Last summer, a hard hitting global assessment of the status of biodiversity and ecosystem services made headlines for its sobering statistics. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), more than one million animal and plant species were being threatened with extinction at levels completely unprecedented in human history.

Not surprisingly humans were the culprit- with changes in land and sea use and direct exploitation of organisms at the forefront, followed by climate change, pollution and invasive species. But for those of us battling to underline the importance of biodiversity to every facet of human life-food security, nutrition, resilient ecosystems, climate proofing of livelihoods and human wellbeing, we knew the global outrage would soon mute to a whimper.

After all, few people seem to understand what biodiversity is, why species potentially matter or its salience in the face of more important development and economic exigencies or even the climate crisis. This despite a global attempt to mainstream biodiversity. The Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as its first strategic goal aims at ‘mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society.’

But over the last decade has biodiversity been mainstreamed or just sidelined and trivialised, both in common perception, in our policies and on the ground?

The first issue is conceptual and perceptual. Despite attempts in the last few decades to relate biodiversity to the provision of ecosystem services upon which all life depends, and to value nature in monetary terms, the ambiguity and palpable lack of urgency relating to biodiversity continues.

Perhaps this is best described by Peter Raven, a well-known scientist, according to whom, “Biodiversity always seems to be a sort of mysterious background thing that isn’t quite there.” Even today, for many people, biodiversity translates simply as wildlife and conjures up pretty pictures of charismatic tigers and leopards. At the most the role of the tiger is recognised as an apex predator that helps protect swathes of forest given its large home range and need to disperse in search of territories.

With this reductionist view of biodiversity, the loss of a species is considered regrettable, but not necessarily irreplaceable, especially if it is a tiny insect. To put it in perspective, a senior member of a respected environmental institution recently said to me, “if oil reserves found under a protected area were to be weighed against tigers, then quite naturally the scales would tip in favour of the oil.”

Biodiversity, somehow is a soft issue, dispensable when it comes to more weighty matters of monetising our natural capital. It’s loss is nothing that technical solutions, renewable energy, energy efficiency and a circular economy cannot fix.

But biodiversity is not merely wildlife, it is the ecosystem and genetic diversity that sustains them, and us. The CBD defines biological diversity as, “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.”

Ecosystems such as forests (and all others), are not loose aggregations of independent species but intricate, living, interconnected evolutionary webs where the loss of habitat or decline of any species can potentially trigger cascades of extinction and change.

This can impact the demography and survival of the very trees that comprise a forest, ultimately impacting water flows, carbon sequestration and myriad other services. Enhancing this susceptibility to decline, are interacting forces such as habitat loss, fragmentation, hunting and climate change. Hence, forests and wildlife (and the same applies to all ecosystems) need to viewed as interacting parts of a whole, necessary for each other’s continued existence and of course for ours.

Does the current global focus on climate change also largely take biodiversity out of the equation? The emphasis is on reducing greenhouse gases and on enhancing carbon sequestration rather than on biodiversity. This shrinks the global finance pie available for biodiversity.

Moreover, rather than natural forests, plantations which play an important role in sequestering carbon become the preeminent strategy as plantation-driven Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects in the forestry sector amply illustrate. But plantations support less biodiversity, provide fewer ecosystem services, often focus on fast growing, exotic species, and of course cannot replace a biodiverse natural forest.

The recent emphasis on REDD plus, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, was a welcome break as it focused on reducing both deforestation and degradation and also brought back biodiversity conservation and livelihood benefits to the climate equation. However, REDD plus is a largely untested mechanism for forest conservation, adoption rates have been low for various reasons, and the initial results accruing from across the globe are not very positive.

India’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) targets an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. Much of this additional tree cover will include planting along highways, railway lines and wastelands. The emphasis on meeting targets through plantations has shifted the focus away from our natural forests, and the biodiversity they harbour. Moreover, if past experience is anything to go by, many designated wastelands diverted to plantation might be important ecosystems in their own right, such as grassland.

In India, forest cover has stabilised although forest degradation continues apace. However, due to the lack of disaggregated information, the status of natural forests remains largely unknown, and it is possible that this stabilisation results from plantations. Several recent measures to enhance forest cover in the country either ignore the role of biodiversity or are operationalized in ways that maintain the conventional ‘afforestation’ approach, rather than an active restoration one.

The Green India Mission, for example, is biodiversity-friendly and aims to improve the quality of cover of 5 M ha of forest in ways that go beyond plantations. Furthermore it incorporates other ecosystems such as grasslands and wetlands within its ambit. Yet to date, this by now almost moribund mission has followed only conventional afforestation practices.

The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 mandates the use of money received from diversion of forest land towards net present value (NPV) and penal NPV for forest and wildlife protection and management, apart from plantations. Nevertheless, we have lost an opportunity to ensure that some of the funds are dedicated to enhancing the ecological viability of protected areas, many of which function as isolated ecological units in a matrix of other land uses.

This Act could have spelled out that some of these funds be utilised for the regeneration of corridors and other areas with local community support as well as adjoining vulnerable habitats. In August, 2019, more than 47,000 crores of this money was released to the States primarily to achieve the forestry NDC objectives. Consequently, much of these CAMPA funds will again be spent on plantations whose survival in India is abysmal. And biodiversity will continue to decline.

But what of our protected areas (PAs), the last vestiges of wilderness actively dedicated to protecting biodiversity? Ironically, even as the COVID pandemic underlines the interdependence of human lives and biodiversity, and widespread lockdowns have brought the country to a standstill, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has provided a slew of clearances for infrastructure, mining and industrial projects.

These are in some of our last remaining natural forest strongholds, including India’s forested north-east allowing activities ranging from dam construction in the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, to oil exploration in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park (where a recent oil well blow out adversely impacted the famed Maguri Motapung beel), to coal mining in Dehing Patakai Elephant reserve. Rather than safeguarding the environment, the mission of the environment ministry now appears to be the promotion of, ‘seamless economic growth.’

And while the existing PAs are being whittled down, we are simultaneously identifying other effective area-based conservation measures or OECMs, which are non-Protected Areas that are, ‘governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained long-term outcomes for the in situ conservation of biodiversity..”.

These could for example encompass community-conserved areas, Important Bird Areas or Reserve Forests which deliver effective conservation outcomes irrespective of the management objective. All this to ensure that in 2020 India meets its national biodiversity target 6 of covering 20% of its geographic area with ‘ecologically representative areas that include both PAs and OECMs.’

But if biodiversity is being ignored and trivialised in our already fraught, underfunded and highly fragmented protected areas covering a mere 5% of India’s land cover, do we seriously believe new categories of designations will protect our biodiversity lying outside them? And this is unfortunate, because in reality much of India’s biodiversity lies outside the PA network-for example more than 80% of elephant habitat lies outside PAs.

With negligible management focus on the forest biodiversity of protected and reserve forests, biodiversity is eroded, and human-wildlife conflicts continue to escalate.

Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 will help alter popular perceptions of humanity being immune to, and cocooned from biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction. It is precisely the destruction of undervalued wild habitats, and the exploitation of wildlife through trafficking and the wild meat trade, that has brought human beings in close proximity with zoonotic viruses; so much so that 75% of all emerging diseases are zoonotic in origin. With COVID we are paying an exorbitant price for neglecting nature and sidelining biodiversity.

Yet this pandemic also provides us with an opportunity to review our relationship with nature and biodiversity, and to course correct to safeguard our planet as well as human well-being and our economies. It is time to get creative with biodiversity, to adopt a landscape approach to conservation, and to start adopting nature and ecosystem-based solutions to climate change. We need to recognise that protecting biodiversity is very much part of the climate solution, as important as technological quick fixes.

The time has come to leverage current realities to ensure that biodiversity is brought centrestage in our understanding, but also in our policies and laws. This is especially true for India where millions of people are ecosystem dependent. However, if recent trends of widespread forest and wildlife clearances or the contentious Draft EIA notification of 2020 are any yardstick, then all indications in India suggest that biodiversity is unlikely to be mainstreamed, at least in the near term.

Dr Pia Sethi is an ecologist and conservation biologist with degrees from the University of Maryland and the University of Illinois at Chicago. The views expressed in this article are personal.