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Lily Shrestha & Nabin Bhattarai
4 mins Read
Human-nature interactions shape and re-shape our world. Nature and its resources provide varied benefits to humans and contribute to sustainable development. However, unsustainable human activities have led to overexploitation of natural resources resulting in environmental degradation, deforestation, biodiversity loss, loss of ecosystem services, and climate change. In addition to global and national efforts to conserve critical ecosystems through protected areas, there is also a need to halt degradation by taking actions that assist the recovery of degraded, damaged, and destroyed ecosystems at scale. Ecosystem restoration can contribute to biodiversity conservation, regulate and enhance the flow of ecosystem services, mitigate climate change, and improve local livelihoods.
The importance of ecosystems and their many services and the need for reversing degradation is highlighted in this year’s theme for World Environment Day, “Ecosystem restoration”, and through the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the importance of a healthy relationship with nature. The pandemic has had devastating impacts on our health, economy, environment, and society. A zoonotic virus, and its mutants, has caused major loss of lives and livelihoods across the globe. Several restrictions on mobility and economic activities to curb the pandemic has led to economic crises, increasing poverty and food insecurity, and compounded the increased difficulties for already vulnerable communities in the HKH region.
The pandemic and associated restrictions have also had major environmental impacts in the HKH region. The loss of jobs in urban areas has led to reverse migration from cities to rural areas. As a result, mountain communities have become more reliant on forests and forest products for income and subsistence, consequently leading towards over-exploitation of the natural resources. There is also an apprehension that deforestation, increased poaching, and illegal hunting of wild animals may increase, especially if the loss of livelihoods continues into the near future. Some parts of the HKH region have already reported cases of increased illegal hunting and logging. With decreased human and financial resources, there have been limited efforts directed at addressing these new conservation challenges.
On the other hand, restrictions on movement and economic activities have opened little windows of hope and drawn global attention to the potential for green growth and for restoring the relationship between humans and nature. Many countries saw a temporary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, improvements in air and water quality, reduced noise pollution, and reduced human interference and disturbance in parks and protected areas. These short-term gains showed that planning our economic activities, consumption, and production in a more environment-friendly manner can lead to sustainable development and improve the quality of life. This proof of concept may also encourage a move away from business as usual to green recovery pathways that help restore nature, halt ecosystem degradation, and combat climate change and biodiversity loss.
To balance human-nature interactions and maintain long-term economic, social, and environmental sustainability, we need to plan and implement integrated economic and ecosystem recovery strategies. A sustainable strategy would be to adopt nature-based solutions, which the IUCN defines as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”. Some examples of nature-based solutions include restoring springsheds to improve water security and address the drying up of springs across the HKH, or managing invasive species to conserve biodiversity and improve ecosystem goods and services. Adopting nature-based solutions for economic and ecosystem restoration can help local communities and economies build resilience to future shocks, strengthen domestic production, and address a range of environmental issues.
The HKH region, in particular, can adopt and promote nature-based solutions and interventions in the forestry, agriculture, energy, and tourism sectors. To harness the dividends of nature-based solutions, we must first manage our natural resource base by taking actions that link principles of environmental sustainability with livelihood improvement. One such action is sustainable forest management, which is crucial for the HKH given that a quarter of the region is under forest cover. Activities such as afforestation, agro-forestry, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), and community-based forest conservation offer nature-based solutions to improve food and nutrition security by supporting livelihoods, restoring jobs and providing green employment opportunities, while also contributing to ecosystem restoration. The success of community forestry in Nepal has demonstrated the potential for achieving the dual goals of ecosystem restoration and improved livelihoods. These efforts should also be tied to creating awareness on the subject and implementing strict laws to protect wildlife habitat and regulate wildlife trade. Utilization of the extremely rich agro-biodiversity of the HKH region through sustainable and environmental friendly agriculture practices such as organic farming, and promoting resilient small-scale mountain farming with high value and nutritious mountain crops, are other opportunities for integrated economic and environmental recovery.
Tourism also contributes significantly to the lives and economy of HKH countries. The sector has suffered immensely due to the pandemic and restoring it through ecotourism can help sustain the mountain economy and livelihoods, alongside ecosystem restoration and biodiversity conservation. Greater investments in renewable energy production such as sustainable hydropower and solar power could be additional avenues to boost green recovery, create green job opportunities, and revive national economies. Entrepreneurship around agriculture, forestry, tourism, and energy can enhance resilience for mountains communities, and provides governments and stakeholders with the opportunity to rebuild and move towards a green economy.
However, uptake and scaling of nature-based solutions in various sectors is only possible through strong policy support and investments in green recovery. Solutions that help to restore degraded ecosystems and biodiversity, build ecosystem resilience, and improve local livelihoods should also be promoted through fiscal policies, incentives, and employment guarantee programmes among others. Nature-based rebuilding strategies could assist in overturning years of biodiversity and ecosystem losses, while also reviving the income and livelihood of dependent communities, contributing to sustainable post-pandemic economic recovery, and benefitting generations, both now and in the future.
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