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SUSTAINABILITY | 06.05.2020

“Protecting nature is the best antiviral to tackle any pandemic”

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Luis Suárez is the Conservation Coordinator for WWF ESPAÑA, one of the country’s leading environmental NGOs with whom MAPFRE has been working since 2015 as part of our commitment to sustainability and biodiversity conservation.

This 51-year-old Galician biologist, who specializes in zoology, believes that biodiversity loss makes us more vulnerable to illnesses, forest fires, floods and pests. He says we only have until 2030 to galvanize fundamental changes, which include reducing consumption, making good choices in terms of the food we buy, and changing how we get around. All with the aim of reducing our footprint.

He acknowledges that he’s felt as if he’s been living in a bubble over the last few months and has a huge sense of gratitude for all those who have been fighting the pandemic on the front line. He has also had to postpone personal and professional projects and learn to make short-term decisions. His main job at the moment is to give a voice to Lucha por tu naturaleza, a project that explains the relationship between biodiversity loss and pandemics and focuses on turning economic recovery and investment into an opportunity to turn the tide and address the environmental crisis.

What are you defending on such an important for you? (World Environment Day)

Today we want to remind everyone that nature protects us, that it’s the best antiviral we have against any pandemic, and we must strive to preserve it in order to guarantee our future as a species on this planet. It’s important to remember that nature is under a greater threat than ever and that this decade, 2020 to 2030, is our last chance to make decisions and help reverse the negative trend.

You have just presented the results of a report that claims climate change and biodiversity loss may help illnesses to flourish. What is the relationship between pandemics and the destruction of nature?

Nature is full of viruses that we don’t even know about. In fact, around 5,000 are recorded, but it’s estimated that there may be between 1.5 and 2 million viruses. In natural conditions, these viruses coexist with several species and the interactions that exist in a healthy ecosystem weaken any potential negative effects. Let’s consider the predator/prey relationship, for example. A sick animal is quickly attacked by its predator, preventing the spread of an illness and thus ensuring that it never interacts with us. When we destroy nature, we alter ecosystem balances and make it easier for viruses and other pathogens to spread to humans. If we also enter these ecosystems, capture wild animals and transport them thousands of miles to sell them in street markets where all sorts of animals mix with human beings, then we are creating the perfect breeding ground for the transmission of disease.

It is also important to highlight that the increase in agriculture and livestock farming (due to their destructive effect on ecosystems and the increase in farms) and climate change, which facilitates the expansion of disease vectors such as certain mosquitoes, also contribute to spreading disease.

We are eliminating our most effective antiviral—nature—and creating the perfect conditions for new diseases to spread to human beings.

 

“When we destroy forests, capture wild animals and transport them thousands of miles to sell them in street markets, we are creating the perfect breeding ground for the transmission of disease”

What measures do you suggest to prevent and combat future pandemics?

We believe that the destruction of nature must be stopped and, as such, we’ve set out three key objectives that we would like to achieve before 2030. The first is aimed at halting habitat destruction, curbing the loss of species and halving our ecological footprint. All of this requires a profound change to the current model and establishing policies that tackle climate change and biodiversity loss both as a priority and as key policies for Spain. There are also other challenges, such as halting forest destruction—preventing deforestation and changing the farming and livestock model—and stopping species extinction—by addressing threats, curbing wildlife trafficking and closing markets and outlets—and of course, fighting climate change by transitioning to clean energy.

Wildlife trafficking is one of the key topics that your organization focuses on. You argue that it’s one of the things that exposes humans to new diseases. How does infection occur?

Indeed, wildlife trafficking is one of the greatest threats to the conservation of species worldwide, which also poses a serious health risk. By capturing a wild animal, transporting it hundreds or thousands of miles in poor conditions and selling it at a street market where it can come into contact with other domestic and wild animals (dead or alive) and with thousands of human beings, we are making it easier for viruses to jump from one species to another and eventually spread to human beings. This was the case, among other diseases, with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) caused by the SARS-CoV Coronavirus, which originated in a bat and was transmitted to the palm civet (a small carnivore), and then on to human beings. SARS-CoV2, the cause of COVID-19, is likely to have followed a similar path in the market in Wuhan city in central China, although we don’t currently know which species may have been involved. We therefore believe that it’s essential to close markets selling species that have been illegally captured.

How would you define the term biodiversity in a simple way?

Biodiversity is the collection of different life forms that inhabit Earth (including their gene diversity) and how these different life forms relate to each other.

What increases biodiversity loss on our planet?

We know that there are five major threats. These include habitat destruction (either by overexploitation or by transformation), the persecution and overexploitation of species by hunting, fishing, poaching and trafficking, as well as pollution by dumping and using pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals. We also see the introduction of invasive exotic species, which have an extremely negative effect on certain particularly sensitive environments, such as islands, and obviously with climate change, which has both direct effects, which include increased temperatures and changes to environmental conditions, as well as indirect effects, which amplify certain impacts, as is the case with fires. All of these threats are caused by human beings and three other elements of destruction, which experts say stand out from the rest, namely agriculture, hunting and fishing.

“This decade is our last chance to reverse the negative trend”

What are the dangers if we don’t preserve biodiversity?

What can happen is we put our own future as a species at risk. Extinction seriously threatens ecosystems’ ability to provide goods and services, which endangers vital functions such as pollination, seed dispersal, sourcing raw materials, food, pharmaceuticals, pest regulation, to name a few. Ultimately, the loss of biodiversity makes us more vulnerable to forest fires, floods, pests and known diseases, such as dengue fever or malaria, or to new ones, such as COVID-19. It endangers our own species. If we don’t curb climate change and species extinction, the land will change, and we don’t know if these new environments will be so favorable to us.

Do you think we need to change the minds of many people who do not consider the disappearance of plants and animals to be a loss? What do you think we can do about it?

We must definitely continue to explain the relationship between humans and other living beings and how we depend on nature. We must remember that we are a part of nature and, even though we live in urban environments, we need healthy ecosystems in order to survive. This is impossible with the current model. When scientists and conservationists began discussing climate change decades ago, they were branded as scaremongers. We’re already suffering the effects and impacts of that change today, and almost no one is talking about it. But global temperatures continue to soar, and species and ecosystems continue to disappear, and the consequences will be dire if we don’t do something. We need to spearhead a change in the model, but we must also be aware that this change starts with us and the decisions we make each and every day really do matter, because this is how we can tip the balance. Reducing our consumption, making good choices in terms of the food we buy, changing our mode of transport, essentially decreasing our footprint. These are essential steps.

What are you asking governments around the world to do in order to spur a change in policies and the way we live?

We’re asking them to join what we’ve called the “Nuevo acuerdo para la naturaleza y las personas” (new agreement for nature and people) and to promote another model, which allows the fight against the environmental and climate emergency to move toward center stage, for it to be part of the political agenda. We believe that we must push for an energy transition that will allow us to leave fossil fuels behind, radically change the food production and consumption model to reduce its impact, suspend activities that destroy natural resources and start investing massively in the conservation and restoration of natural ecosystems.


IN A NUTSHELL:

  • Activism: commitment, fight
  • Health: life
  • Deforestation: destruction
  • COVID-19: pain
  • Global warming: challenge
  • Pesticides: a silent threat
  • There is no planet B: very true
  • Youth: the future

Luis Suárez Arangüena was born on July 3, 1969 in A Coruña. He holds a degree in Biological Sciences the Complutense University of Madrid, specializing in Zoology. He has been the head of WWF España’s Programa de Especie (species program) since 2003, which allows him to coordinate projects aimed at conserving endangered species, tackling their main threats and protecting and restoring their habitats. He has been the coordinator of the Conservation department at WWF España since November 2019, the main functions of which are to support the department’s management, promote and coordinate political action and coordinate the major campaigns carried out by WWF along with the Communication department.

Photos: WWF España.