Not our world alone

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

It’s 2021 and the COVID pandemic is still the crisis that holds the world’s attention, and rightly so. Even with several vaccines having been developed, we are still far from out of the woods. But even as we continue to struggle to keep ourselves safe from the virus and deal with its effects on society, we must not lose sight of the many problems that lie beyond the pandemic. We do not have the luxury of fighting COVID in a manner that exacerbates other threats to our world, not when the road to recovery is likely to be long and hard.

I’ve seen a picture recently that reminded me of this: a disposable face mask wrapped around a coral on one of our beautiful reefs, a thumbnail accompanying a video about medical waste being found in our seas. That these masks have an essential role to play during this pandemic can no longer be put into question – but this does not mean we have to choose between safety from COVID and a sustainable environment. In fact, for the survival of humanity, we have to choose both at once.

In the past, urban dwellers had the tendency to look at nature as something apart from humanity. The wilderness was “out there” and whether we viewed nature in a positive or negative light, it was something that had nothing to do with us. Even when we were trying to conserve it, we’d wall it off from human society – in zoos, or reserves, or natural parks. In some cases this was necessary to keep wildlife safe from poaching or habitat destruction, but it also perpetuated the view of separation. It’s this view that has some believe that doing something for the benefit of nature can only come at the cost of human benefit: more land for animals to roam in means less for humans to use, more resources spent cleaning up the environment means less spent on human health.

But humans cannot exist without nature, and nature is drastically affected by human society. We are intertwined and interlinked, contained within a single planet that cannot be replaced. We need to stop seeing humanity and nature as separate, and instead see these as parts of a single whole.

Last March 3 was World Wildlife Day, created to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants. This year’s theme is closely related to the idea of mutual dependency of nature and humanity: “Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet,” highlighting the “central role of forests, forest species and ecosystems services in sustaining the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people globally, and particularly of indigenous and local communities with historic ties to forested and forest-adjacent areas.” Many forests around the world face threats ranging from climate change to a loss of biodiversity.

Any serious attempt to preserve the world’s forests, their wildlife and increase biodiversity must have the Philippines at the forefront. According to a profile from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), our country is one of 17 megadiversity countries in the world, with a diverse topographic landscape, long coastlines with essential coral reefs and exceptionally diverse plant and wildlife, with some islands holding more unique species than other entire countries. According to some estimates, around 5 percent of the world’s plant species live in our archipelago, while nearly half the creatures found here are not found anywhere else. We are likely the most biologically diverse country in the world (by number of species per unit area) but we are also one of the most threatened environmental hotspots. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species has listed over 1,200 species in the Philippines as being endangered. Some of the wildlife in this list are considered iconic for our nation, but if we do not act to protect and preserve them, they may vanish forever.

The list includes, amongst many others: our national bird, the Philippine Eagle, the largest eagle in the world (in terms of length) of which no more than 400 adult pairs remain in the wild; the tamaraw, native now only to Mindoro, small and ferocious, of which only about 500 remain; tawilis, the only freshwater sardine in the world, is now considered endangered with their harvest having declined by half over the past ten years due to overfishing and deteriorating water quality; marine turtles, five of the seven marine turtle species are found in our seas, with all of them considered threatened, and the green turtle (our pawikan) the most endangered; and the Philippine tarsier, the second smallest primate on Earth, whose population has been plummeting due to the destruction of the very specific type of habitat they require to survive.

What can be done? The more well-known endangered species have organizations dedicated to their conservation such as the Philippine Eagle Foundation (https://www.philippineeaglefoundation.org/) and they will certainly need more help now than ever, with many resources being diverted towards surviving COVID instead. We can take to heart the image of those PPEs littering our reefs, and strive to do better at ensuring that the manner by which we protect ourselves from COVID doesn’t destroy our environment in return.

Yet adjusting our attitudes toward the threats faced by the natural world can go a long way in laying the groundwork for future change. This can be the simple act of not forgetting the plight of wildlife even as humans go through our own crisis. It could be attempting to take as much patriotic pride in the heritage of our forests and seas as we do in the achievements of our athletes and entertainers. It can be repairing the mental schism between nature and man, and working towards a mutualism and harmony. In this regard, there is much we can learn from indigenous cultures and their traditions.

Of course, a change in mindset alone won’t be enough unless this brings a corresponding change to our actions. Because of the rich biodiversity in our archipelago, our nation has a unique responsibility towards maintaining a sustainable environment. It’s a responsibility that we have not yet lived up to.

When we begin to rebuild our world in the wake of the pandemic, let us make sure we remember that it is not our world alone.

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