Celebrate the positive highlights on environment, but be wary... ― Cheryl Rita Kaur and Sahadev Sharma

MAY 20 ― The United Nations has proclaimed May 22 as The International Day for Biological Diversity to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues, with the theme this year “Our solutions are in nature”. It is hence an opportune time to discuss related developments.  

There is an increasing urge towards building a sustainable future, especially in light of the challenges we are facing from the current pandemic. Numerous highlights in the media and reports relating to positive developments in the environment during the global lockdown period have gained perspective.

Even The King, in his Opening Speech at the Parliament on May 18, called for greater national and regional collaboration and commitment in addressing environmental issues while he emphasised on river pollution, forestry management, wildlife protection, as well as greenhouse gas reduction.

The question now is how do we ensure the environment is prioritised after this? The challenge really is how do we make sure that we do not go back to “business-as-usual”. How do we ensure economic recovery efforts are sustainable, while addressing future risks are carefully tackled trough sound environmental responses?   

Some of us would remember the landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2019 showing nature declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. This report was compiled by some 145 experts from 50 countries, and was the first of its kind building on the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005. In terms of its policy-relevance, the assessment ranked five major drivers of change in nature, and these in descending order include: (i) changes in land and sea use, (ii) direct exploitation, (iii) climate change, (iv) pollution and (v) invasive alien species. The report however emphasised that it was not too late to make a difference, if actions were taken from the local to global level. The report emphasised on the need for fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including transformational change in paradigms, goals and values to achieve success.

More specifically, we have often ignored the fact that some of the biggest challenges we are facing are in the protection and conservation of our coastal wetlands. We are blessed in diverse biodiversity and resources from the coastal areas which provide for ecosystem services and human wellbeing.

Mangroves for instance are known to provide numerous ecosystem services to the coastal communities and people in general ― ranging from food security, coastal protection, to climate change mitigation. Due to its significance, mangroves are increasingly being prioritised not only under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and RAMSAR Wetlands Convention but increasingly so also under various other international initiatives and platforms such as the Paris Agreement, and International Blue Carbon Initiative, nature-based solutions amongst others.

A more recent paper published in the Journal of Current Biology by an international team of 22 experts, including participation from the University of Malaya highlighted a cause for optimism in mangrove conservation. The study highlighted a reduction by almost an order of magnitude in current global mangrove loss ― from the estimates about 2 per cent per year between the late 20th and early 21st century to less than 0.4 per cent per year presently. This has been largely attributed to successful mangrove conservation efforts in many parts of the world.

However, despite to substantial momentum and awareness of the ecosystem services provided by mangroves, when one moves from a broader to local emphasis, there are still a number of challenges to be addressed in ensuring continued and effective success in mangroves conservation. Some of the major drivers of challenge include those identified in the IPBES Report, while more specifically in Malaysia ― these also encompass human activities such as deforestation caused by palm oil plantation, aquaculture and urban development.

For instance, at about 0.7 per cent and 0.4 per cent respectively, countries like Myanmar and Malaysia are still showing rates of deforestation and mangrove loss above the global average to cater for rice cultivation and oil palm plantation, respectively. Positioned at third in the global mangrove area cover just after Indonesia and Brazil, notably much has been done to address related issues in Malaysia, nevertheless efforts could be further enhanced to achieve desirable results in areas that require further attention.

Some of the more pressing needs and efforts required at the national and local levels should include:

(i)            Monitoring of deforestation rates in Malaysia, which has been identified to be alarming in the region and largely to cater for development demands including agriculture focusing on oil palm plantation, aquaculture, and ports development and expansion, among others.

(ii)           Enhancing data records of rehabilitation monitoring and successes to show outcomes. Despite numerous reports on mangrove replanting and rehabilitation at the local level, scarce information exists on the status and trends of achievements which could otherwise be an important and reliable source of information for policy-makers, planners and managers to sustainably manage the resource.

(iii)          Improving management of existing RAMSAR sites in the country, besides identifying suitable areas as protected areas and reserves. 

(iv)         Continued research to recognise the potential that coastal ecosystems present for climate change mitigation through national blue carbon assessment, and gaps in current knowledge and how vulnerable they are to degradation by human activities including a focus on low carbon actions, land use change and forestry as a whole.

(v)          Development of suitable policy measures and financial incentives through conservation and restoration of coastal ecosystems as part of the national climate change mitigation plan, and incorporation into the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement.  

We need to give serious attention to the critical role and solution wetlands provide on climate change and sustainable development. Only with more concerted efforts instilled at all levels through integrated approach via collaborative endeavours between the government, academia, relevant NGOs, industries, and coastal communities ― can the continued success be ensured in this fragile, yet crucial ecosystem. 

* Cheryl Rita Kaur is the Head of the Centre for Coastal and Marine Environment at Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA).

** Dr Sahadev Sharma is a senior lecturer of the Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences at University of Malaya.

*** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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