International Day of Biodiversity was celebrated on May 22. It gave us an opportunity to appreciate the wonder of biodiversity and renew our commitment to nurture and protect all the many forms of life with which we share our planet. We are a nation so defined by the richness of life around us that the words ‘diversity’ and ‘India’ have become synonymous. Our ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity has been greatly influenced by the unique features of our land, climate and geography, as well as the forces of migration and evolution. These forces have enriched our land with a multitude of species of plants, animals, and other organisms.
We, the human species, are an integral and influential component of biodiversity. Our own bodies host living microbiomes of tiny organisms without which we cannot survive. Our cultures shape the biodiversity around us, and biodiversity shapes our cultures and our future here on Earth.
Apart from the pandemic, the recent heat waves in much of northern India and floods in Meghalaya are stark reminders of worsening climate change and an uncertain future. The uncertainty is further fueled by the continuing degradation of lands and biodiversity, growing malnutrition and hunger, and inequities and environmental injustice.
Yet, it is our rich, albeit declining, biodiversity that provides us with potential solutions to our most pressing sustainability challenges. Nature-based solutions — the use of biodiversity and what we learn from the natural world to face our challenges — are emerging as the best path to take us forward.
Climate change is arguably the most severe crisis we face today. Global deforestation is one of the main contributors to climate change. Thus, the restoration of deforested and other degraded lands can lead to mitigation of climate change. Restoring biodiversity on large tracts of land is one of the major commitments that India has made under the Paris Accords. This direct connection between biodiversity and climate change was strongly affirmed by most nations in the Conference of the Parties in Glasgow concluded six months ago. Similarly, rejuvenation of our soils and agriculture, elimination of hunger, and improvement of nutrition depends upon our prudent use of biodiversity in the prevailing agricultural systems. Fostering the return of biodiversity to degraded lands and enhancing blue carbon in oceans have immense environmental and considerable economic benefits. Restoration has the potential of creating millions of jobs, diversifying farming systems and agriculture-based livelihoods.
Enterprises based on India’s biodiversity have huge untapped potential. For example, the sector based on the use of molecules of biological origin in biotechnology and healthcare was worth $70 billion in 2020. And we have barely begun to tap the potential of our rich medical heritage that includes thousands of medicinal plant species.
Nature contributes not only to our economic and physical well-being, but also to our minds and spiritual enrichment. Our country is full of sacred landscapes, riverscapes, and seascapes. We can take refuge in nature for mental solace.
Strengthening biodiversity science
The biodiversity that is all around us and inside us, that sustains us and protects us, is under assault. We have seen our natural landscapes and waterscapes decline and degrade at an unprecedented rate. Last year, in these pages, I briefly described an effort on the part of the government to launch a National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being, conceived and planned by the Biodiversity Collaborative pulling together public and private institutions. The Mission will embed biodiversity as a key consideration in all development programmes, particularly in the sectors of agriculture, health, bioeconomy, ecosystem services, and climate change mitigation. It will also seek to develop a system for assessing and monitoring, restoring, and enhancing biodiversity to enable the realisation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Public engagement is another key element of the Mission.
The pandemic has placed this Mission among the most significant national initiatives. We must urgently address the issues laid bare by COVID 19: the emergence of infectious diseases; inadequate food and nutritional security; rural unemployment; and climate change which all place additional stress on nature and public health, and which are what the Mission seeks to address.
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Hundreds of professionals have participated in defining the road map for the Mission. International Biodiversity Day should serve as a reminder to our government and people to push forward the Mission and and reimagine our relationship with nature.
Kamal Bawa is President of the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) and convener of Biodiversity Collaborative. Views are personal