Guest Column: Time to reflect on the importance of Pacific biodiversity during World Environment Day

Kosi Latu, Director General of SPREP

Since 1974, the world has celebrated World Environment Day every year on 5 June, engaging and encouraging governments, businesses, and citizens of the world to focus their efforts on a pressing environmental issue.

This year, the focus shifts to biodiversity, and in the midst of this global pandemic, let us take time to pause and reflect on our natural biodiversity, especially in our own Pacific backyard.

Our Pacific biodiversity is amongst the richest and most unique in the world. It is home to many species, a great many of these are only found exclusively in our region.

The tropical Pacific is home to 25% of the world’s coral reefs, and 3% of the world’s mangroves. The Pacific Ocean is also home to over half of the world’s whale and dolphin species, as well as sharks, rays, and turtles. This diversity of species bring value into the region by attracting tourists, which account for more than 20% of GDP in many Pacific island countries.

Our marine biodiversity feeds not only us, but the rest of the world. Approximately 70% of the world’s tuna catch is from the Pacific Ocean, and most of the protein in the diet of Pacific islanders is from near-shore pelagic, reef, and lagoon fisheries. Wetlands also provide habitats that support many species which we rely on for nutrition.

Our biodiversity also provides natural solutions. For instance, healthy wetlands such as mangroves help stabilise shoreline, reduce sediment loads that reach the lagoons, and buffer against sea level rise and storm damage. Maintaining healthy wetlands is also the most cost-effective method of preventing shoreline erosion. In addition, reefs reduce wave energy on shores by at least 95%.

Sadly, our biodiversity is facing increasing new and emerging threats as a result of human activity, such as disease, invasive species, predator outbreaks, overfishing, destructive fishing, marine litter, ocean acidification, and climate change, to name a few.

Human action such as deforestation, encroachment on wildlife habitats, overexploitation, intensified agriculture, and accelerated climate change, have pushed nature beyond its limits, and resulted in an increase in outbreaks of deadly diseases such as the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Studies have shown that the more biodiverse an ecosystem is, the more difficult it is for one pathogen to spread rapidly or dominate; whereas, upsetting the balance, including through the loss of biodiversity, provides opportunity for pathogens to thrive and threaten animals and people.

The increase in human population and activities in the last 50 years has resulted in reduced biodiversity and modified wildlife populations at an unprecedented rate. It has resulted in the loss of natural ecosystems and habitats, and has led to more and more species on the verge of extinction.

But it is not too late to undo the damage that has been done.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a standstill. It has given us the most valuable tool we can use to reverse the negative impacts of our actions on our environment and biodiversity: time.

Let us use this time to reflect and reinvent – reflecting on the importance of our environment and biodiversity and reinventing ourselves by developing new habits, new processes and a new way of life that will allow us to save our biodiversity, save our environment, and ultimately, save ourselves.

Let us take time for nature, and listen to what it is trying to tell us. The old “business a usual” way of living can no longer be applied in the present day. We must find new ways to co-exist with all elements of our environment in order to ensure that it continues to sustain our livelihoods.

Happy World Environment Day!

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