State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Protecting Biodiversity Requires Action at All Levels

As a diplomat, I recognize that beyond the walls of the United Nations, there are people who believe that its discussions do not make a difference to important world issues.

As international cooperation is being questioned by a number of nations and citizens, the U.N.’s international civil servants are preparing the Summit on Biodiversity. The summit will take place on September 30, and will include messages from presidents from around the world to encourage urgent action and support ongoing technical discussions at the Convention on Biological Diversity.

man in a suit at the un
The author at the General Assembly Hall at the U.N., where the Summit on Biodiversity will take place. Courtesy of Andrés Córdova

Summits like this and the achievement of international objectives are strengthened by the involvement and actions of individuals. This message is for citizens of the global community: It is time for you to get more involved in supporting biodiversity. It is time to increase the urgency and scale of our actions to protect species and ecosystems that are essential for life, wellbeing and sustainable development.

Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. Their vulnerability has increased due to a variety of factors. These include: changes in land and sea use, like cutting down forests to expand agriculture fields and pastures; over-exploitation of resources, such as over-fishing; climate change; pollution; and the introduction of foreign or invasive species, such as rats and goats, that threaten local species.

“When you lose one species, it affects the ecosystem and everything around it gets a little bit more fragile while it adapts to change,” said Kelsey Wooddell, former assistant director of the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability.

Similarly, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on health and well-being, poverty eradication, reducing hunger, combating climate change, halting biodiversity loss, and reducing inequalities, highlight the interconnectedness of global development challenges. Damaged ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, and the abuse and illegal trade of wildlife can increase the transmission of zoonotic and infectious diseases such as COVID-19.

There are challenges no country can face alone. Measures are needed at a global scale, beyond national borders. There is a need for stronger commitments from developed and developing countries, to increase financial resources, transfer technology, build capacities, and access and share the benefits of genetic resources.

The protection of biodiversity demands everyone’s involvement, including civil society, the private sector and academic institutions. Science and citizens guide governments to set environmental plans and policies, and to promote issues such as sustainable agriculture and tourism, expand protected areas, invest in science, technology and innovation, and set guidelines for the private sector to operate more sustainably. The Earth Institute at Columbia University and its research and outreach are a constant reminder of the importance of sharing knowledge and integrating the best available science into policy making. Powerful outcomes can be achieved if different actors are willing to understand each other’s viewpoints and work together to fulfill common objectives toward sustainability.

Biodiversity has a special place in my heart. Having grown up in Ecuador, one of the megadiverse countries in the word — surpassing the U.S. even though it is 35 times smaller — has given me the opportunity to feel the excitement of seeing giant tortoises, sea lions and blue-footed boobies at the Galapagos Islands, which inspired Charles Darwin’s “Theory of Evolution.” I have been fortunate enough to experience the splendorous flight of the Andean condor, the dance of the humpback whales, the colorful fluttering of butterflies, and the wonder of the Amazon jaguar. I have also felt the comfort and inner peace of drinking hierba luisa tea, and the relief of scars being healed by sangre de drago, a native plant which has been used medicinally by Indigenous peoples for centuries.

I have had similar experiences around the world. I can still remember the force of the Iguazu waterfalls, the coziness of having coca leaf tea for the altitude in Cuzco, the joy of being close to Australian koalas and wallabies, the respect for waves at sea, and the clarity of being atop of mountains, glaciers and volcanos. Surrounded by orphan elephants in Nairobi, I remember also not being able to understand how some people can practice poaching, or take part in other harmful activities.

Remember what you have seen or would someday wish to experience. These global marvels face the threat of becoming just memories. They deserve to be protected. Travel, explore, discover, feel, see the world. We share one planet, one home… This is all we have.

man in sunglasses near baby elephant
The author with an orphan elephant in Nairobi. Courtesy of Andrés Córdova

So, how can you, an ordinary citizen or student, get involved? There are a variety of ways.

You can research and gain more knowledge on the importance of protecting living species and ecosystems. Choose a more sustainable lifestyle and reduce unnecessary consumption. Buy from local farmers and visit protected areas and safe spaces for animals, plants and insects.

You can share your decisions with others, so that they spread. Think of your family, neighbors, friends, school, work, social media — very soon you are not alone. You can inspire others, have a louder voice, and get the attention of decision-makers. You can push to have a government that is committed to environmental protection, that respects its citizens’ calls and joins and supports international efforts and treaties.

At the same time, within U.N. walls, we will continue to spread messages of awareness, keep negotiating so every nation does its part, and advance ambitions to protect biodiversity. It may sometimes sound like mere rhetoric, but these efforts actually make a difference. Many of us still believe in the negotiating power of words.

Andrés Córdova graduated from the Executive Master of Public Administration program at Columbia University with a concentration in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management. During his studies at SIPA, he took courses with faculty members from the Earth Institute. He is a career diplomat working at the Permanent Mission of Ecuador to the United Nations in New York, in issues related to sustainable development. He has facilitated and negotiated several resolutions, including for the preparation of the Biodiversity Summit at the UN in 2020.

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