COVID-19 is the tip of the syndemic

Ways the Landscape Approach could help combat multiple epidemics at once

Sustainable acacia plantations border a field burnt for agriculture in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unsustainable agriculture is one of the drivers of ecosystem degradation, which can lead to the spread of disease. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

By John Colmey, former Time magazine bureau chief and the Managing Director of the Global Landscapes Forum

The new coronavirus pandemic, hopefully leaving us, has brought much of the world to a halt, disrupting entire food systems and the global economy and putting tens of millions out of work. But this is not the only storm humanity is braving. We are actually faced with a ‘syndemic’ or synergy of epidemics – crises that share root causes and reinforce each other, hitting the world’s shores as one mighty tsunami. Think biodiversity loss, climate change, land degradation, massive population displacements and socioeconomic inequality. And now, a new zoonosis has emerged that has already infected at least 4 million people and killed around 300,000 after passing from wild animals to humans.

The disintegration of natural habitats is making it easier for viruses to jump from their animal hosts to people, and around 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are now zoonoses. The list is sobering: COVID-19, Ebola, Marburg, SARS, MERS, Lassa hemorrhagic fever and HIV to name a few. It has long been acknowledged that our health is intimately linked to that of wildlife, livestock, plants and the environment as a whole – it is ‘One Health’. However, unsustainable and overuse of lands and natural resources are undermining the capacity of ecosystems to support human well-being. Hence the ‘syndemic’.

So, what is next?

We must fundamentally change the way we produce, consume and live, and the Landscape Approach is one of the tools that can help us ‘build back better’ from the ground up. The theory and practice, which is sweeping across the globe, is to balance competing land use demands such as urbanization, farming and biodiversity conservation in a way that is best for people and the environment they depend on. It means creating solutions adapted to local contexts and that are sustainable on the environmental, economic and social fronts –and many of us see it as the best chance of advancing the ‘One Planet, One Health’ notion. It may be our last chance.

In the last decade, a growing number of communities, corporations, governments and organizations from the World Bank to the United Nations to the world’s leading scientific institutions, have joined forces to pioneer the Landscape Approach in their territories and their investments. With its roots in ecological conservation, the approach takes a holistic lens to any landscape – the Serengeti, the Andes, or Indonesia’s vast peatlands – and generates and negotiates multiple benefits across sectors. Balancing competing interests is not easy, but there is a wealth of scientific evidence and practical experience that can provide guidance on how to use shared lands and resources, responsibly.

Take food production: unsustainable agriculture and farming are top drivers of land degradation globally, costing the world an estimated USD 6 trillion each year in lost services, goods and livelihoods, and forcing millions of people onto the path of migration. At the same time, 850 million people do not have enough to eat, and the COVID-19 pandemic could plunge 130 million people into acute malnutrition in 2020. Producing food using agroecology, agroforestry and natural farming approaches could restore lands and protect livelihoods, while offsetting nearly as much as the European Union’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Another example is forest restoration, which could also help sequester more than 200 gigatons of carbon globally – about one-fifth of all the carbon dioxide released between 1850 and 1999 – while producing valuable goods and services (clean water and air, food, energy), and establishing buffer zones around tropical forests. Such buffer zones could also reduce the interaction between people and wildlife that, as we know, is conducive to the emergence of zoonoses.

For better or worse, humans are part of the intricate mesh of life on Earth – a network that binds trees, wildlife, people, viruses and all there is. The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest manifestation of a global challenge that calls for a concerted response and, crucially, for an integrated response. We must look at the biodiversity, climate, land degradation, inequality and zoonoses crises as one and confront them as one. Mustering our collective ingenuity, creativity and capacity to cooperate, we must start laying the foundations for resilient landscapes and livelihoods worldwide. Or not, and brace ourselves for the worst.


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