Six months ago, life was what we would have called “normal”; fast-forward to June 2020, in the throes of a global pandemic and recovery efforts- the catchphrases- quarantine, social distancing, masks and stay at home have become the new norm.
Amidst various government policies and strategies to contain the virus and protect public health, socio-economic challenges have arisen as economic downturns affect the livelihoods and social status of many persons. It is certainly evident that things cannot remain the same. The Coronavirus experience has made us reevaluate how we conduct business and carry out daily activities.
As many countries now turn to recovery efforts in response to the economic challenges, it is crucial for us to remember this new norm has presented several opportunities for us to build back better with stronger, resilient economies in harmony with nature. If this is not considered in the recovery efforts, we could very well be headed back to square one.
The Convention on Biological Diversity, whose Secretariat is hosted by UNEP, highlights that “as the global community is called to re-examine its relationship to the natural world, one thing is certain: despite all our technological advances we are completely dependent on healthy and vibrant ecosystems for our health, water, food, medicines, fuel, and energy, just to name a few”.
As we try to address the rising inequalities as a result of the coronavirus, nature may once again be put at a disadvantage. We must consider the ways we can work with the environment to protect people, their livelihoods and cultures while reversing the current trajectory of biodiversity loss and degradation of nature.
COVID-19 has underscored the close connection with people, nature and climate and in order to reduce the likelihood of future pandemics and zoonotic risks – we must act now to halt rapid environmental decline.
Nature-based solutions & resource efficiency
During the recent quarantines, isolations and general stay-at-home orders, nature has taken the opportunity to recover. Several water bodies are clearer and air quality has improved.
Social media has played a large role in spreading awareness about these changes and as a result, persons have become more aware of the effect their activities have on the environment, the changes that can occur through taking action and the importance of good government and business policy.
The linkages between reduced human carbon footprint and positive changes in the environment are evident. However, this is the time to build on the momentum and harness the climate benefits from nature-based solutions. The time to consider how we can transition to greener, inclusive economies that make our production processes, travel and other carbon-heavy activities, more efficient.
Inger Andersen, Executive Director, UNEP recently highlighted in her article Covid-19 is Not a Silver Lining for the Climate, that “the environmental improvements seen since the outbreak are temporary, and come on the backs of human distress and economic slowdown.”
But, through increased investments, policies, and actions that harness alternatives, protect nature and are carbon neutral we can implement sustainable consumption and production as well as introduce green jobs in a greener, more inclusive, sustainable economy.
Waste Management, also crucial for recovery
Undoubtedly, COVID-19 raised new issues with the increase in medical waste that calls for improved waste management in response to the global crisis. Solutions to mitigate the possible adverse effects are crucial as we continue to protect human health, land and marine animals and control the release of harmful chemicals into the atmosphere, land and water.
Waste management will likely include efforts to improve the appropriate identification, collection, separation, storage, transportation, treatment and disposal as well as disinfection and personnel training and protection. With the rise in medical refuse, it is important to review the ways in which medical and other waste, can be reduced. Putting a focus on these issues can result in advancements in medical and other waste disposal.
Our Future is Dependent on how we act now
With the hurricane season rapidly approaching in the Caribbean, many uncertainties lie ahead. We must update our disaster management response and improve our resilience.
Much of this lies in the truth that humans live in a symbiotic relationship with nature; neither can truly survive without the other. COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to press reset on many of our activities. Let’s seize the opportunity to press reset on our relationship with nature and get on track to a more sustainable future.
Protecting Our Caribbean Sea, together
The health of our oceans and seas is inextricably linked with the health of our planet and all life on earth. Many nationalities, including mine, have a special relationship with the sea. The truth is, the sea has a special relationship with all of us. It keeps us alive.
Caring for our oceans, and more broadly, the environment, is a shared responsibility among all peoples. It is a moral duty that transcends national borders, as well as cultural, social and political differences that may create ‘islands’ in society. Caring for the environment is more than receiving economic gains or simply ‘fattening the eye’ from the natural beauty that is endemic to the Wider Caribbean Region (WCR). It is, rather, a matter of life and survival for present and future generations, and as stewards of these natural resources, each individual must take stock of the impact of their actions on the environment.
With their diverse, yet interconnected historical and cultural backgrounds, along with their shared marine and coastal resources, the mainland countries and islands of the Wider Caribbean can be likened to members of a family. There are diverse ‘personalities’, as members set their own priorities and long-term plans and head their ‘households’ according to their own circumstances and leadership styles. There are varying levels of living standards and socio-economic development among each member, impacted by different hardships and responses to internal and external shocks over the years. Some ‘members’ have ‘households’ that are more largely populated than others, while some, because they are uninhabited by people, are just there to be admired!
In the same way that families share a unique connection through a common kinship, so too are the countries of the Wider Caribbean bound geographically by the Caribbean Sea. The Wider Caribbean Region comprises the insular and coastal States and Territories with coasts on the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, as well as waters of the Atlantic Ocean adjacent to these States and Territories. In spite of the region’s political, cultural and socio-economic differences, these countries all depend on their marine and coastal resources. Caribbean biodiversity provides subsistence, fishing, water, materials, employment, coastal protection and well-being to these populations. Protecting and caring for these resources is therefore a matter of safeguarding the very means of survival of this ‘family’.
While families, however, thrive under collaboration and good relations, they also come upon challenges from time to time. The current COVID19 pandemic attests to the need for togetherness and solidarity to overcome this health emergency which is affecting all levels of society. It is also an example of how unforeseen occurrences can strain the resources and capacities of families, and furthermore, the extent to which the actions of one individual can impact the collective society, negatively or positively.
While there are many external shocks that countries have no control over, preventative actions can be taken to reduce their vulnerability and increase resilience, for example, preparing for the impacts of storms and hurricanes. On the other hand, challenges such as pollution, overfishing and habitat degradation are the direct result of our own actions. These issues also have direct and indirect consequences for the environment which sustains us. In one of the most comprehensive studies on coral reefs in the Caribbean, the report Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012 (Jackson et. al, 2014) notes that average coral cover in the region had declined from 34.8% in 1970 to an average of 16.8% in 2012, and they remain highly threatened. Overfishing (mainly of parrotfishes), high human population density and coastal pollution were assessed as just some of the drivers of this drastic decline. Evidently, the challenges we face sometimes are brought upon ourselves by our own misguided actions, or inaction. The good news, however, is that the burden of steering this ship in the right direction does not rest on just one member of the family- each individual action counts as it is, indeed, a ‘family affair’.
Human populations and their production and consumption patterns are major drivers of change in the condition of the marine environment and its ecosystems (State of Marine Pollution report, 2020). The growth of the population and economic sectors such as tourism will intensify pressures on the marine environment from land-based sources and activities if appropriate management measures are not taken.
According to the 2019 report led by the World Bank on Marine Pollution in the Caribbean: Not a Minute to Waste, 80% of marine pollution of the Caribbean Sea results from “direct or indirect discharge of solids and liquids from land-based sources such as rivers, outfalls, waterways, agricultural runoff, and infrastructure”. This means that over three-quarters of the contamination in the Caribbean Sea is a result of human activity on land.
Over the years, governments in the Wider Caribbean have made strides in protecting the region’s marine resources and biodiversity through collaboration and the sharing of best practices. Regional projects and activities, for example, have been implemented to improve wastewater and solid waste management, as well as to protect coral reefs, mangroves and marine species. More recently, for instance, over 14 governments in the Wider Caribbean have taken steps to ban the use, distribution and/or importation of single-use plastics and Styrofoam. Five countries so far have also joined the regional Clean Seas campaign to encourage a multi-stakeholder approach to reducing the quantity and impact of trash in the Caribbean Sea, and in marine and coastal zones.
Increasing environmental awareness and sensibility is crucial to this movement to protect the Caribbean Sea and sustain the Caribbean ocean economy. While governments must do their part to ensure that policies, laws and institutions are in place to address the issues of pollution and habitat degradation, citizens also have to be on board. The long and short of this family dynamic, is that the actions of one member have an impact on the lives of others. A simple action such as properly disposing of garbage in a trash can is a moral responsibility that demonstrates respect for a clean, decent and dignified life, not to mention the impact it has on the aesthetics of a community.
As we commemorate World Oceans Day and celebrate together the beauty, wealth and the promise of the ocean, let us remember that oceans are the lungs of our planet, providing most of the oxygen we breathe. They are a major source of food and medicine and a critical part of the biosphere. Keeping our marine and coastal environment healthy and pollution-free must therefore be the priority of everyone in this Caribbean family.
For a cleaner and more sustainable ocean economy in the Wider Caribbean, for present and future generations, achieving it together is so much better.
About the United Nations Environment Programme
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), established in 1972, sets the global environmental agenda and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment. UNEP provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.
The UNEP Caribbean Sub-Regional Office
The UNEP Caribbean Sub-Regional Office, which opened its doors in November 2016, seeks to strengthen UNEP’s regional presence by being closer to Caribbean countries. Working under the supervision of the UNEP Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, the office works as a catalyst, advocate, educator and facilitator to promote the wise use and sustainable development of the Caribbean environment.
Through work with Governments, community groups, non-governmental organizations and other international development partners internationally and regionally, the UNEP Caribbean Sub-Regional Office assists countries to include environmental sustainability into their national action plans; convenes meetings with policy-makers to address common regional environmental issues and acts as liaison for disaster response and relief. The Sub-Regional Office monitors the progress of projects being conducted in over 30 Caribbean countries and territories with a focus on the following areas: Climate Change, Healthy and Productive Ecosystems, Chemicals Waste and Air Quality, Resource Efficiency, Resilience to Disasters and Conflicts, Environmental Governance and Environment Under Review.
The UNEP Cartagena Convention Secretariat
The UNEP-administered Cartagena Convention Secretariat was established within the framework of the UNEP Regional Seas Programmes by governments of the Wider Caribbean Region. Regional Seas Programmes support governments to address the accelerating degradation of the world’s oceans and coastal areas through a “shared seas” approach – namely, by engaging neighbouring countries to protect their common marine environment.
The Regional Seas – Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP) was established in 1981, which led to the development and adoption of the Cartagena Convention in 1983. This Convention is the legal framework that facilitates the protection and sustainable use of the region’s marine and coastal resources. To date, 26 United Nations Member States have ratified this Convention. The Convention is supported by 3 Protocols (technical agreements) concerning Cooperation in Combating Oil Spills, Pollution from Land-Based Sources and Activities (LBS) and Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW). The work of the Convention receives scientific and technical input from Regional Activity Centres based in Curacao, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba and Guadeloupe.
The Cartagena Convention Secretariat supports Contracting Parties in their efforts to meet their national obligations under the Convention and its Protocols. These Parties are required to address a range of issues including pollution from ships, the dumping of wastes at sea, pollution from coastal discharges and land-based sources, pollution from sea-bed activities, air pollution, the conservation of habitats, as well as the protection of threatened or endangered species of flora and fauna. More specifically, the Secretariat provides support to address emerging issues such as plastic pollution, sargassum, ocean acidification and ecosystem-based management.
In addressing these regional concerns, the Secretariat promotes and facilitates regional cooperation to protect the region’s coastal and marine resources. Public education and capacity-building are also at the core of the Secretariat’s work to promote knowledge sharing and training, and to encourage responsible action by all individuals for the sustainable development and management of the Caribbean Sea.
The UNEP Caribbean Sub-Regional Office and the UNEP Cartagena Convention Secretariat are both based in Kingston, Jamaica. Dr. Lorna Inniss is the Coordinator of the Cartagena Convention Secretariat and Mr. Vincent Sweeney heads the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office.
Address of both offices: 14-20 Port Royal Street, Kingston, Jamaica
Tel.: 1 (876) 922 9267