Defend Truth


The Covid-19 crisis gives us space to tackle the ecological crisis and begin a green recovery


Andrew de Blocq is the Avitourism Project Manager at BirdLife South Africa. His focus is on the nexus of tourism and conservation. BirdLife South Africa’s aim for this project is to unlock opportunities through the biodiversity economy for transformational capacity development and sustainable job creation in the tourism and conservation sectors. The views expressed here are his own.

While the world is absorbed with the Covid-19 pandemic, the ongoing ecological crisis is intensifying. Confronting environmental threats through green recovery strategies can ease immediate health and economic concerns and prevent future threats.

We are all tired of hearing the word “crisis”, particularly in the context of the current health and economic crises that are entirely dominating our daily discourses. The nature of a crisis is that it requires urgent action in order to solve a particularly threatening problem.

It may, then, be surprising to note that the father of conservation biology, Prof Michael Soulé, termed conservation a “crisis discipline”, in a foundational paper as far back as 1985. This might lead the reader to think that the conservation crisis is more of a slow-burn than those more familiar crises that global society is currently consumed with, but it is no less life-threatening than Covid-19; arguably, the conservation crisis is even more urgent than it has ever been, and the pandemic could prove a catalytic moment by bringing some of the current societal flaws into sharp focus.

At the most basic level, the zoonotic nature of the coronavirus is calling into question humans’ relationship with nature. However, the wet markets of Wuhan are merely a microcosm of the exploitative and unhealthy relationship between contemporary society and the environment. The consumptive manner in which we engage with the world has proven entirely unsustainable. The policy of growth “uber alles” has stretched and in most cases exceeded the ability of our planet to provide, leading us towards an inevitability of ecological collapse.

This cycle of events, summarised in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, has echoed throughout history, heralding the failure of societies from Easter Island to the Vikings of Greenland. It is crucial that we use this global moment of pause, reflection and collectivism in our response to the coronavirus crisis to revisit this unsustainable relationship with the environment. If we miss this opportunity, we risk resigning ourselves to a future that belongs only in dystopian fiction.

We can no longer cling to the antiquated notion that humans are somehow disconnected from the natural world. For as long as humans have existed, we have been an integral part of the natural system, both relying on it and influencing it. Our most basic needs – air, water, food, shelter, a favourable climate, health, and spiritualism – are all dependent on the provision of natural systems. Scientists call these “ecosystem services”, and our survival as a species is intricately linked with them. The ability of ecosystems to provide these for us is directly correlated to their functionality and their resilience – a degraded environment has a fraction of the capacity of a pristine one to support us.

For example, a river with degraded banks and overgrown with weeds will not be suitable for fish nor hinder floodwaters in heavy rain. If you remove the weeds, perhaps the river could sustain life and supply food for locals. If you restore the riverside vegetation, then the altered water table and strong root structures will slow the next raging torrent, preventing damage downstream. Simple interventions can provide enormous, decades-lasting insurance for livelihoods.

Being locked down has forced people to explicitly reflect on the importance of open natural spaces in their lives. Many are beginning to realise that access to parks, reserves, greenery, and wildlife is not just a luxury – it is an essential part of their physical and mental wellbeing.

One silver lining among the doom and gloom of the eco-crisis is that nature has the ability to bounce back, often far quicker than we thought possible, and sometimes in unexpected ways. There is an oft-quoted example in Yellowstone National Park in the US where the reintroduction of wolves caused rivers to change their course, and the dominant vegetation types to completely change. These dramatic changes were obviously not directly attributable to the wolves themselves, but rather to the cascade of effects that they initiated by dispersing their herbivorous prey, and easing pressure on the overgrazed trees and bushes along the rivers, which in turn allowed beavers to move back in, which then dammed up sections changing the river flow.

Ecosystems are complex, multi-faceted systems. Most often, having more links in the ecological chain gives the system greater resilience, but if key links (such as the wolves which are the top predators) are missing then it can quickly fall apart. It is a beautiful mix between toughness and fragility. During the various lockdowns all over the world, nature has started to reclaim certain areas as human presence diminishes; one popular example being the swans and dolphins of the Italian waterways. Air quality can quickly clear as was evident in China and India, the two most populous countries. 

This is not to say that nature is always better off without people – man has shaped ecosystems worldwide for tens of thousands of years in ways which are not necessarily destructive, and some ecosystems are now so fragile that they will not survive without our interventions – but those restorative actions can very quickly bear fruit if the conditions are right.

Investing in the natural world is a no-brainer. Not only do we rely on nature for survival, which alone shows the necessity for protecting it, but the return on investment is unbeatable. Despite the difficulties in quantifying the value of nature in certain instances, some habitat restoration projects have been shown to return over 20 times the initial financial investment in terms of the repayment of ecosystem services. These repayments are often in short- and long-term improvements to ecosystem health, create local employment, benefit whole communities, and provide ongoing returns.

Groups such as Conservation International are starting to recognise this and are setting up responsible venture financing vehicles to invest in groups that are contributing to healthy ecosystems. Locally, our government is beginning to acknowledge this. South Africa has pioneered a new tax scheme that allows landowners who manage their land as conservancies to enjoy tax breaks, which has secured enormous tracts of land supporting important features like major watersheds and critically endangered habitats. Not only is investing in nature the morally responsible thing to do, it also makes business sense to support it. 

Being locked down has forced people to explicitly reflect on the importance of open natural spaces in their lives. Many are beginning to realise that access to parks, reserves, greenery, and wildlife is not just a luxury – it is an essential part of their physical and mental wellbeing.

As conservationists, we hope that the trauma of this pandemic has spurred a curiosity in some about the natural world around them, whether that is focused on the birds visiting their garden or the vast expanses waiting to be explored when our freedom is granted back to us. South Africa is a global biodiversity hotspot, and our natural heritage warrants protection for its own sake and for ours.

Not only is it important for the public to be aware of the importance of conservation to their lives, but a lot of conservation work in South Africa and abroad is financed through ecotourism. Tourism was the fastest growing sector of our economy pre-coronavirus and employed over 5% of all South Africans. Ecotourism is the most ecologically sustainable form of tourism, and most conserved areas rely on visitors to partly or entirely fund their projects.

Many of our ecotourism operators will be scraping through the phased lockdown, praying that they can welcome visitors back soon and inject some much-needed funding. Without this, we will see reserves shutting down, a rise in poaching and illegal trade, degradation of even our most pristine wilderness areas, and the collapse of businesses and livelihoods. Perhaps this is seen as collateral damage by those in charge along with many other sectors that are suffering, but no other aspect is as crucial to our survival in the long-term as ensuring healthy ecosystems.

Covid-19 has caused an unprecedented global crash, and how we rebuild society from this low point is a choice that faces politicians, policymakers and the public alike. Choosing green growth will better position us to thrive in a post-Covid world by prioritising our resilience against future disease outbreaks and environmental disasters, improving our food and water security, and enjoying the invaluable ecosystem services that a healthy environment provides free of charge.

Let us choose to support stimulus programmes that prioritise industries and sectors that contribute to a greening of our economy rather than those that will drive us further into an ecological crisis. Let us lobby government to invest in renewable, cleaner energy, rather than encouraging our reliance on harmful, unsustainable fossil fuels. Let us change our personal lifestyles to minimise our impacts on the environment by reducing our consumption, altering our eating habits to reduce meat and support local producers, and reducing our non-essential travel. This lockdown has shown us that a great deal of business can happen without leaving the house.

Let us support efforts to conserve biodiversity, including effective stewardship of private lands, ensuring that conservation areas provide meaningful community benefit, and by managing agriculture in a manner that supports local ecosystems rather than destroying them. Let us support organisations that are doing work to preserve biodiversity and choose to support sustainable tourism operators that give back to the areas they work in.

This enforced period of reflection is the best opportunity humanity has had to make the right decisions to secure our future. We can act. We can make a difference. And we can save ourselves by saving the environment. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted