World Wildlife Day – Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet

World Wildlife Day – Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet

More often these days we hear about climate change, the dark cloud overarching humanity’s future. But the truth is, loss of biodiversity (the variety of life on earth) could easily be crowned first place on the list of what is threatening our planet. Changes to the Earth’s climate, however destructive and terrifying, are still reversible (although we might have to wait a few centuries or even millennia for changes to take effect). Biodiversity loss is a whole different story. When a species goes extinct, it is forever… and as humanity depends on wildlife in so many ways, it is way past high time we realise that “business as usual” could soon see us all joining the dinosaurs and dodos.

Breathable air, drinking water, food: the survival starter pack provided by nature free of charge, made scarce by humans for financial profit. Deforestation, monocropping, unsustainable industrialisation, land degradation, pollution, urbanisation, hunting… the loss of countless animal and plant species once again comes down to our recklessness. According to scientists, we are currently finding ourselves “well into” Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Data suggests that up to 50% of Earth’s animal population simply does not exist any longer. While there is much debate about whose numbers are right and who’s surely just exaggerating, nobody is trying to deny that the loss of biodiversity is happening at a speed that is abnormal and alarming. Experts estimate the natural extinction rate (“the rate of species extinctions that would occur if we humans were not around“) has been exceeded by anywhere between 1000 and 10 000 times. Since we don’t know just how many species we share the planet with, the estimations are rough – but chilling regardless, painting the picture of a planet where 200 to 100 000 animal species disappear every year.

World Wildlife Day is a relatively new addition to the United Nations calendar. This international event was first proclaimed in 2013 and held annually ever since on the 3rd of March. It is a prompt to people all over the globe to celebrate wildlife and raise awareness about the need to protect the world’s fauna and flora. The Day’s theme for 2021 is ‘Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet‘, bringing attention to the irreplaceable role of forests and their ecosystems, as well as indigenous communities inhabiting and protecting forested areas.

 

Photo by Nejc Košir from Pexels

 

The world’s forests are in ever-growing danger. You are probably familiar with those satellite images of Earth’s “green lungs” disappearing over the years. A statistic from two years ago showed that “the tropics lost close to 30 soccer fields’ worth of trees every single minute”. Deforestation is one of the most disquieting side-effects of the modern lifestyle. Our population is skyrocketing and with it the demand for more resources. Tropical forests are being cut down and degraded in the name of commercial agriculture (mainly to be converted into palm oil and soy plantations), cattle ranching and illegal logging.

Trees don’t just supply us with breathable air and purified water. They have our back against climate change, absorbing harmful carbon emissions and thus mitigating the disastrous effects human activity has on the planet’s wellbeing. They also provide shelter for the vast majority of land-based animals – The Nature Conservancy’s statistic points out that despite covering only 2% of the planet’s surface, rainforests are home to 50% of Earth’s animals and plants. Ready for another mind-boggling example of why rainforests are vital for our health? Seventy percent of plants used in treatment of cancer can be found in rainforests only – and that’s with “less than 1 percent of tropical rainforest species“ analysed for their medicinal value so far. The importance of forests goes beyond those few facts listed, and it’s clear as day that we need to preserve forested areas if we want to avoid a massive disaster. But there’s another part of the picture, still, one that tends to get criminally overlooked.

Forests are home to millions of indigenous people. These small communities “safeguard approximately 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.” But instead of receiving support and credit for their hard work (which is, without the slightest hint of exaggeration, keeping all of us alive), tribal peoples are getting evicted from their ancestral lands with no regards to their human rights.

More than sixteen environmental defenders are killed every month, and indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by this. Despite making up only 5% of the world’s population, they have been targets of a third of “fatal attacks against environmental activists“ since 2015. Those ‘lucky enough’ to make it out alive are left to struggle in makeshift villages outside their forest homeland, with limited access to food, water and medicine. With their longstanding self-sufficiency taken away, entire communities descend into poverty. This trauma triggers an avalanche of adverse effects; malnourished and disconnected from their religious and cultural values, people are plunged into mental and physical illness. Jumanda Gakelebone, a Bushman spokesperson, describes this awful paradox: “First they make us destitute by taking away our land, our hunting and our way of life. Then they say that we are nothing because we are destitute.”

A report issued by the human rights organisation Survival International states that “nearly all protected areas“, including national parks and game reserves, “are, or have been, the ancestral homelands of tribal peoples“. Governments and companies carelessly evict people from their homelands in order to ‘conserve’ natural resources. If killing and making wrecks of entire communities’ lives in the process was not bad enough, these attempts at ‘preservation’ defeat their purpose completely. Data shows that community-managed forests are “more effective at reducing deforestation“ than protected areas. What’s more, rates of wildfires and poaching tend to increase after local communities are evicted, proving once again that ecosystems only suffer more in the absence of those who know how to sustainably manage their land.

 

Photo by Livestart Stiven on Unsplash

 

All the irrevocable damage already done shouldn’t discourage us from trying to save what we still can. “If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us,” we heard David Attenborough say in his newest documentary, once again emphasising the necessity of changing our ecologically unsustainable course. Oxford professor David Macdonald phrased the same message somewhat darker when talking to The Guardian, pleading that “without biodiversity, there is no future for humanity.”

Indigenous communities stand on the frontlines in the battle against loss of biodiversity. They are, however, “also the first to suffer the consequences” of climate change. In many ways it’s already too late, but things could still be much worse – and we can’t afford to waste any more time. According to studies, the “window for effective action” isn’t more than twenty to thirty years at most.

World Wildlife Day 2021 is an attempt to bring attention to the dangerous abuse of power that leaves governments with blood on their hands, our Earth damaged beyond saving, and indigenous peoples’ lives taken away from them. Change needs to come – and you can be part of it. Getting informed is always a good place to start – so why not head over to UN’s Wildlife Day official websites and find out more?

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