IUCN Director General's statement on World Environment Day

Connecting people with nature isn’t just about getting to the park, to sea or the mountains, crucial as this might be. Connecting people with nature is also about recalling that nature has a relevance to absolutely everything we achieve, and want to achieve, as humans. 

Malawi woman proud of her corn crop Photo: Seline Meijer

In 2009, humanity changed. For the first time in our history as a species we became predominantly urban dwellers, as the number of humans living in rural areas became a minority. And in the coming years, the change will be even more pronounced. By 2050 some 70% of us will call urban areas home.

Life in urban areas can offer significant benefits, easier access to education, employment, healthcare and even entertainment among them. But it can also undermine one of the most important bonds that we have as humans: our connection with nature.

This year’s theme for World Environment Day, “Connecting People with Nature” urges us to snap out of what can easily become an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality towards nature. The theme is a celebration of everything that we gain when we renew our relationship with nature.

For all of us, nature can be and is an important source of physical and spiritual strength. Getting “up close and personal” with nature opens our senses, feeds our curiosity and invites us to be more active. Without a doubt, nature can boost our physical and mental health.

But connecting people with nature isn’t just about getting to the park, to sea or the mountains, crucial as this might be. Connecting people with nature is also about recalling that nature has a relevance to absolutely everything we achieve, and want to achieve, as humans. It’s about understanding that when we face a challenge that on the surface appears unlinked to nature, we’re inevitably missing something important.

Government, business, civil society and all decision makers, pay heed. Nature is fundamental for economic growth, promoting equity and even helping secure peace. This is the subject of IUCN’s pioneering work on nature-based solutions, effective policy options that can be highly competitive in terms of cost, sustainability and impact.

Take poverty reduction. Restoring 350 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2030, which is part of the Bonn Challenge initiative launched by IUCN and Germany in 2011, could generate an estimated US$ 170 billion per year in net benefits from watershed protection, improved crop yields and forest products. Meanwhile, restoring just 150 million hectares of degraded land in the same time period could help feed 200 million people, thus helping address food security – one of the great challenges facing our planet’s growing population.

Climate change is yet another example. Coastal ecosystems like mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses store vast amounts of carbon while at the same time protecting us from many of the harmful effects of climate change.

And our increasing number of urban dwellers is more dependent on nature-based solutions than they probably imagine. To be sure, nature provides cities with crucial benefits and services including climate regulation, disaster risk reduction, and food and water supply. In fact, nearly a third of the world’s 100 largest cities depend on protected areas for part of their drinking water.

The list is long.

When healthy, nature can be one of our most effective and faithful allies in the global policy arena. But we need to care for this ally, because nature can’t help us if it’s weakened by our activities. Climate change is a case in point. Nature provides us huge benefits in terms of both mitigation and adaptation, but global warming itself undermines nature’s ability to help us. This is just one reason why, in 2016, IUCN’s government and civil society Members unanimously adopted a resolution welcoming the Paris Agreement and why we, as a truly global community, are sticking with Paris.

Our connection with nature is not only important because it boosts our health or enhances our policy toolkits. Connecting with nature also inspires us to conserve it, because as humans, we take better care of the things we know, need and love.

At IUCN, we are keenly aware of this, and it’s the impetus behind #Natureforall. This important and wide-reaching initiative, launched by the IUCN Commission for Education and Communications at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawai‘i, seeks to inspire a new generation of thinkers and doers across all sectors of society to connect with nature and take action in support of conservation. At its core is a very simple idea: the more people experience, connect with, and share their love of nature, the more support there will be for its conservation. In this way, #Natureforall helps create the virtuous circle we need to ensure that the relationship between people and nature benefits both. What can be more suitable for the theme of World Environment Day 2017 than this broad movement to connect people and nature?  I invite you to look into it, and I urge you to take part.

So while our increasing urbanisation – and the hectic lifestyle that often accompanies it –may threaten to numb our connection with nature, we can choose to stay very much awake to this symbiotic relationship. We can seek out first-hand experiences with nature, and engage in activities that encourage others to do so.

And we need not limit ourselves there. Decision makers at all levels can and must look at nature as an obvious ally in the quest of a better world and healthier planet – for all life that calls it home.

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