Elizabeth Mrema’s visions for a new era for nature and women

Three questions with the UN biodiversity agency’s executive director

4 March 2021
4 March 2021

International Women’s Day is approaching this year, on 8 March, at a time when the world is beginning to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with optimism for a different future yet clairvoyance on the challenges we still face – one of the most pressing ones being the rapid rate of loss of Earth’s variety of life.

In the face of this, the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is leading the development of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, a global agreement on measures and targets to stop biodiversity’s decline and mitigate its deleterious effects on lives, economies and the biosphere. As the new framework is in its final stages of negotiation among U.N. member states and is set to be finalized later this year, Landscape News spoke with the CBD’s executive secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema on the value of nature, how we can achieve its conservation and women’s crucial role therein.

View of the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, where CBD head Elizabeth Maruma Mrema spent her youth. Sergey Pesterev, Unsplash
View of Mount Kilimanjaro from Amboseli National Park. Sergey Pesterev, Unsplash

Why is biodiversity important to you personally?

Biodiversity means everything to me. Coming from the slopes of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, which is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest single free-standing mountain in the world (5,895 meters above sea level), I realized the critical importance of biodiversity very early on in life. The mountain biodiversity supported and continues to support all our communities’ needs and more, including food and nutrition security, energy, the development of medicines and pharmaceuticals and freshwater, to mention a few. All these benefits rely on good biodiversity health. 

Aside from ecosystems, this mountainous biodiversity also supports economic opportunities, such as tourism (mountain climbing, visiting national parks, etc.) and other leisure activities that contribute to overall national and human wellbeing. Just by taking a walk around the slopes of the mountain, whether it be in a forest or around the national parks surrounding the mountain, hearing birds chirping and smelling flowers and the nature around them helps to reduce stress. In fact, several studies have shown that exposure to nature contributes to our physical wellbeing by reducing blood pressure, heart rate and muscle pain, as well as to our mental wellbeing. Nature enriches us in every way, and it simply makes us feel better emotionally as well as physically.

Ultimately, I envision an era when we as humans all fully appreciate nature’s innumerable contributions to our everyday lives, ensure that these contributions continue and that we all, as citizens of our one and only planet, fully understand that biodiversity remains the answer to sustainable development challenges. From nature-based solutions to climate mitigation and adaption, food and water security, sustainable livelihoods and economic and social development, biodiversity remains the basis for a sustainable and healthier future, not just for us, but also for our children and grandchildren and those yet to be born. Just as Sir David Attenborough puts it rightly: “Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy and habitable by all species,” which includes ourselves.

Butterflies, such as this monarch butterfly, are indicators of the overall health of biodiversity in an area. taylor_smith, Unsplash
Butterflies, such as this monarch butterfly, are indicators of the overall health of biodiversity in an area. taylor_smith, Unsplash

As the new framework for biodiversity is soon to be set, what targets are you most optimistic it can accomplish?

The post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will include a vision of where we, as a planet, want to be. This vision is currently captured in a set of four goals. The targets of the framework outline policy interventions, investments, behavioral changes and other conditions that will be necessary to achieve these goals. I believe that not achieving the global biodiversity framework goals and targets as a package is not an option, considering that this decade is our last chance to make a difference on this planet and achieve aims such as the Sustainable Development Goals. If we do not fulfill the Global Biodiversity Framework, we will experience a sixth mass extinction and risks to our economic systems from further biodiversity loss that are already considered unprecedented, and these continuing changes will be irreversible

Although the risks are high, I am optimistic that we can achieve all the targets in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. I believe too that not only ministries of environment and traditional biodiversity stakeholders have realized the importance of protecting our natural capital, but also that there is also a growing awareness among other governmental entities, financial institutions, companies, community organizations and individual citizens. And thus, not only will we have a roadmap to work toward applying the Global Biodiversity Framework, but we are also in the middle of a global movement that will take us in the right direction – if we all work together and in solidarity.

A woman and child in a forest in Sierra Leone. anniespratt, Unsplash
A woman and child in a forest in Sierra Leone. anniespratt, Unsplash

What advice would you give to other women dedicating their careers and lives to biodiversity conservation?

I think it is important to remember that I am not alone in these efforts toward biodiversity conservation. There are pioneering women out there who have surmounted formidable challenges in all areas of science and discoveries related to biodiversity and its conservation and sustainable use. They have tackled the most challenging scientific questions, have succeeded in advancing knowledge and action and have overcome the overt and more subtle barriers faced by women in male-dominated environments. There are also women who have put their lives on the line to defend and protect nature at risk, and there are many others whose management skills and consistent efforts help to ensure that species we have relied upon for generations continue to flourish today. 

We also should not forget rural women in communities in which they take the brunt of their family’s and community’s livelihoods, which are entirely dependent on what biodiversity provides for them. Unfortunately, there is often a cost for biodiversity conservation due to a lack of or inadequate awareness of better alternatives and/or incentives for women to contribute to the conservation, sustainability and sustenance of biodiversity. Just as the Nobel Prize laureate Wangari Maathai once said, “women are the first victims of environmental degradation, because they are the ones who walk for hours looking for water, who fetch firewood, who provide food for their families.” All these women, therefore, remind us of what it is we have set out to accomplish and that we can do better.  It’s also important to build a network of partners, colleagues and others who support one another in our work. Certainly, this can make the difference in helping us to get to where we need to go and keep our spirits up when the challenges seem difficult to manage or adapt to. And I would say that it’s all entirely worth it – there is no limit to what one can achieve and whom one can inspire. Clearly, biodiversity needs our skills, commitment and dedication now more than ever before in the history of humankind. 


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