Forests are crucial for building resilience in a post COVID-19 world

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Commission's new Biodiversity Strategy shows how forests are crucial for building resilience in a post COVID-19 world, writes Giulia Bondi. [AGROFORWARDproject/Flickr]

The Commission’s new Biodiversity Strategy shows how forests are crucial for building resilience in a post COVID-19 world, writes Giulia Bondi.

Giulia Bondi is Forests Campaigner for Global Witness,

We all know the impact of COVID-19 will be wide reaching and ripple for decades. With health and people’s livelihoods of central concern, how we build a more resilient and fair planet – with well-being at its heart – will be a key topic of conversation as we navigate the virus’ impact.

While the exact cause and transmission of COVID-19 remains unknown, we do know that biodiversity is a vital factor in safeguarding against zoonotic diseases that pass from animals to humans. This highlights the intangible value of nature and biodiversity in its own right – its true value cannot be ‘costed’, in the same way its destruction cannot be offset.

Today, we see a new marker in the move towards a recovery that will prioritise this crucial role biodiversity plays in rebuilding a resilient planet, and making it a fairer one for people across the globe.

The European Commission’s Biodiversity Strategy, published this morning, places a strong emphasis on the role of nature in the path to recovery. While this must always be aligned with the preservation of human and community rights, it is encouraging to see this narrative. Alongside health and wellbeing, the  strategy also underlines how important biodiversity is for our recovery for two key reasons.

One: the economy.

The recent crisis has shown that companies that perform better on environmental and social factors typically fare better in economic downturns, especially those exposed to ‘emerging economies’ – ie. the countries where environmental damage of crucial biodiversity hotspots like tropical forests are most likely to occur.

Given that the IMF now estimates COVID-19 will cost the global economy $9 trillion, this raises the question of what precisely we’re willing to gamble – in terms of potentially unleashing new pandemics – in order to continue damaging biodiverse-rich forests, landscapes and wetlands.

Two: our supply chains.

Many people might not have thought about the global supply chains behind products on the supermarket shelf until they disappeared from sight in recent months.

Not only that, but prioritisation of large supply chains in lockdown has hit smaller and peasant farmers – from France to Honduras – hard. And this is despite the well-known evidence that shorter supply chains are more resilient and sustainable. To build a resilient economy in recovery, we must create fairer, more sustainable supply chains – ones that preserve biodiversity and do not go back to business as usual.

And a significant key to help tackle these biodiversity challenges? The protection of our tropical forests.

Our tropical forests are not only critical in halting climate breakdown, but they are also vast hotspots for biodiversity that are being destroyed at astonishing rates. Addressing the epic rates of deforestation, often driven by agricultural commodities like palm oil, beef and soya imported into the EU and fueled by funding from EU based financial institutions including household name banks, is vital to preserve the biodiversity we so badly need.

That’s why it’s encouraging to hear early soundings in this Biodiversity Strategy that measures on corporate governance may take the form of a legislative proposals addressing duty of care from businesses – and why it has been great to see the recent commitment from Justice Commissioner Reynders to bring in a new cross-sectoral EU law on mandatory sustainable due diligence. Together, this shows that the Commission recognises the need to ensure companies are held accountable for their environment, human rights and governance impacts.

Mandatory due diligence, where companies are required to identify, mitigate, prevent and report on environment, social (including human rights), and governance risks, could also play a crucial role in tackling the EU’s global deforestation footprint – but only if it sets strong standards alongside effective enforcement.

It’s important that we don’t stop now. We must take this important new strategy and recent moves on due diligence as the starting shot. If we are to build a fairer and more resilient planet, with biodiversity at its heart, creating effective mandatory measures on due diligence for protecting our forests is a must.

The introduction of mandatory of due diligence to tackle deforestation would be a clear signal that the EU wants to reward those countries and companies innovating on deforestation-free supply chains.

Critically, it would also be a clear act in support of the forest communities and grassroots organisations that are leading the fight to safeguard the world’s climate-critical forests, who are often acutely aware of the profound hardship forest destruction will have on their local livelihoods, food systems, quality of life and culture.

Indeed, as our recent statement shows, the threats facing many indigenous people and land and environmental defenders during the lockdown highlight how any action to stop biodiversity loss and degradation must have a holistic and human rights-based approach.

COVID-19 has shown us that the risk of inaction in the face of global challenges is often bigger than the risk of actually taking action. If we are to take the driving force from today’s Biodiversity Strategy and make it count, protecting our forests and doing so swiftly is essential for a fairer, greener, more resilient future.

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