Fear of more pan­demics as land rights squeezed

Daily Dispatch - - News - Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion

Gov­ern­ments’ fail­ure to recog­nise the land rights of indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties and their role in pro­tect­ing bio­di­ver­sity could lead to more coro­n­avirus­like pan­demics, re­searchers said on Tues­day.

A study of more than 40 coun­tries found many lo­cal peo­ple’s land claims were be­ing ig­nored, amid in­creas­ing de­for­esta­tion and wildlife ex­ploita­tion, which may be con­tribut­ing to a rise in dis­eases, like Covid-19, that pass from an­i­mals to hu­mans.

“De­spite com­pelling ev­i­dence that indige­nous peo­ples, lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, and Afro-de­scen­dants pro­tect most of the world’s re­main­ing bio­di­ver­sity, they are un­der siege from all sides,” said Andy White of the Rights and Re­sources Ini­tia­tive (RRI).

“Our work sug­gests the an­swer is to in­vest in the coun­tries and com­mu­ni­ties that are ready to scale up land rights. Fail­ure to do so puts at risk the health of the planet and all of its peo­ple,” White, the study’s co-au­thor, said in a state­ment.

The study by the RRI — an al­liance of more than 150 or­gan­i­sa­tions ad­vo­cat­ing for com­mu­nity land rights — comes ahead of a UN pledge ex­pected to be agreed in 2021 to set aside 30% of the planet’s land and sea for con­ser­va­tion by 2030.

De­spite lo­cal peo­ple manag­ing and pro­tect­ing 50% of the area stud­ied — which in­cluded Brazil, In­dia, China, Kenya, the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of the Congo and In­done­sia — gov­ern­ments recog­nised only half of com­mu­nity land claims, RRI said. This needs to be ad­dressed ur­gently, said re­searchers, as a grow­ing num­ber of zoonotic dis­eases — in­clud­ing Ebola, MERS, West Nile fever, Zika, Sars and Rift Val­ley fever — have re­cently jumped from an­i­mal hosts to hu­mans.

The most dra­matic ex­am­ple is

If there is chaotic de­vel­op­ment in a for­est where peo­ple and wildlife are com­ing more into con­tact, then it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore a virus jumps into the hu­man pop­u­la­tion

the new coron­avirus, which is be­lieved to have emerged in a mar­ket in China last year af­ter jump­ing the species bar­rier.

An­thony Waldron, a con­ser­va­tion fi­nance re­searcher based at Cam­bridge Univer­sity, said se­cur­ing indige­nous peo­ples’ land rights was key to stem­ming the spread of such dis­eases.

“If there is chaotic de­vel­op­ment in a for­est where peo­ple and wildlife are com­ing more into con­tact with one an­other, then it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore a virus jumps into the hu­man pop­u­la­tion,” he told a vir­tual brief­ing.

“If you don’t have de­fined land rights, you don’t know who owns what part and any­one can hap­pily in­vade. If you have clearly de­fined land rights ... which indige­nous groups can man­age ... there is smaller risk those viruses can jump.”

About 60% of known in­fec­tious dis­eases in hu­mans and 75% of all emerg­ing in­fec­tious dis­eases are zoonotic, largely due to the in­creased in­ter­ac­tion be­tween hu­mans, an­i­mals and the en­vi­ron­ment, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

Most ef­forts to con­trol zoonotic dis­eases have been re­ac­tive rather than proactive, said en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­perts, call­ing on gov­ern­ments to in­vest in pub­lic health, farm sus­tain­abil­ity, end over-ex­ploita­tion of wildlife and re­duce cli­mate change. —

Pic­ture: REUTERS / THIERRY GOUEGNON

DERELICT: Chil­dren walk in a de­stroyed Djig­bagui vil­lage in Ivory Coast’s Rapi­des-Grah for­est where il­le­gal co­coa farm­ers used to live. Ex­perts fear that lo­cal pro­tec­tion of bio­di­ver­sity may lead to new forms of dis­ease.

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