5 June 2020

Nature brings us so many benefits, from our health, water and food security, to medicines, jobs and climate regulation.

Over half of global gross domestic product, that is $44 trillion, is moderately or highly dependent on nature,1 according to the World Economic Forum. Billions of people, more than 70 per cent among those living in poverty, depend on natural resources to earn their livelihoods.2

The dependency of our economies on nature makes them extremely vulnerable to environmental degradation and biodiversity decline.

The most ambitious report to date on the state of biodiversity on the planet by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has warned that around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.3 We are witnessing a biodiversity decline that is unprecedented in human history. The main drivers are changes in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species.4

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of the gravity of biodiversity loss and of our unique interconnection with nature. Around 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).5 Zoonoses are generated by viruses that jump from animals to humans. If ecosystems are degraded, the natural barriers between them are removed, thus creating conditions for wider spreads of viruses. Nature is sending us a message.

Land-use change is a direct driver of all zoonotic pathogen types. Deforestation in the Amazon biome, for example, creates breeding grounds for hosts and vectors of malaria and schistosomiasis.

Our efforts to reverse biodiversity loss, though sometimes successful, are simply insufficient. We need to accelerate the global response, stop upsetting the delicate balance of nature, and we need to do it now.

That is the urgent call on 5 June, World Environment Day: It’s time for nature, time to put nature at the centre of our development model. We urgently need to accelerate the incorporation of nature-based solutions to the plans to rebuild better and greener following the COVID-19 crisis.

Colombia, one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, is this year’s global host of World Environment Day, in partnership with Germany. To date, 58,000 species have been recorded in Colombian continental and marine territory.6

Colombia is one of the six megadiverse countries in Latin America, along with Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. One of the most vibrant ecosystems is the Amazon biome, the largest tropical forest on our planet. It houses 33 million people and is home to extraordinary biodiversity.7

The small island States of the Caribbean are also among the most biodiverse tropical regions considering the size of their collective landmass. They are home to about 11,000 plant species, of which 72 per cent are endemic.

Latin America and the Caribbean is a champion in protected marine and terrestrial areas. Currently, 24 per cent of land in the region is protected, as well as 23 per cent of marine areas under national jurisdiction, according to the Protected Planet database.8

This natural capital is key for a green recovery after the pandemic. From reducing the risks of disasters and emerging zoonotic diseases to providing ecosystem services that are critical for the livelihoods of millions of people, biodiversity will continue to be one of the most important assets in the region to recover sustainably.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, UNEP is stepping up its work on mapping zoonotic threats and protecting the environment to reduce the risk of future pandemics.

Land-use change is a direct driver of all zoonotic pathogen types. Deforestation in the Amazon biome, for example, creates breeding grounds for hosts and vectors of malaria and schistosomiasis. Chopping down trees has contributed significantly to the spread of yellow fever, as mosquito vectors that would normally circulate 30m up in tropical forests come to be in contact with humans.

The World Resources Institute estimates that restoring degraded lands in the region has the potential to generate $23 billion in economic benefits in the next 50 years.9 The estimated Nature's Contributions to People (NCP) are valued at $6,844 per capita per year in Mesoamerica, $33,492 per capita per year in South America and $4,090 per capita per year in the Caribbean.10

The illegal wildlife trade—the fourth-largest global crime—is another important driver of infectious diseases. Recent zoonotic pandemics have originated both from wildlife and livestock. Regulation and sanitary standards for both wild and domestic animals, and meat sold in markets, need to be strengthened.

Over the last three decades, all countries in the region have adopted policy frameworks for the protection and sustainable use of biodiversity.  The region continues to be committed to the adoption of an ambitious, post-2020 global framework that will serve as a global plan for nature under the umbrella of the upcoming Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The conservation of biodiversity is also key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the objectives of the Paris Agreement on climate change, as all rely on the health of our environment.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, UNEP is stepping up its work on mapping zoonotic threats and protecting the environment to reduce the risk of future pandemics, as outlined in the document “Working With the Environment to Protect People”.

View of a forest in Narrowsburg, New York State, United States, after a rain storm. 3 June 2020. UN Photo/Mark Garten

UNEP will focus on improved science to better understand root causes and respond to zoonotic threats; on investment in nature for improved human health, sustainable socioeconomic recovery, poverty reduction and livelihoods recovery. It will also work to raise awareness of the linkages between nature and health through innovative approaches to education, public outreach and behavioural change.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, new fiscal policies amid COVID-19 can open a window of opportunity to gradually end fossil fuel subsidies, invest in renewable energy and climate change adaptation policies, and create green jobs. Making our cities and rural areas more resilient and restoring degraded lands and forests will reduce our vulnerability to future zoonotic diseases and help mitigate climate change while maintaining our biodiversity, water supply and planetary health.

In the tourism-dependent economies in the Caribbean, for example, more and better jobs can be created if tourism businesses are more sustainable, consolidating higher investment returns and contributing to poverty reduction.

But any recovery plan needs the active participation of all sectors of society. In Latin America and the Caribbean, Afro-American communities have developed sustainable livelihoods for hundreds of years, as indigenous communities have done for millennia. They need to be heard. We need specific plans for the protection of these communities and their territories, including mechanisms to promote participatory governance and strategies to prevent illegal activities, such as illegal mining and logging.

We need to stop deforestation, invest in better management of protected areas and our land, address the illegal wildlife trade and promote green investments and jobs. Let’s revisit our relationship with nature and rebuild a more sustainable, equitable and just world. 


1 World Economic Forum in cooperation with Pricewaterhouse Coopers,"Nature risk rising: why the crisis engulfing nature matters for business and the economy, Report, New Nature Economy series (Geneva Switzerland, 2020), p. 13. Available at http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_New_Nature_Economy_Report_2020.pdf.

2 Green Economy Coalition, The Green Economy Pocketbook: The Case for Action (London, 2012), p. 4 https://www.greeneconomycoalition.org/assets/reports/GEC-Reports/Green-Economy-Pocketbook-the-case-for-action_0.pdf.

3 Sandra Díaz and others, eds., Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Bonn, Germany, IPBES secretariat, 2019), p. 12. https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf.

4 Ibid.

5 Louis H. Taylor, Sophia M. Latham  and Mark E. J. Woolhouse, “Risk factors for human disease emergence”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, vol. 356, No. 1411 (July 2001): 983-9. doi:10.1098/rstb.2001.0888.

6 UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Colombia to host 2020 World Environment Day on biodiversity, Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of the Republic of Colombia, press release, 11  December, 2019. Available at https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/colombia-host-2020-world-environment-day-biodiversity; SIB Colombia, Biodiversidad en cifras. Sistema de Información sobre Biodiversitdad en Colombia. Available at: https://cifras.biodiversidad.co/

7 Leo Heileman, “Sí es posible preservar la Amazonía”, United Nations Environment Programme, 10 September 2019. Available at https://www.unenvironment.org/es/noticias-y-reportajes/editorial/si-es-posible-preservar-la-amazonia

8 Protected Planet, Latin America & Caribbean. Accessed on 5 June 2020. https://www.protectedplanet.net/region/SA.

9 Walter Vergara and others, The Economic Case for Landscape Restoration in Latin America (Washington, DC, World Resources Institute, 2016), p. 40.
Available at https://files.wri.org/s3fs-public/The_Economic_Case_for_Landscape_Restoration_in_Latin_America.pdf.

10 Jake Rice and others, eds., The IPBES Regional Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for the Americas (Bonn, Germany, IPBES secretariat, 2018), p. 134. https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2018_americas_full_report_book_v5_pages_0.pdf.

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