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Covid-19 pandemic, a dire warning about current biodiversity condition, researchers say

Elephants in ‘WWF Flying Squad’ are tasked with patrolling Tesso Nilo National Park and minimizing human-elephant conflict in Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Source: Flore de Preneuf / World Bank

April 22, 2020

By May Rahmadi

On April 22, the world marks Earth Day, but this year the celebrations took a different turn. There were none of the multitude of actions that usually fill this day. Instead, the earth, and all its inhabitants, are recuperating.

The Corona virus that is behind the Covid-19 pandemic has already infected more than 2.5 million people across the world. This virus has been rapidly spreading from one region to the other, from a country to the other and has even crossed continents. This virus is changing everything.

This new disease’s emergence is due to a number of factors. From development activities which were not environment-friendly to the rapid growth of the population.

In short, academics and scientists say that the rise of various epidemics have been closely linked to the conditions of biodiversity. This includes Covid-19. Epidemiologist from University of Indonesia, Tri Yunis Miko Wahyono explains that the cyclical rotation of nature was behind the rise of new viruses.

“Emerging diseases or new emerging diseases are diseases that have been affecting humans in the past two decades. So this is a new emerging disease. The causes are numerous, such as environmental changes, rising temperatures because of climate change, change in human behavior—eating everything—and travel widely ,” Wahyono told Ekuatorial.com, on Saturday (18/4).

The head of the epidemiology department of the Faculty of Public Health at University of Indonesia said that it was undeniable that the emergence of a new virus signaled changes taking place in nature. Changes in environment, in the food chain, in behavior, consumption patterns, to changes in the hosts of the disease, the agents that carry the virus.

When everything changes, it would prompt living beings, up to the smallest ones, to also mutate. “If there are small beings that mutate, there will certainly be changes taking place in nature. A change in the food chain, if the food chain changes, the players would also change,” Wahyono said.

The first case of the new corona virus first emerged in Wuhan, China, towards the end of December 2019. A number of researchers strongly suspected that the virus came from one of the markets that sold various animals.

Wahyono suspected that the virus could also spread and mutate through trading. “The possibility is that because the animal was given another type of food, a new virus grew and then human ate the animal. So, this can infect humans. Trading can also spread people around. But it also can come from the agriculture sector, from genetic engineering,” he said.

Hariadi Kartodiharjo, an expert in environmental policies who is also an academic with the Bogor Agriculture Institute (IPB), believed that the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 was similar with any other viruses. He said that the loss of nature services in the form of biodiversity will lead to imbalance in the population.

The severed natural chain and the destruction of habitats caused by exploitation is pushing wild animals to get closer and closer to the human population and this could increase the likelihood of zoonotic viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 to make the inter-species leap and turn humans into carriers.

“So, such principles could actually take place in nature – if snakes or eagles are being hunted down, the population of rats and mice would grow because they are the food of these carnivores. What would happen in nature would be wider because it would also include the relations between biodiversity – plants and animals – with the virus and that unique landscape,” the professor in forestry sciences at IPB told Ekuatorial.com, on Sunday (19/4).

Zoonotic diseases are spread from animals to human and this condition could lead to an epidemic of infectious and dangerous disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that around 75 percent of new diseases are zoonotic.

When the environment is not a priority

Kartodiharjo said that the effects of nature or environmental services were not yet considered when decisions or policies are being formulated and he believed this was because environmental damage cannot only not be ascertained but also cannot be concretely seen. Unlike effects seen on the economic sector.

“If inflation rises, for example, the authorities will immediately act to put it under control, in the monetary and fiscal contexts. And when this is done, the benefits are also clear because when these steps are take, inflation rate would drop in a few days,” Kartodiharjo said.

But with biodiversity, the impact was complex and the links between damage and effect often cannot be viewed in a linear manner.

But this is not the case with biodiversity and its complex impacts. Between the damage and the effects it creates, cannot often be seen linearly.

“For example, people who destroy forests in Papua are from Jakarta, Singapore or other regions, we can see that the impact is not felt by them but by the people in Papua,” say Kartodiharjo.

And even though it is unclear when the impact of environmental biodiversity will take place, the one thing that is certain is that there will be impacts. Losses due to the destruction of nature or environmental services cannot be seen with bare eyes.

“Even if we know, for example, that the destruction of protected forest would lead to floods, but people would ask when would the floods come? Nobody knows. It could be in four, five or even ten years. Nobody knows and therefore that is why environmental matters need to be put within a context of ethics,” Kartodiharjo said.

Hariadi adds, that is why environmental problems cannot be brought merely in the context of mere rationality or calculation but rather to ethics in their application. For example, the principle of prudence in the use of natural resources.

This condition is further made complex because the government does not yet see environmental damage related to biodiversity as a form of state loss. Kartodiharjo found that there are at least two regulations – the Law on the Financial Audit Board and the Law on State Treasury – that define state losses as a shortage of money, security bonds and goods.

“So, state losses within this constellation, do not include losses in natural services in the form of loss in biodiversity. If this happens, then this would not encourage the protection of biodiversity as the state itself puts no price on it,” he said.

Meanwhile the deterioration of biodiversity is increasingly real, Hariadi adds, citing a number of researches.

A report by Daniel Cleary and Lyndon Devantier entitled ‘Indonesia: Threats to The Country’s Biodiversity’, for example, said that almost 90 percent of the land of Indonesia was covered in natural forest in 1880. But a century later, in 1980, the country had already lost 25 percent of that forest cover and at present, more than 50 percent of that forest cover was already degraded.

The head of the conservation science unit with WWF Indonesia, Thomas Barano says that the society’s excessive consumption of wild animals, which are part of biodiversity, contributes to the emergence of zoonotic diseases. He estimated that if exploitation continues, there would be a decline in the population of animals that are being traded.

“This is because there is no balance between population recovery and the catching (of animals),” Barano told Ekuatorial on Tuesday (21/4.)

“From year to year, the illegal exploitation of wild animals continue to take place and this of course will continue to pressure of their population. The change taking place is in the expansion of methods in trading in wild animals – from animal markets to trade events,” he added.

Barano hopes that there would be an increase in supervision and control over the illegal trading of wildlife so exploitation can be curbed.

He said that if policies are not improved, he worries that the worst case scenario in the depletion of biodiversity will continue to produce new diseases. “Of course this will increase the opportunity for new zoonotic disease to emerge because the human consumption pattern that is excessively exploitative, and that will disturb the balance in the ecosystem,” Baranao adds.

The biennale report of the WWF analyzed the most general threat factors faced by 8,500 species which survival are threatened or are almost extinct. The finding was that the largest engine behind the loss of biodiversity were excessive exploitation and agriculture, exacerbated by the rapid growth in human consumption.

“From all plants, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammalia species that have become extinct since 1500 AD, 75 percent were because of excessive exploitation or agriculture activities, or both,” the report said.

In the past decades, the report said that human activities also led to a bad impact on natural resources and also the habitat of wildlife. The WWF report stressed that every benefit enjoyed by people were because of nature. Nature will always be needed by humans to survive and develop.

WWF said that there is an increasing number of research that shows how important nature was for humans and other beings. Its value was priceless and it fulfilled needs for health, food,even security, of all living beings.

“It is estimated that globally, nature provides for needs or services worth about 125 trillion annually. Governments, businessmen and financial authorities are now questioning the global risks of environmental damage such as pressure on agricultural land, water supply, extreme weather, all of which affects economical performance, the macro economy of countries, and the financial sector,” the report detailed.

Meanwhile data from the Indonesian Ministry of the Environment and Forestry is showing that there are 552 conservation areas covering 27.4 million hectares. At the species level, data from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) said that in 2014 there were 1,500 species of algae, 80,000 species of fungi, 595 species of moss, 2,197 species of ferns and between 30,000 and 40,000 species of seed plants. While fauna diversity covered 8,157 species.

In relations to the management of plants and wildlife, the Director for Biodiversity Conservation at the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry, Indra Exploitasia, said that the government has targeted an increase in the population of 25 species by up to 10 percent in the past five years.

“On average, the rise in population of 25 priority animal species that are threatened with extinction, is at 2.91 percent from 2015 to 2016. From 2016 to 2017, it rose by 5.41 percent. Up until 2018, the population of 19 priority species rose by more than 10 percent,” Exploitasia told Ekuatorial.com pon Tuesday (21/4.)

These priority species included the Sumatran elephant, rhinoceros, gibbon, orangutan and the Javanese hawk-eagle. Exploitasia did not dismiss that the conditions of the biodiversity was linked to the emergence of new viruses but said that the relations between the two were much too complex.

A number of news reports have speculated that the consumption of wild animals by people may have been one of the causes for the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“This hypothesis may have some truth to it, but the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic could have been a complex process. At least 80 percent of the diseases that infect humans come from animals while about 75 percent of new diseases or infectious disease in humans are caused by microbes coming from animals,” Exploitasia said.

She said that there are many opinions saying that new diseases are almost always emerge from illegal encroachment into forests or other environmentally damaging human activities. The changes in demography and living space – such as the loss of forest barriers that buffer humans from wild animals – had the potentials of being the cause behind the rise in contacts between human and wildlife. And some of these wildlife may be virus carriers.

“Besides that, the interaction between humans and wildlife, such as poaching, conflicts between animals and humans, and the consumption of wildlife, also contributed to the emergence of new diseases,” she added.

Therefore, safeguarding the conservtaion of biodiversity is very important, Exploitasia said. She goes on to explain that biodiversity has been integrated and became a component in the process of planning, budgeting, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs, and the national development.

“At present the Ministry of Environment and Forestry is currently planning a presidential instruction on the mainstreaming of biodiversity in the development of a sustainable national development in various sectors. Up until now, there are no regulation that concerns development and the usage of areas outside of forest areas that take into consideration the aspect of wildlife distribution and reduces the negative impact on the room for movement of the wildlife,” she said.

A global trend

The trend of destruction is not only taking place in Indonesia, it’s also at the global scale. “A research entitled ‘How Biodiversity Loss is hurting Our Ability to Combat Pandemic” showed that in the last 100 years, more than 90 percent of plant varieties have disappeared. And between 1980 and 2013, there is the development where 12,012 types of epidemics claimed 40,000 cases of individual victims.” Kartodiharjo said.

Therefore, based on numerous data and research, the conditions in Indonesia and the world, have entered the threatened stage. But again, various policies do not provide enough portion to take biodiversity into consideration.

And that is why, Kartodiharjo adds, development concept must be reviewed, so that they do not only consider certain aspects but adopting a holistic approach.

“For Indonesia, the logic is still ancient – as shown by the two laws that I mentioned as examples earlier. The logic is still very monolithic. Economy is economy, accountancy is accountancy, this is of course true in their own respective constellation. It is not wrong, But when we look at the actual conditions of natural resources, then there is the problem of injustice and so forth, then it will not be enough to handle it in a mono-disciplinary way, it should be trans-disciplinary,” Kartodiharjo said.

A cross-disciplinary approach which sees human health and the surrounding nature as a unity, had already emerged since the early 19th century. This unity concept known as One health, was aimed at creating an optimal health for mankind, animals, the environment or the ecosystem.

If we don’t shift from this (monolithic logic), Kartodiharjo is concerned that the jolts caused by the destruction of biodiversity would no longer by controllable, by the government or any other party, because it could not be matched by the existing capacity.

The Club of Rome – a gathering of scientists, governments and entrepreneurs which regularly publishes reports – also said the same thing. One of its reports, “A Green Reboot After the Pandemic” said that the Covid-19 pandemic should be call to awareness or some sort of warning sign that the logging of forests, biodiversity loss, or climate change, need to be part of models in choosing economic systems.

“Imagine if the economic system continues to proceed like it is today, damaging the biodiversity further, then there’s now way of knowing how many new types of Covid will come up. Therefore, the term is, it is a wake up call, a warning that our knowledge on economic systems are outdated and we should think anew,” Kartodiharjo said.

This was echoed by Wahyono. Even though he recognizes that changes in nature is a given, safeguarding the biodiversity must be made certain. “The concept is, the balance in biodiversity should be safeguarded. Because if there is nobody safeguarding this, the apocalypse will come fast,” Wahyono said.

“Because once there is a change, and it is a serious environmental change, then living beings will also change. Be that small living beings such as viruses or bacteria, they will definitively change. So the biodiversity changes first, then living things will change and humans will change,” he said. Ekuatorial.


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