From the ashes of the Second World War — one of the biggest humanitarian crises in history — rose one good thing: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Released in 1948 by the United Nations, this milestone document features 30 articles covering subjects as diverse as torture, slavery and education. Never before in history had there been such a comprehensive international ruling on how we should treat our fellow human beings.
Now, in 2020, we are experiencing the biggest global crisis since WWII. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing heartbreaking loss of life across the world. Our daily lives have ground to a halt, and we do not yet know the full magnitude of the long-term social and economic impacts. But it has also given us all time to rethink our priorities and reminded us of what is truly important.
In an open letter to the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, BirdLife International is calling for the U.N. to declare a healthy natural environment a fundamental human right. Currently, the declaration does not make any reference to preserving our environment — yet this is the foundation on which all other human rights — and indeed, all life on earth — depends. For our children and grandchildren to enjoy sufficient food, water and safety, and to raise families of their own, the natural world must be healthy and strong enough to support them.
You may be wondering why we are bringing this up now, when the world has so many other things on its mind. The truth is that the need is more urgent than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has shown us that human health and the environment are inextricably linked: Studies show that 75 percent of new or emerging diseases that affect humans originated in animals.
And it is not just wild animal trade — although that is a complex and serious problem. The destruction of habitats is a very pressing threat to nature and our very own survival. Research has found that deforestation is linked to 31 percent of disease outbreaks, including Ebola and the Zika virus. Furthermore, climate change is widening the range of mosquitoes that carry malaria and dengue fever, and also drives the movement of people. Added to this, the destruction of nature is removing the very lifeline that can help us combat illnesses: About 50 percent of modern drugs have been developed from natural products that are threatened by biodiversity loss.
It is an issue that the public is beginning to wake up to. Nature has provided enormous comfort to people during lockdown, giving our constricted routines an injection of beauty and fascination, and reminding us that life extends beyond human worries. It has proven vital to our physical and mental well-being. Indeed, some could argue that the public is closer to nature now than it has been for decades — making them far more open to protecting it. In the words of the "godfather of conservation" David Attenborough: “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
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With some governments are using lockdown and the economic recovery as excuses for loosening environmental regulations, it is all the more important to drive home the message that the world cannot afford to go back to its old ways. Instead, we must use this opportunity to build a new future. We have seen that citizens and governments are willing and able to change their behavior to save lives and recover from crises. This gives us unbounded hope that they will be able to do so for the next big challenges.
So, why now? The truth is that we simply can’t afford to wait any longer. The climate and biodiversity crises are nearing a tipping point from which we will no longer be able to recover, and the coming years represent a "now or never" opportunity to turn things around. The U.N. has called this decade the Decade of Action. 2020 was going to be a pivotal year for life on earth. This October, world governments were set to meet in China to adopt a new Global Biodiversity Framework at the U.N. Biodiversity Summit. These meetings have, understandably, been pushed back.
But the climate and biodiversity crises wait for no one. That’s why BirdLife International, a family of scientists, conservationists and local people from more than 100 countries, believes that a healthy natural environment is important enough to become the 31st article in the Declaration of Human Rights — the first to be introduced since its publication in 1948. If we can get nature protection guaranteed by public policies, governed by sustainable practices, and informed by scientific and traditional indigenous knowledge, then maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel. If one good thing can rise from the ashes of our current collective crisis, it has to be this.
Patricia Zurita is chief executive officer of BirdLife International, the world’s largest nature conservation partnership with a presence in more than 100 countries. An Ecuadorian national, Patricia holds a master’s degree in Environmental Management and Natural Resource Economics from Duke University. Prior to leading BirdLife, she worked with the World Bank and the World Resources Institute.
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