Biodiversity and Preventing Future Pandemics in Africa

On 5th June of every year, World Environment Day is celebrated. The theme for this year was biodiversity. Some of the key messages were: Protect the environment, prevent pandemics, ‘nature is sending us a clear message’. As a follow up to the World Environment Day, UNESCO MAB in Africa joined hands with the UN Environment Africa, the African Union Commission, the Africa Regional Office of the International Science Council (ISC) and the Centre for Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management at the University of Rwanda to organize a webinar on “Biodiversity and Preventing Future Pandemics in Africa” held on 17th June 2020.

Experts working in biodiversity and environmental conservation, Government ministries, university professors, lecturers and youth communities from Africa discussed a wide range of topics within this theme to: explore the reasons for protecting the remaining natural habitats in Africa; understand the relationship between ecosystem integrity and functioning and balance human interaction with the ecosystem; safeguard natural species diversity and ensure the sustainable, legal, and safe wildlife trade; and appreciate the role of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

Over 70% of infectious diseases originate from wildlife and the spread of diseases is exacerbated by wildlife trafficking, wildlife markets, habitat destruction and climate change. Climate change is also amplifying the spread of infectious diseases beyond their natural geographic ranges. UNESCO has a significant role to play in negotiating actions to prevent infectious disease spread through stimulating trans-boundary action and collaborative efforts across the region, building capacity within governments and within organizations active in sustainable development and environmental conservation.

In her Opening Remarks, Ms. Ann Therese Ndong-Jatta, the Director and Representative of the UNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa, welcomed all the participants and stressed the importance of using scientific facts and evidence to inform policy to help governments understand how to prioritize biodiversity conservation goals. She called for effective engagement between scientists and policymakers for evidenced-based policy decisions and conservation actions.

Dr. Mahama Ouedraogo, the Director of Human Resources, Science and Technology (HRST) of the African Union Commission (AUC), also emphasized that technologies such as earth or geographic information systems should be used to monitor disease outbreaks and provide technology solutions for decision making that help mitigate pandemics. He appealed to all the stakeholders and partners to carry out social, economic and environmental impact evaluation and assessment, and develop response strategies to COVID-19. Dr. Mahama expressed AUC’s readiness to engage and support various African groups in addressing key issues that affect the continent.

Dr. Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, the Director and Representative of the UNEP Regional Office for Africa passed on several messages in her remarks stressing the importance of biodiversity in sustainable development, and the need to harness science and African indigenous and local knowledge in confronting the major drivers of biodiversity loss such as climate change, rapid growth of population, illegal trade in wildlife, and invasive alien species. She challenged the audience to consider whether we want to learn from this pandemic or go back to our wanton and destructive ways that have left us vulnerable to zoonotic diseases.

Giving the special remarks at the webinar, Ms. Shamila Nair-Bedouelle – Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, UNESCO Paris, introduced UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme and highlighted the importance of biosphere reserves. She emphasized the need to promote joint efforts in the conservation of nature and all living things on the earth. She also expressed the need to promote youth biodiversity platforms to strengthen collaboration and training among the youth, giving them intergenerational equity to restore our biodiversity.

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