Environmental advocates: Addressing ecological imbalances needed in COVID-19 fight

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 22) — This Earth Day, an environmental network says addressing ecological issues is necessary to help people build resilience against the novel coronavirus.

"We will win half the battle against emerging infectious diseases if we live in sustainable environments and address the ecological imbalances such as water depletion, pollution, and climate disruption," said Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE).

Kalikasan PNE describes itself as a "national environmental network founded in 1997 for the coordination and complementation of campaigns on people's environmental issues.

The environmental network organized a series of webinars with civil groups Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines and IBON Foundation, which featured experts and advocates discussing the ecological aspects of the coronavirus pandemic in light of this year's Earth Day.

Among the experts is microbiologist Dr. Marilen Parungao-Balolong, who said "rewilding" urban spaces will provide the human population with immune protective microbial exposure, which will decrease non-communicable diseases that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Rewilding is an approach to conservation that lets nature return areas of land to a wild state and involves allowing ecosystems to restore themselves over time, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

She added that rewilding promotes beneficial microorganisms which will compete against disease-causing ones, or pathogens..

Parungao-Balolong further explained that infectious diseases have a high risk of emergence and re-emergence in the Philippines, as it is among countries " with high biodiversity and serious unresolved environmental, social, and economic issues.”

With this, former environment undersecretary Atty. Antonio La Viña said this will not be the country's final pandemic unless everyone acts properly.

This will be the case if the Philippines continues with “business as usual—if our new normal includes mining, logging, pollution, coal power plants, all of the things which led to pandemics," he said.

La Viña also criticized the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to environmental issues amid the pandemic.

“This is actually an opportunity to do right by the environment. I actually don’t see the DENR very active in the response…they have to be more aggressive. Instead we have them doing things like allowing ships from China to dock in Homonhon Island to stock up on minerals at a time when we are trying to prevent viruses, especially in an island,” he furthered.

Last week, DENR initially suspended the mining operations of Techiron Resources Inc. in the area. It operated the vessel set to load 7,000 metric tons of chromite ore in Homonhon Island.

However, the department eventually lifted the suspension “[a]fter thorough investigation and the mining company secured all the necessary quarantine certificates," according to Undersecretary for Solid Waste Management and Local Government Units Concerns Benny Antiporda.

READ: DENR: No violations found in mining ops on Eastern Samar island

The government must also not allow tradeoffs that mean the "loss of biodiversity and the risk of environmental damage that causes societal damage, economic damage, and public health issues," added La Viña.

He urged them to integrate pandemic analysis in every Environmental Assessment as well.

Meanwhile, in his statement for Earth Day 2020, DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu discussed both the COVID-19 crisis and climate change, saying both bring destruction and chaos to nations and put everyone's lives at stake.

"On the one hand, with COVID 19, we are faced with immediate gripping fear of losing more lives; on the other hand, with climate change, we are faced with rising sea levels, saline intrusion into aquifers, droughts, floods, and the results will impact billions of people, as well as biodiversity. However, with climate change, adaptation and mitigation responses are not as immediate because its impacts appear to be just merely creeping," he said.

Cimatu added that lockdowns imposed by several countries in an effort to curb the spread of the deadly disease have resulted "in clearer skies, more breathable air, cleaner seas, and more vibrant wildlife."

With this, he said that while responses to mitigate climate change may be less drastic, as these generally require only lifestyle changes, it is still important to "invest in and institute the necessary concerted reforms, speedily and extensively, before it becomes too late."