On 5th June of every year, World Environment Day is celebrated. The theme for this year was biodiversity. Some of the key messages were: Protect the environment, prevent pandemics, ‘nature is sending us a clear message’. As a follow up to the World Environment Day, UNESCO MAB in Africa joined hands with the UN Environment Africa, the African Union Commission, the Africa Regional Office of the International Science Council (ISC) and the Centre for Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management at the University of Rwanda to organize a webinar on “Biodiversity and Preventing Future Pandemics in Africa” held on 17th June 2020.
Experts working in biodiversity and environmental conservation, Government ministries, university professors, lecturers and youth communities from Africa discussed a wide range of topics within this theme to: explore the reasons for protecting the remaining natural habitats in Africa; understand the relationship between ecosystem integrity and functioning and balance human interaction with the ecosystem; safeguard natural species diversity and ensure the sustainable, legal, and safe wildlife trade; and appreciate the role of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
Over 70% of infectious diseases originate from wildlife and the spread of diseases is exacerbated by wildlife trafficking, wildlife markets, habitat destruction and climate change. Climate change is also amplifying the spread of infectious diseases beyond their natural geographic ranges. UNESCO has a significant role to play in negotiating actions to prevent infectious disease spread through stimulating trans-boundary action and collaborative efforts across the region, building capacity within governments and within organizations active in sustainable development and environmental conservation.
In her Opening Remarks, Ms. Ann Therese Ndong-Jatta, the Director and Representative of the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa, welcomed all the participants and stressed the importance of using scientific facts and evidence to inform policy to help governments understand how to prioritize biodiversity conservation goals. She called for effective engagement between scientists and policymakers for evidenced-based policy decisions and conservation actions.
Dr. Mahama Ouedraogo, the Director of Human Resources, Science and Technology (HRST) of the African Union Commission (AUC), also emphasized that technologies such as earth or geographic information systems should be used to monitor disease outbreaks and provide technology solutions for decision making that help mitigate pandemics. He appealed to all the stakeholders and partners to carry out social, economic and environmental impact evaluation and assessment, and develop response strategies to COVID-19. Dr. Mahama expressed AUC’s readiness to engage and support various African groups in addressing key issues that affect the continent.
Dr. Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, the Director and Representative of the UNEP Regional Office for Africa passed on several messages in her remarks stressing the importance of biodiversity in sustainable development, and the need to harness science and African indigenous and local knowledge in confronting the major drivers of biodiversity loss such as climate change, rapid growth of population, illegal trade in wildlife, and invasive alien species. She challenged the audience to consider whether we want to learn from this pandemic or go back to our wanton and destructive ways that have left us vulnerable to zoonotic diseases.
Giving the special remarks at the webinar, Ms. Shamila Nair-Bedouelle – Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, UNESCO Paris, introduced UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme and highlighted the importance of biosphere reserves. She emphasized the need to promote joint efforts in the conservation of nature and all living things on the earth. She also expressed the need to promote youth biodiversity platforms to strengthen collaboration and training among the youth, giving them intergenerational equity to restore our biodiversity.
Biosphere reserves prevent conflicts between nations, it gives countries an opportunity to demonstrate that it is possible to live in harmony with nature; it is possible to improve the conditions for conservation of biodiversity, and it is possible to achieve a better match between preservation, scientific research, training, ecological monitoring, sustainable social-economic, and cultural values for Africa’s development
In her special remarks, Honorable Dr. Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, the Minister of Environment in the Government of Rwanda, shared the experience of how Rwanda is building a green and climate resilient nation that values and supports its biodiversity. She told the audience that Rwanda has established two new national parks to safeguard wildlife and adopted laws protecting remnant natural forests and gallery forests countrywide. She also mentioned that the Rwandan Government is mobilizing financial resources for biodiversity conservation and restoration and aims to reach 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2030, up from the current 0.9%.
Following the Opening Ceremony, a scientific session was held encompassing an array of presentations from biodiversity experts and conservation biologists. The presentations included:
- Biodiversity and Preventing Future Pandemics in Africa by Dr. Aida Cuni-Sanchez, Postdoctoral Researcher from the University of York, UK;
- The Role of Community Conservation in Avoiding the Next Pandemic by Dr. Fola Babalola, Senior Lecturer and Researcher from the University of Ilorin, Nigeria;
- COVID-19 and its impact on endangered species (Great Apes) – what can be done to manage for the future pandemic by Dr. Julius Nziza from Gorilla Doctors, Rwanda
- Integration of land use planning, climate change resiliency and adaptation planning and policy for the future pandemic preparedness by Dr. Jane Olwoch, the Executive Director of the Southern African Science Service Centre for Climate Change and Adaptive Land Management, South Africa; and
- Preventing the Next Pandemic by Prof. Beth A. Kaplin, the Acting Director of the Center of Excellence in Biodiversity & Natural Resource Management (CoEB), University of Rwanda.
The meeting recommended that Africa communities and Governments must come forward to nominate more biosphere reserves (BRs) so that the coexistence of nature and society could be maintained. BRs are the sites we can pilot and practice interdisciplinary approaches to understand and manage changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity. Following this webinar, UNESCO in collaboration with the CoEB, University of Rwanda and the Africa Regional Office of the International Science Council (ISC) will prepare a policy brief for Africa make recommendation on how biodiversity conservation can protect humanity from future pandemics.