The Covid-19 pandemic has brought greater attention to the global trade in illegal wildlife, as evidence suggests bats, via an intermediary that may possibly have been pangolins, were the source of the virus. There have been widespread calls to better regulate or eliminate the trade and consumption of wildlife.
Others are calling for a broader shift in the relationship between humans and the natural environment, noting that it’s not just the wildlife trade that presents a risk of zoonotic viral transmission from animals to humans, but the ongoing destruction of habitats globally in the face of agribusiness, human migration and big infrastructure projects such as dams, power plants and roads.
There’s an opportunity to address both the human and environmental health crisis in the months ahead. Besides stimulus spending, reforestation and afforestation campaigns are getting more attention as both environmental and climate solutions.
To learn more about the connection between public health and biodiversity, I spoke to Kinari Webb, an American medical doctor and founder of the non-profit Health in Harmony, a rainforest conservation organisation that empowers communities to restore ecosystems in exchange for healthcare, connecting human health with planetary health.
This approach has been deployed around Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo, Indonesia, where it has regenerated 20,000 hectares of forest while providing healthcare to 120,000 people.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nithin: What does Covid-19 reveal about the connection between public health and that of the environment?
Kinari: Well, it’s a very stressful time for all of us on this planet and particularly those focused on the health of the ecosystems and of people. At Health In Harmony, our big thing is always that human and environmental health are intimately intertwined and that we don’t have to think of them as competitive.
Zoonotic transfer has happened all over the world. If you look at HIV and Ebola, they both came out of wet markets too. The invasion into natural ecosystems and the growing trade of wild animals is very dangerous. There’s really interesting data that shows that more diverse ecosystems are more resilient. But when you begin to threaten an ecosystem, it can really get out of balance. And we don’t have excellent data on this, but we can certainly imagine a situation where viruses could become more prevalent.
And it’s not just about diseases, it’s about the health of our whole planet. Because of the climate crisis, we’ll need to protect these ecosystems against that as well.
This year was supposed to be a big one for biodiversity, but Covid-19 has led to the postponement of several events, notably the COP15 biodiversity talks. How can we maintain momentum on these processes?
It’s hard. On the one hand, this is an incredible opportunity for us to do things in a way that honours the natural world. That is fully possible. The opposite is also fully possible. The United States just cut back on fuel-efficiency standards.
High-level technical meetings are often missing the fact that there are real solutions on the ground that are based on indigenous and local wisdom. Those are the solutions that actually work. Good laws and policy make a difference. Funnelling funds to communities based on what they see as the solutions for protecting ecosystems is also absolutely essential.
In Gunung Palung National Park, we asked the local community what the solutions were for protecting this amazing rainforest, of which 40% had already been lost. It was logged by the local community, who wanted to protect the forest, but they couldn’t. They were often logging to pay for healthcare. They said that if they had access to high-quality affordable health care and training in organic farming, they could stop logging. When people have access to alternatives, they won’t be destructive ecologically.
Another thing we saw in 2019 was a massive push towards tree planting. Considering the impacts of such campaigns in the past, which have often resulted in swaths of low biodiversity, monoculture forest, what lessons do you hope can be integrated into future reforestation campaigns?
If we replant enough trees around the world we can draw down a lot of carbon from the atmosphere, but it has to be done in the right way. It isn’t just about the trees, it’s about ecosystems. That’s what we’re trying to restore.
We do what we call re-rainforestation. We are interested in ecosystem biodiversity, so we only plant native species, over a hundred species. If you plant foreign species they’re just invasive. They can cause all kinds of trouble for humans, and for the natural world. We also only plant in places where the local community wants us to plant, respecting and honouring their relationship to the land, and we hire local people to do it.
This is an incredible opportunity for us to rebuild our economies in a more ecological way.
It’s not just planting the trees, but where you plant them; thinking about the ecosystem and building corridors. When I look at Borneo, I think if we could just connect this national park to that national park, and if we could just connect all the way up the mountains and into Malaysia. That’s doable. We just have to very consciously think about how to restore these amazing, beautiful ecosystems in a way that helps people, and honours those who are most vulnerable.
I think there’s more awareness of this globally. There are projects that are not doing a good job in other places in the world, but those I know of [in Southeast Asia] are really trying to be aware of these issues.
As we emerge from Covid-19, what policies would you recommend more broadly to support nature restoration to politicians thinking about economic stimulus in the coming months?
Well, I’m very impressed that China did ban a lot of the wildlife trade. I was sad to see, however, that there was an exception for traditional medicine. And you know, that’s a real problem because pangolin scales are mostly for traditional medicine. I hope that there is an absolute ban on wildlife trafficking and I hope that this pandemic reveals that there are enormous costs to that trade.
I really hope that there is a lens of planetary health as we think about recovering from this. Enormous amounts of money have been pumped into stimulus. This is an incredible opportunity for us to rebuild our economies in a more ecological way.
For countries like Indonesia, it’s so hard. This pandemic is an enormous, incredible stress to a country where people are already living on the margins. I’m very worried that the economic crisis will lead to further ecological destruction by communities if they can’t meet their basic needs.
This pandemic is also teaching us that we have to think long term. The way the world has been approaching destruction of the planet’s ecosystems is that it has no cost. An externalised cost, that you can just destroy it as much as you want and it won’t cause any problems. Thus, there’s this horrible loss of biodiversity all over the world. It doesn’t have to be that way. Humans and the natural world can thrive and we need to really focus on this.