Towards healthy biodiversity

Danial Norjidi

The importance of healthy biodiversity towards building resilience from diseases and narrowing health system gaps was highlighted by Executive Director of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) Dr Theresa Mundita S Lim in conjunction with World Health Day on April 7.

Dr Lim said the ACB joined the global community in celebrating World Health Day and its theme ‘Building a fairer, healthier world’ is a fitting reminder that health is the foundation of economic recovery and prosperity, and that achieving this would require appropriate investments in nature and biodiversity.

“We have seen how COVID-19 has exposed the frail relationship between humans and nature. The past year has challenged us to deepen our understanding of the critical role of natural ecosystems and biodiversity in human health.”

Dr Lim said the pandemic has claimed 58,589 lives in the ASEAN region as of March 31, with 2,827,782 confirmed cases since last year.

“Yet, the end seems not in sight with new waves of infections hitting some parts of the world and the threat of emerging new diseases looming,” she said. “This leads us to the question: Why is investing in nature tantamount to investing in people’s health?”

The executive director underlined that biodiversity is of value to the far-reaching quest to ensure good health for all.

“Healthy biodiversity, which encompasses genetic, species, and ecosystem variety, remains crucial for humans’ health and survival. It is a vital component, not only in building resilience from diseases, but also in narrowing health system gaps.

“With biodiversity loss, humans are at great risk from the increasing wildlife and human interactions and spillover of infections,” said Dr Lim, citing the latest pandemics report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) which warns about how increased human-driven activities drive the risks of pandemics,” she said.

She said the report identified unsustainable exploitation of the environment due to land-use change, agricultural expansion, trade, and consumption of wildlife and other drivers that disrupt natural interactions among wildlife and their microbes.

“Protecting biodiversity means preventing diseases at the source. Apart from curing and regulating diseases, natural ecosystems deliver essential services, such as food and clean water; without which life would be impossible.

“Non-communicable diseases are an outcome of the shrinking space and access to these essential services. In ASEAN region, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory problems, and diabetes are major causes of mortality. These are largely driven by the lack of equitable access to food and dietary diversity, safe environment, and active lifestyle.

“Thus it is vital that an enabling environment – one that ensures healthy ecosystems, as part of a holistic approach to human health and wellness,” she said.

Dr Lim underlined that as the ASEAN region is home to diverse species of medicinal plants, the recognition and promotion of traditional knowledge in governing and managing these resources emphasise the strong interconnection between human health and biodiversity.

She noted that Senna alata or akapulko, a medicinal plant present in six ASEAN member states, has anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal properties, properties, among others. Meanwhile, Euphorbiaceae or prakplae in Cambodia, is used as a natural remedy for diabetes and indigestion.

“Apart from their medicinal and health benefits, these medicinal resources found in the wild also provide additional income and livelihood for many communities.”

“An integrated and whole-of-community approach is the most logical pathway in building a fairer, healthier world,” said Dr Lim.

She added,”Considering the inseparable relationship of culture, biodiversity, and public health, it is important to ensure that the needs and values of the people and communities are incorporated in the recovery efforts.

“Guided by the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework, which was adopted by the ASEAN leaders in November 2020, the ACB and the ASEAN member states are working on realising a green and equitable recovery ambition by harmonising biodiversity and health policies, plans, and programmes.

“This is a key step in ACB’s main thrusts of mainstreaming biodiversity across various sectors and the region’s recovery efforts.

“Allow me to stress that any form of investment in biodiversity and public health will never go down the drain. The real benefits of protecting ecosystems and their biodiversity are incalculable and can be enjoyed by one generation after another. Indeed, as we take care of nature we take good care of our health and well-being.”