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Time to renew the relationship between people and nature

Today we are celebrating Earth Day, one of the world’s largest civic movements committed to mobilizing people to tackle the most urgent challenges of our time from climate change to biodiversity loss.

Earth Day comes at a time when we are in the midst of the COVID-19 global health crisis that has infected over 2.5 million people and killed over 175,000 people worldwide. The COVID-19 pandemic has swept through countries and continents causing untold human suffering, social upheaval and economic damage. Our thoughts are with the families who have lost loved ones; with those individuals who are sick and the health workers who are on the frontline of fighting this pandemic. At this time more than ever, we need to stand in solidarity as a global community for humanity.

While the spread of the current crisis is unprecedented, the new coronavirus follows a growing trend of similar diseases that have emerged in recent decades, such as Ebola, AIDS, SARS, avian influenza and swine flu, all originated in animals. There is increasing evidence that humanity’s overexploitation of nature is one of the factors behind the spread of new diseases.

Today’s health crisis highlights the urgent need for an in-depth reflection on the relationship between human beings and nature, the risks associated with current economic development pathways, and how we can better protect ourselves and enhance our resilience to future pandemics.

The need for development, and the rapid transformation of natural ecosystems across the continent to meet the needs of a growing population, coupled with accelerating urbanization and rising global integration increase Africa’s vulnerability to the emergence and impact of future outbreaks.

Africa now has the fastest-growing and youngest human population of any region in the world — leading to accelerated use of forests and other natural resources for essential sources, food, traditional medicine, and trade.

Furthermore, habitat loss and changes in land use, driven largely by the expansion of human settlements and agricultural lands, are increasing the potential for the emergence of new diseases and undermining the resilience of communities that depend on natural resources and ecosystem services.

While the relationship between habitat loss, wildlife trade, and the risk of the emergence of new diseases is increasingly clear, the challenges around managing this interaction is more nuanced where communities depend directly on natural resources. For example, bushmeat accounts for up to 80 percent of the protein intake of people in many parts of Africa especially in West and Central Africa. Up to 6 million tons of bushmeat are extracted from the Congo Basin each year. Accra, the capital of Ghana, is home to more than one million fruit bats and hunting and sales are important economic activities.

In order to prevent future pandemics and enhance the resilience of local communities, we must adopt an integrated approach that prioritises conservation and sustainable use of natural resources to address the ongoing high rate of habitat loss, including deforestation, while ensuring the nutritional and dietary needs of the rural poor are safely met, especially where communities rely on wild species for protein.

Today on Earth Day, we call on African leaders to come together to secure a New Deal for Nature and People that prioritises a coordinated approach across human and environmental health. This will require robust action across disciplines and concerted commitment from policymakers, conservationists, scientists, and health experts to curtail future pandemics and ensure we protect the natural resources that are the foundation for our lives and livelihoods.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!

Wangari Maathai would have celebrated her 80th birthday April 1st, 2020. In her December 10, 2004 Nobel Lecture she said: “We are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own — indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.

This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process. In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

Happy Earth Day!

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