which took place in February in Barbados, governments agreed to a ten-year Action Plan that prioritizes conservation, restoration and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems in the region. The Plan is aligned with the goals of the recently-launched UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
Ecosystems as a basis for adapting and for reducing risk
The interaction of living and nonliving things in an ecosystem is extraordinarily complex. Everything from insects to trees to water to rocks to birds to land animals to moss or sand or air or humans are in relationship with one another. Humans and everything we do and build are part of ecosystems, too, and we in turn are affected by them.
When ecosystems are thrown out of balance, notably by human behavior, they need time to heal or restore—they need to be protected. The less they are protected, the worse the results for everything in that ecosystem, including for human beings in the short- and long-term.
There is a known overlap (see page 156 at) in the application and results of Ecosystem-based Disaster Risk Reduction and Ecosystem Based Adaptation. Ecosystem-based Disaster Risk Reduction encompasses both climate-related events such as hurricanes and flooding, and non-climate-related hazards such as volcano eruptions and earthquakes. As a result, Ecosystem-based Disaster Risk Reduction will also contribute to our global effort to adapt to climate-change-induced extreme weather events. A response that prioritizes environmental recovery and regeneration after a disaster event will reduce the impact of future similar occurrences.
Responses to disasters — from the global coronavirus pandemic to the recent eruption of the La Soufriere volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines — have shown how we must protect biodiversity and ecosystems in our recovery efforts. That protection must be a top priority. In doing so, we will build resilience for the future.
Ecosystem-based disaster-risk reduction is an essential tool in reducing the damage caused by environmental and ecological disasters. It has been proven that nature can provide the best defences from the potential disastrous effects that extreme weather events can have on our lives. For example, mangrove forests, an essential element of many Caribbean ecosystems, can prevent coastal flooding, while coral reefs break big waves before they hit the shore, minimising coastal erosion. Prioritising reforestation can prevent future flooding and mudslides. The list goes on.
As a region that is prone to disasters such as hurricanes and flooding, the effects of which become more intense as climate change worsens, the Caribbean must meet this challenge to protect and restore our ecosystems.
Ecosystems, biodiversity, and human health
The recent effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on our lives and livelihoods should be a wakeup call for us all to rethink our relationship with the environment. “Environmental degradation and human health” are closely linked, says the Bridgetown Declaration, the statement issued in February by the Forum of Ministers of Environment of Latin America & the Caribbean. For proof of this connection, we need not look far. Shrinking natural habitats for animals have created ideal conditions for pathogens such as the coronavirus to spread.
For that reason alone, restoring ecosystems should be at the heart of our efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent other disease outbreaks. Fortunately, governments of the Caribbean have committed to building back better and are putting ecosystem restoration at the heart of their green recovery.
This is as it must be.
We all rely on nature for our survival. Neglecting to act to save our ecosystems will have far reaching effects for everyone on the planet.
The Sustainable Development Goals
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration continues until 2030, which is also the deadline for the SDGs. This is no coincidence. Ecosystem restoration is vital to these goals, particularly those most directly related to climate change, poverty, and biodiversity, and the sustainable use of ecosystems for our livelihoods and economies.
We can achieve a biologically diverse, prosperous ecosystem that supports sustainable development. Our success may depend on how well we integrate ecosystem restoration into our recovery efforts as we build back greener together.
We need to act decisively. The cost of inaction is far too great for both people and planet.
This blog is by Vincent Sweeney, Head of the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office for UN Environment Programme, and Didier Trebucq, UN Resident Coordinator for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, with editorial support by Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office. To learn how the strengthened UN Resident Coordinator system is advancing climate action and other areas of the 2030 Agenda, please visit the Leadership section of the UNSDG Chair Report on DCO.