Op-Ed

World Environment Day: Ecosystem restoration is pivotal to disaster recovery and SDG progress

As World Environment Day sees the launch of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the United Nations is appealing to leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean, the region containing seven of the most biodiverse countries in the world, to scale up commitments made to restore our much-needed ecosystems.

Despite best efforts, attempts to reverse the ongoing degradation of ecosystems in the region, largely due to human activity, have been consistently coming up short. In establishing a 10-year action plan, ministers for the environment in the region have committed themselves to goals in alliance with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

The reality is, our disaster recovery efforts must prioritize the recovery and restoration of ecosystems and biodiversity, if we are to successfully achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, mitigate the effects of disasters in the future and improve the lives and livelihoods of citizens, particularly those reliant on the farming and fisheries sectors.

Latin America and the Caribbean is the second region in the world, after Antarctica, with the largest percentage of its region covered by protected areas. For instance, the Caribbean has the highest number of marine species in the Atlantic Ocean, with a large array of diverse habitats and ecosystems.

The Caribbean is also home to 12 percent of the world’s mangroves and 10 percent of the world’s coral reefs, with 90 percent endemic to the Caribbean.

However, a significant portion of dry forest and coral reefs in the region have undergone recent transformations into human dominated landscapes, and data shows that despite international agreements, regional plans and national policies, Latin America and the Caribbean are still struggling to meet goals aimed at maintaining biodiversity and conserving ecosystems.

At this year’s Forum of Ministers of Environment for Latin America and the Caribbean, governments agreed to a 10-year action plan that prioritizes conservation, restoration and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems in the region.

Aiming to reverse the negative impacts of degradation already to be found, the plan aligns itself with the goals of the recently launched UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The action plan recognizes the effort that is needed to “halt ecosystems degradation and to ensure that healthy ecosystems underpin sustainable development across the region” with a focus on new economic models that foster sustainable production and increase investment. But time is of the essence.

Disaster recovery

A critical aspect of ecosystem management and biodiversity protection is disaster risk management. Responses to disasters, ranging from the global coronavirus pandemic to the recent eruption of the La Soufrière volcano, have demonstrated how we must prioritize the protection of biodiversity and ecosystems in our recovery efforts.

We witnessed first hand how the April 9 eruption of La Soufrière in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines decimated homes, crops, and livelihoods. The humanitarian crisis resulted in a mass evacuation of people and animals from the red and orange danger zones, with over 22,300 evacuees housed in private and public shelters up to May 25.

The restoration and regeneration of forests and biodiversity was identified as critical to long-term recovery efforts. In particular, emphasis has been placed on the need to protect vulnerable endemic species, such as the St. Vincent Amazon parrot, which suffers significantly under loss of habitat caused by natural disasters such as this volcanic eruption.

The environmental disaster, which coincides with ongoing efforts to recover from the devastating socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, strains an already difficult recovery operation and can spell worse outcomes for the most vulnerable.

The Bridgetown Declaration highlighted the key link between “environmental degradation and human health,” and it has been established that the shrinking natural habitats for animals has created ideal conditions for pathogens such as the coronavirus to spread.

It has therefore been emphasized by decision makers and experts that ecosystem restoration should be at the heart of our efforts to economically and socially recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Together, governments of the Caribbean have committed to building back better, and put ecosystem restoration at the heart of their green recovery.

Luckily, helping to regulate diseases and reduce the risk of natural disasters is one of the many benefits of ecosystems restoration.

Ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction can be a key tool in reducing the damage caused by environmental and ecological disasters, and it has been a key motivator behind the movement for ecosystem restoration.

Building ecological resistance to natural disasters is just one of the many pay-offs we can benefit from as we commit to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. As a region prone to disasters such as hurricanes and flooding, the effects of which will only be felt more intently as the results of climate change unfold, it is vital that the Caribbean meets this challenge.

Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration continues until 2030, which is also the deadline for the Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is no coincidence.

Ecosystem restoration is vital to meet these goals, and is particularly important for goals on climate change, poverty elimination, and biodiversity. The need for ecosystem protection and recovery in disaster risk reduction also recognizes the essential part this effort must play in contributing to the sustainable use of ecosystems in our livelihoods and economies.

The UN’s strategy for the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is a call to member states to scale up existing ecosystem restoration efforts and raise awareness of the importance of restoration. We can achieve a biologically diverse, prosperous ecosystem, that supports sustainable development and protects us from the effects of disaster. Our success may depend on how well we integrate ecosystem restoration into our recovery efforts as we build back greener together.

We need to act decisively. The cost of inaction is far too great for both people and planet, including future generations. Let’s act like it.

• Didier Trebucq is the United Nations resident coordinator for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

• Vincent Sweeney is head of the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office for UN Environment.

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