Brave New Normal: Environmental groups imagine a post-pandemic world

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Brave New Normal: Environmental groups imagine a post-pandemic world
Residents of Sitio Queborosa in Infanta, Quezon survey a stretch of the Kaliwa River where a planned dam will be built.
Philstar.com / Efigenio Toledo IV

MANILA, Philippines — As people across the globe work together to flatten the curve of the new coronavirus pandemic, environmental advocates see this as opportunity to demonstrate solidarity and rebuild by working with nature.

While greenhouse gas emissions have gone down and air quality has improved as the coronavirus pandemic brings the lives of billions to an almost complete halt, it is also a reminder that relentless encroachment on nature and degradation of the ecosystems can endanger the health of humans.

"Impacts of the pandemic are amplifying how the current extraction-production-consumption-disposal model is bad for the environment and people. It’s what caused environmental destruction and the climate crisis," Lea Guerrero, country director of Greenpeace Philippines, told Philstar.com.

Experts say that a post-COVID-19 world will not be the same one we knew before the pandemic hit.

As the world grapples with the coronavirus that has already infected over 2.5 million people, as well as the ongoing climate crisis, environmental groups give suggestions on what should be the “new normal” for the environment.

Community solutions                                        

The enhanced community quarantine enforced in Luzon to slow the spread of the contagion taught Filipinos to “become more resilient and self-reliant” as it allowed consumers to patronize food products from local producers, EcoWaste Coalition said.

The environmental group said obtaining food from nearby sources as restrictions on movement have prompted many to do can shorten food miles—which means less greenhouse gas emissions—and ensure a market for local farm and fishery products.

Some local government units ensure that community fishers and farmers continue to earn amid the implementation of travel restrictions and curfew schedules by buying their produce and distributing them as relief goods for the environment—a win-win solution for all.

Oceana Philippines, for its part, stressed the need for healthy oceans to ensure the country’s food security.

"There is the need to make the oceans healthy for the fish to be abundant. This requires continuing enforcement of our laws and using science-based approach in fisheries management to fight overfishing and illegal fishing," Gloria Estenzo Ramos, the non-government organization's vice president, told Philstar.com.

The crisis also provided an unprecedented opportunity for people to connect and form communities of care.

"Some of the local solutions that are happening are also environmental solutions: the promotion of active mobility, community gardens, patronizing local produce. These are easy but essential local community solutions that can be part of a system that can help people cope with similar future crises and must be supported, moving forward," Greenpeace's Guerrero said.

Protecting the wild

Environmentalists believe it is time for leaders and even ordinary citizens to halt biodiversity and habitat loss to prevent future pandemics similar to the new coronavirus and other threats to the survival of humans.

Experts stressed that the destruction of wild habitats as well as the illegal wildlife trade increase opportunities for pathogens to jump from animals to humans, giving rise to fatal illnesses such as COVID-19.

The United Nations Environment Programme said around 75% of new and infectious diseases are zoonotic—illnesses that can be transmitted from animals to people.

"The crisis situation should give us a fresh appreciation of the need to protect our watershed forests. We need to enhance forest covers to ‘dilute’ new emerging infectious diseases with biodiversity that will control the population of pathogens and their potential host species. Forests also ensure adequate and sustainable supplies of clean water for sanitation and consumption," Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, said.

There is also a need to rewild—or introduce animals and plants to their original habitats —urban landscapes, environmentalists said, to weaken the population of pathogens and to promote a good microbiota, which can improve collective immunoresponse.

"If we promote agro-ecological food forests and urban gardens to benefit and to be managed by vulnerable communities, we also address the malnutrition crisis that makes our population at risk of succumbing to the pandemic," Dulce added.

The Department of Agriculture has announced a "Plant, Plant, Plant" program that will put funding into community and urban gardening to supply more food, with Agriculture Secretary William Dar saying working towards food security is a parallel strategy in the campaign against COVID-19.

Scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C, humans need to stop emitting carbon dioxide. The list of solutions also includes reforesting regions and managing land better.

Transformation to better systems

UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said the positive impacts of the pandemic to the environment “are but temporary because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress.”

Andersen said a “different economy” must emerge from the crisis—a world where humans keep nature rich and diverse.

Environmental groups stressed that the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic should include a transformation to better systems, rather than a return to business-as-usual.

"The government must enable a recovery that will transform our economy and society to tackle the climate crisis and promote positive environmental and health outcomes. Doing so will help build resilience against future shocks (e.g. pandemics, climate emergencies) and ensure an economy that puts the well-being of people and nature (on which our well-being depends) first," Guerrero said.

Lia Alonzo, Center for Environmental Concerns executive director, said the business-as-usual operations of mines, large dams and agribusiness plantations should be stopped and environmental rehabilitation should be ensured.

The health crisis has also allowed the public to see how pervading political and economic systems are roots of different crises that the world is facing, Kalikasan’s Dulce said.

"We have gone beyond thinking that the clearing up of the urban skyscape is simply nature healing, rather it is a glimpse of a better world that is possible," he said.

"This ‘new normal’ is pushing us to be brave, to be critical. To fight these crises together even as those that cling to the old ways resist the change we need. The ‘new normal’ will not be a dystopian future if we move forward with social solidarity."

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