A Cambodian pangolin mother and her child. Pangolins are the most illegally traded mammal in the world. WWF

As the world scrambles to find a cure for the COVID-19 virus, the last few months have highlighted how closely connected we are to nature. A healthy, species-rich ecosystem protects us from diseases, as there is ample space to coexist with nature. Conversely, homogenous species populations in fragmented habitats encroached on by human development, are ideal pandemic breeding grounds.

According to a range of experts and the World Health Organization (WHO), there is strong evidence that COVID-19 originated in bats. How the virus moved from bats to humans is still unclear, but many believe an intermediate host was involved.

The only other wildlife species known to be living with Coronaviruses, similar to COVID-19, are pangolins – a scaly mammal that looks like an anteater. It so happens that pangolins are also the most illegally traded mammal in the world, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is involved in data gathering and analysis, research, field projects, advocacy, and education.  Markets, where live wildlife is traded, have been implicated in previous outbreaks of Coronaviruses, such as SARS.

While the loss of biodiversity may have given rise to the pandemic, COVID-19 has, in turn, exacerbated the pressure on ecosystems. The pandemic has created spikes in deforestation rates and poaching of rare and endangered species, across several continents. In addition, millions of migrant workers are returning home to rural areas, after losing jobs in cities or neighbouring countries, because of the pandemic. The search for money and food is becoming desperate. Plummeting ecotourism across the world means that financial resources needed to protect wildlife are missing. People enter the forests to cut trees, hunt animals, and fish. Fighting to survive, it is understandable that they may not care that their prey is endangered.

Experts point out that human interference and the loss of such biodiversity lends itself to increased risks of future pandemics. At the same time, biodiversity protection also needs to address the fundamental needs of struggling people. So, what can be done?

In Cambodia, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), in collaboration with the embassy
of Sweden and the Ministry of Environment, is preparing a COVID-19 response package that will financially support rural communities in biodiversity conservation. The COVID-19 response package builds on ongoing green financing initiatives such as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and Payments for Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity Financing.  In different ways, these initiatives promote conservation and sustainable management of natural resources, while also supporting local communities.

Cambodia has created a framework for REDD+ at the national level. It includes a strategy and action plan, national forest monitoring systems and a set of safeguards, to conserve natural habitats and biodiversity.

Two projects in the protected forests of Seima and the Cardamoms have already generated more than US $10 million from the private sector that has been shared with authorities and local communities to support rural livelihoods, improve forest management and conserve biodiversity.

Meanwhile, Cambodia is also developing what are known as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). This initiative will mobilise money from the major users of ecosystem resources, such as water, clean air and scenic beauty, in order to finance activities that protect and restore ecosystems and biodiversity.

With assistance from Sweden, Cambodia is currently implementing pilot projects to conserve the important watersheds of two protected areas, Kbal Chhay and Kulen Mountain. It is vital to scale up these initiatives and to secure increased funding from the national budget because both local people and tourism are dependent on steady access to freshwater.

Cambodia has strengthened its national environmental education programmes to improve the understanding of the intimate relations between society and its natural surroundings. Our hope is that the younger generations will push towards sustainable and more harmonious ways of living with nature. Among many benefits, this will also minimise the chances of future pandemic outbreaks across the planet.

Written By: Bjorn Haggmark, ambassador of Sweden to Cambodia, Nick Beresford, Resident Representative, UNDP in Cambodia  and, Dr Moeko Saito Jensen, environmental policy specialist, UNDP in Cambodia.

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