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Nakul Chettri, Sunita Chaudhary & Biraj Adhikari
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Biraj Adhikari, Sunita Chaudhary & Nakul Chettri
Biodiversity is the greatest treasure we have – its diminishment is to be prevented at all cost. –Thomas Eisner
Nature is in crisis. Globally, around 25 percent of all known species of plants and animals are threatened. In 2019, bushfires in Australia are estimated to have killed one billion animals, and fires raged across 1.8 million hectares of Amazonian rainforest. In the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), 70–80% of the region’s natural habitats have been lost till date, with the figure projected to increase to 80–87% by 2100. The earth is rapidly losing its biodiversity, with current rates of extinction over 1,000 times what they were before human activity ushered in the age of extinction. This crisis – fuelled by pollution, exploitation, and over extraction of natural resources – is also impacting human wellbeing and affecting development goals.
This year’s theme for World Environment Day is biodiversity. As we dwell on our relationship with nature, let us also reflect on the value of the earth’s ecological diversity and its contributions to human wellbeing. If we are to end the crisis we’ve brought upon ourselves, we must all come together and work unitedly.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) identifies changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species as the five major drivers pushing one million species to the verge of extinction and tipping nature into a crisis.
The world, at this present time, is united in its experience of a pandemic. While the consequences of COVID-19 may have been unprecedented, its origins were not. The emergence of COVID-19 is a symptom of the earth’s ill health, and has been enabled by significant degradation of ecosystems, unsustainable resource consumption patterns, and anthropogenic pressures on biodiversity. As ecosystems degrade, agricultural pests multiply and chances of diseases jumping from wildlife to humans increase. Ecosystem degradation also means decline in provisions of food, clean water, and energy, which can negatively affect the wellbeing of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Human and natural systems are inextricably interconnected. The importance of ecosystem integrity to human wellbeing cannot be overstated. Biodiverse ecosystems and the services they provide are the foundations of human wellbeing and adaptation to change. Ecosystems have critical functions and are the basis of the complex social-ecological systems that have nurtured human civilization since its emergence. These functions and services shape humans intellectually, culturally, and spiritually, and contribute to economic growth.
In the mountains, ecosystem-, species-, and genetic-level diversity, including endemism, is higher – relatively small areas feature unique variations in geology and geomorphology as well as varied temperature and moisture gradients. Mountains cover 22% of the world’s total geographical area and are home to 13% of its population – hosting a significant proportion of distinct ethnic groups, cultural traditions, and indigenous knowledge, and providing vital services that contribute to the livelihoods of millions of people. The HKH, the highest mountain range in the world, is no exception, and exhibits high levels of natural and cultural diversity.
Covering over four million square kilometres across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Myanmar, the HKH is exceptionally diverse in ecosystems and ecosystem services. Its vast rangeland areas – some of the world’s most breathtaking stretches of wilderness, freshwater ecosystems – rich lakes and cascading rivers, and diverse agro-ecosystems – fostered and nurtured by traditional knowledge are sources of livelihoods for 240 million people living in the mountains and a further 1.65 billion living downstream. Eighty to ninety percent of the 240 million mountain people are directly dependent on ecosystem services provided by the mountains, and about one third of the world’s population benefits indirectly from them.
There is anecdotal evidence of communities taking the lead in strengthening social and ecological resilience through nature-based solutions (NbS). One such example is the conservation of crop genetic diversity by farmers in the highlands of India, through exchanging, reusing, and saving seeds. This practice saves wild varieties of crops, helping maintain food security, reducing dependence on external inputs, and ensures the survival of native species.
Traditional indigenous knowledge systems and cultural practices are vital to the integrity of ecosystems. Take the conservation of sacred groves in the Western Himalaya. The attachment of religious beliefs to these areas prevents their exploitation. NbS, incorporating traditional ecological knowledge, are also reflected in customary laws and protocols governing grazing and forest resource use as exercised by the traditional office of the Dzumsa, in North Sikkim, India.
Tourism is the mainstay of many mountain economies. By capitalizing on nature and culture, rural tourism – special interest nature tourism, and homestay initiatives in the Kangchenjunga. Far Eastern Himalaya, and other mountain landscapes – provides an opportunity for mountain people in Bhutan, India, and Nepal to earn a living from sustainable business models that integrate regional rural tourism and traditional knowledge practices with protection of the natural environment and ecosystem services.
Contributions to the long-term survival of species – enabling greater ecological integrity through connectivity and building community resilience – have also been made through the transboundary landscape approach. This approach recognizes the need for regional cooperation, knowledge, and information sharing, and coordination across landscapes defined by the dynamics of ecosystems rather than by political boundaries. The conservation of the one-horned rhinoceros and the Bengal tiger across Nepal and India are examples of successful transboundary cooperation, with nations united in a common objective – of preserving nature and their shared natural heritage.
Nature will heal if we allow it to, if we reduce the pressures we exert upon it. That nature can heal has been made evident by the unintended consequences of the present lockdowns – improvements in air quality and reductions in pollution levels have been reported the world over. The challenge, and it is a daunting one, lies in ensuring these small gains are not completely lost in a post-pandemic world. Doing so requires strong commitment – to cooperation and collaboration beyond national borders, and to developing smart strategies to cope and thrive in the future.
This World Environment Day, let us rejoice in the diversity of life on Earth and the bounty of ecosystem services that nature provides. Let us appreciate nature’s importance, and pledge to protect and manage it better – for the present and future generations.
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