SDGs provide direction for sustainable post-COVID recovery

More than 80 percent of the geographical area of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is covered with forests including mangroves. Photo by Debopama Misra/Wikimedia Commons.

  • The novel coronavirus disease pandemic (COVID-19) may have brought immediate relief to some areas related to Sustainable Development Goal 15 to protect ‘Life on Land’ but the long-term impacts are unclear, experts said.
  • A pressure to lower environmental and biodiversity safeguards may, however, reverse any progress made on the achievement of SDG 15 that presses for urgent action to protect natural habitats and wildlife.
  • SDGs provide an opportunity for sustainable post-COVID recovery and development. Governments need to be serious about the issue of sustainability to set the course for the future.

The novel coronavirus disease pandemic (COVID-19) has brought a smidge of immediate relief in selected areas related to Sustainable Development Goal 15 to protect ‘Life on Land’. While lowered biodiversity safeguards could erode India’s progress on the goal, the targets can offer direction for post-COVID-19 recovery and development, said experts.

Amid the pandemic, a Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) report said COVID-19 impacts on SDG 15 are “still unclear”, but observed a short-term reduction in threats to terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity due to reduced global economic activity and consumption. The annual report tracks the performance of all United Nations member states on the 17 SDGs, measuring the distance remaining to achieve each target. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. The 17 SDGs recognise that work in one area will affect outcomes in others and that development must balance social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

SDG 15 calls for urgent action to halt the degradation of natural habitats, to end the poaching and trafficking of animals, and to integrate ecosystem and biodiversity values into local planning and development processes.

Underscoring the “immediate relief” in some areas, including those linked to SDG 15, the report, however, observed a “pressure to reduce terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity and ecosystem safeguards, including biodiversity and ecosystem regulations conventions (for instance, on deforestation)” about the pandemic impacts.

Echoing the association between the cutback on economic activity and consumption and short-term reduction in threats to biodiversity, environmental economist Saudamini Das said that the short term impacts of COVID-19 on SDG 15 are clear, the mid to long term effects are hazy. “In the short term, we expect a positive impact of the pandemic on SDG 15 because of the behavioural change and a renewed consciousness among people for knowing more about biodiversity,” Das of Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi, told Mongabay-India.

Looking back on the last six months spanning the lockdown periods, Amba Jamir, Policy Analyst with Sustainable Forum Nagaland, said people are realising and appreciating sustainable food systems. 

“Be it food production in farms or dependence for it on the natural forest ecosystem. People have realised that they need to eat healthy food, and many of these were available and more visible during the lockdown as food from external sources were restricted. There was this realisation to opt for more healthy and sustainable choices,” Jamir told Mongabay-India.

Hashtags such as #vocal4local, a surge in internet-based farmer-consumer direct connections and a spurt in urban home gardeners were noticeable during the lockdown months and in the following period.

“But this behavioural change may lead to a negative impact on SDG 15 in the long term. For example, if people show a preference for vegetarian eating habits, then that may lead to more stress on agriculture. Intensive agriculture may harm our biodiversity. Though people’s perceptions are in the right direction, the government has to ensure that agriculture does not go intensively,” said Das.

She cautioned against the ease of access to areas both within and outside protected areas for infrastructure development. “The way the government has been pushing for kickstarting economic activity may hurt life on land.”

It’s complicated

The impacts of COVID-19 for ‘Life on Land’ are, like most things, “complicated and mixed”, remarked Ruth DeFries, a professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University, also spotlighting the rollback on environmental regulations.

“On one hand, we see that reduced human presence during lockdowns has created space for non-human species, with sightings of wildlife in places that were not possible with the usual traffic and noise of daily life. On the other hand, poaching and other illegal activity get less scrutiny from a reduced presence of guards and security,” DeFries told Mongabay-India.

“In countries around the world, the creeping rollback on environmental regulations and clearance processes, which would normally receive a lot of scrutinies, can slip by as civil society focuses on the repercussions from COVID-19,” DeFries observed.

While India stayed home during the lockdown, the government embarked on a clearance spree to approve coal mining, road construction, and other projects within ecologically sensitive zones of protected areas. 

For instance, the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve rainforest in Assam, which includes the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary (DPWLS), was recently at the centre of a controversy over illegal coal mining in a section of the elephant reserve that has a sizeable population of elephants. 

The controversy sparked viral virtual movements on social media under hashtags #SaveDehingPatkai and #ImDehingPatkai bolstered by art and music. Raging protests have temporarily stalled mining operations, but its future remains uncertain.

Reported wildlife poaching in India, mainly of ungulates and small wild animals for meat, more than doubled during COVID-19 lockdown, as per an analysis by TRAFFIC. Despite consistent efforts by law enforcement agencies, wild animal populations in India were at an additional threat during the lockdown period, the study noted.

Among big cats, leopard poaching showed an increase during the lockdown. Photo by Rohit Gangwal/Wikimedia Commons.

Among big cats, leopard poaching showed an increase during the lockdown, noted the analysis. Incidences related to wild pet-bird seizures came down significantly from pre-lockdown (February 10 to March 22 2020) to lockdown (March 23 to May 3 2020) period; presumably due to a lack of transport and closed markets during the lockdown However, larger birds, such as Indian peafowls and game birds such as grey francolins, which are popular for their meat, were targeted during the lockdown.

With 2.4 percent of the world’s land area, but a sixth of the global human population and approximately eight percent of all recorded species, India has made sustainable management of the terrain ecosystem a priority, states India’s SDG Index Report (2019-2020). 

It goes on to say that the country overall has progressed forward in its journey towards achieving the SDGs, pushed mainly by five goals including SDG 15. However, there are “persisting challenges” such as increasing industrialisation threatening ecosystems through chemical run-offs and the use of such materials as plastics along with other detrimental effects like destruction or degradation of natural resources.

Speeding up SDG progress post COVID-19

Despite the writing on the wall, Indian government’s environment ministry has continued its push for ensuring a smoother path for industries in securing environment clearances; it is in the process of changing the environment impact assessment (EIA) notification 2006 which governs the process of granting or rejecting environment clearances to industrial and infrastructural projects. 

The draft EIA 2020 came under heavy criticism from environmentalists who called it a “serious dilution of the present rules” and said that it would favour projects that violate rules and operate without environment clearance.

Ruth DeFries recalled that when she first began working in India in the early 1980s, EIA was just getting underway. “There has been a lot of progress since then with governments and society-at-large recognising that development depends on a healthy environment.  The revival of the economy from the COVID-19 shock offers an opportunity to further invest in clean technologies and rural economies and accelerate progress towards the SDGs,” she said.

“Rather than worrying about the negative impacts of COVID-19 on the achievement of SDGs, we should use the SDGs as a roadmap for post-COVID recovery and development. Immediate areas of concern would be goals relating to food, hunger, health, education and of course employment and income,” added Jamir, stressing that with or without the pandemic, the process of undertaking EIAs remains critical and essential.

“These should not be mixed with politics or business. Unfortunately, it seems to be so. India, as a nation has to make choices – keeping in mind the long-term sustainability vision. We must, therefore, ensure that we are choosing life on earth and not one that will drag us down below it,” said Jamir.

There is also an opportunity to disregard the SDGs with the out-dated argument that economic development is only possible at the expense of the environment, pointed out DeFries. “This is a moment when leadership is so central to setting the course for the future,” she said.

“In the long term picture, whether a new-normal will emerge is yet to be seen. Will society recognise the dangers of more infectious diseases emerging with the destruction of remaining wildlands? Will countries around the world address the inequities and vulnerabilities with access to health care, employment, and other basics, that the pandemic has exposed so clearly? In India, will rural economies revitalise as migrants have seen first hand the down-side of urban migration as a livelihood strategy,” wondered DeFries.

COVID-19 has renewed interest in operationalising ‘One Health’ approach in India that is poised to launch the National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being. The mission, which is in its preparatory phase, aims to reconcile environmental protection, economic prosperity, and societal welfare in India by embedding biodiversity as a principal consideration in all developmental programmes and advancing biodiversity science as a discipline in the country.

“Two of the programmes of the Mission – Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Mitigation – are particularly relevant to the realisation of SDG 15 as they address, among other issues, the conservation and restoration of a range of natural habitats, biodiversity and ecosystem services, identification of threatened biomes and taxa, and the management of invasive species,” Asmita Sengupta, programme officer, with the Mission Secretariat, National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being, told Mongabay-India.

Besides realising the goal of large scale ecological restoration, enhancing nutritional security and employment opportunities including those based on a sustained flow of bioresources, the OneHealth framework as envisioned in the Mission, will act as an early warning system and help in the prevention of outbreaks of pandemics in the future, through the identification of hotspots of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases and establishment of Sentinel Surveillance Sites across India, said Sengupta, a DST-INSPIRE Faculty Fellow, ATREE.

Amba Jamir adds that in the long-term, the “pandemic has also shown us that sustainability is something that should be taken more seriously, especially by governments. The need to refocus on nature-based solutions and to conserve, restore or maintain natural ecosystems and biodiversity have been made clearer. What remains unclear is the road ahead.”

Scientists are emphasising that there is no correlation between eating foods of animal origin including chicken, goat meat and fish and COVID-19. Photo from Centre for Disease Control, USA.


Banner image: More than 80 percent of the geographical area of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is covered with forests including mangroves. Photo by Debopama Misra/Wikimedia Commons.

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