Doing Business with Nature

Large tracts of land in the Sinhapura area of Sri Lanka’s North Central Polonnaruwa Province. Globally, 80 percent of such land degradation is caused by agriculture. Credit: Sanjana Hattotuwa/IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 2 2019 (IPS)

As the environment continues to degrade and natural resources deplete at unprecedented rates, spelling disastrous consequences for societies, a new tool aims to bring financial institutions into the fight to protect nature.

Launched by the Natural Capital Finance Alliance (NCFA), ENCORE is the world’s first comprehensive tool linking environmental change with its economic consequences, allowing financial institutions to assess and act on risks.

“We look at various ways of making sure that financial institutions and businesses understand that nature is a provider of services that they depend upon and that needs to be recognised so that you can better take it into consideration when you make decisions,” United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative’s (UNEP FI) Programme Leader Anders Nordheim told IPS.

FirstRand Group’s Head of Environmental and Social Risk Management Madeleine Ronquest echoed similar sentiments to IPS, stating: “Awareness about the importance and value of natural capital and the importance of biodiversity and natural habitat needs to be raised…the ENCORE tool is a good solution for risk mapping of a portfolio and creating insight to various natural capital risks that have to be addressed as well as for understanding what the knock on impact is.”

Natural capital is the world’s stock of natural resources such as soil, water, and clean air, all of which are vital for economic activity.

Any negative changes in natural capital impact the businesses that depend on it, and thus the financial institutions that lend or invest in those companies.

This mindset, which places an economic value on nature and therefore connects nature and the economy, is a useful way to engage with financial institutions, Nordheim noted.

“When you talk abut natural capital sometimes there is the implication that it puts a price a nature which is not at all what we are about. It is really about recognising the value of it and how it is needed in society,” he said.

“Our aim is to arrive at a society that is in balance with nature where there is no overexploitation or degradation of environmental assets, where everything is sustainable and productive,” Nordheim added.

However, we have a long way to go to reach this vision.

According to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), land quality is getting worse as over 75 percent of the world’s land surface is significantly and negatively impacted by human activity.

Globally, 80 percent of such land degradation is caused by agriculture. Since 1950, 65 percent of Africa’s cropland, which millions depend on, has been affected by land degradation by mining, poor farming practices, and illegal logging.

The consequences of the growing problem includes more and severe droughts, increased food insecurity, and massive economic losses.

A showcase assessment of the FTSE 100 Index using ENCORE found that 13 of the 18 sectors representing 1.6 trillion dollars in market capitalisation were associated with production processes that are highly dependent on nature. Agriculture, aquaculture and forest products were among the sectors that will experience the most economic loss as land degradation and natural resource depletion accelerates.

UNCCD puts the figure much higher, estimating that the global economy will lose a staggering 23 trillion dollars by 2050 through land degradation.

ENCORE enables financial institutions to assess environmental risks and its impact on natural capital assets and production processes.

“Especially in a financial institution quantifying risk brings the message home far more effectively than by having a pure academic discussion. It is for this reason that we not only want to place a value on nature but also demonstrate financial impact if this risk is not mitigated. It certainly changes the conversation,” Ronquest said.

FirstRand was among the first institutions to use ENCORE to identify environmental risks in South Africa.

Agriculture is one of the most important sectors in the South African economy. However, land degradation due to soil erosion, unsustainable farming practices, and one of the country’s worst droughts has impacted the economy and food security.

Ronquest noted that FirstRand is already experiencing natural capital risk and credit default in their agriculture portfolio, and stressed the importance of working in collaboration towards sustainable societies.

“Skills transfer to young farmers is important and this is one of the areas where the bank funds and facilitates the process to support a growing community of sustainable and resilient farmers,” she told IPS.

Many institutions like FirstRand have already begun investing in green projects in light of environmental challenges such as climate change.

In the United States, investment in renewable energy industry surpassed 40 billion dollars in 2017.

A financial sector survey show that such investments will increase, reaching up to one trillion dollars between 2018 and 2030.

While action around climate change is crucial, Nordheim highlighted the need for financial institutions to also pay attention to degradation caused by human activity.

“It all links back to human action, but sometimes in these discussions we find that there is a very strong focus on climate change as increases of temperature without broadening the debate into including how temperature variations then affect other connected systems,” he said.

“I think one of the challenges we have is that it is maybe not happening at the scale and speed that we would want to see. But it is happening,” Nordheim added.

Ronquest urged all stakeholders to consider the relationship between nature, economy, and the well-being of all.

“The interconnectedness of the natural environment and the economy is undeniable. When one is neglected the other will suffer. In a country where a lot of work needs to be done to address social injustice, poverty and inequality; food security, land degradation and water security will only inflate the negative social impact and have a severe impact on the developing economy,” she said.

Leprosy Remains a Stubborn, Unseen Problem in the Philippines

The Philippines has the highest incidence of leprosy of any country in the region – about 1,700 new cases have been identified in each of the last three years. Credit: moyerphotos/CC by 2.0

By Ben Kritz
MANILA, Mar 2 2019 (IPS)

The stubborn challenge of diagnosis and treatment of leprosy among difficult to reach populations in the Philippines should soon become easier with the rollout of a mobile app connecting field health workers with physicians and clinics.

Officially launched at the end of January after years of testing, the app was created by Philippine developer MetaHelix in cooperation with the Department of Health (DOH) and pharmaceutical company Novartis. It will allow barangay (village) health workers to connect remotely with specialists to confirm diagnoses and plan treatment of isolated leprosy patients.

First launched as a pilot in 2014, the Leprosy Alert and Response Network System (LEARNS) app allows healthcare workers to “send images of suspect leprosy lesions and symptoms to a specialist”.

“LEARNS promotes early case finding and helps reduce delays in diagnosis and treatment,” Novartis said in a statement when the app was launched. “LEARNS also provides data for disease surveillance, patient education, and report generation.”

The new mobile application that was tested in the Philippines for more than a year highlights ongoing efforts against leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, which is sometimes called “the world’s oldest diagnosed disease”.

In most of the world leprosy is largely considered a disease of the past. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), leprosy was eliminated as a global public health problem in 2000 because it had a prevalence of less than 1 case per 10,000 people.

However, one of the few remaining places where the disease remains an elevated public concern is the Philippines, which makes the country an appropriate venue for the “Regional Assembly of Organisations of People Affected by Leprosy in Asia,” being held in Manila from Mar. 3 to 5.

The conference is a joint project of the Philippine government-run Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital (CSGH), the Coalition of Leprosy Advocate of the Philippines (CLAP), and the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation (SMHF), and seeks to find ways to overcome the last stubborn obstacles to completely eradicating leprosy.

The issues faced by public health advocates and victims of the disease in the Philippines are emblematic of problems faced throughout the region: Difficult detection and treatment of often isolated sufferers, a lack of public awareness and understanding of leprosy, and low prioritisation of public health efforts to treat leprosy and its social impact on the part of governments.

Hidden in plain sight

The treatment of leprosy in the Philippines throughout most of the country’s history has been typical of the way societies everywhere have handled it. Largely ostracised by communities and even their own families, leprosy sufferers were isolated in dedicated facilities and kept out of sight. The two best-known facilities in the Philippines are the CSGH, once the largest facility of its kind in the world, located on Culion Island in the Western Philippines; and the Tala Sanitarium – officially known as the Dr. Jose N. Rodriguez Memorial Hospital – located in Caloocan, a distant suburb of Manila.

Although both facilities are still technically operational, better understanding of the disease and its low communicability has allowed health officials to shift most of their efforts to community-based treatment. According to Dr. Mary Ann Navarro, a Department of Health administrator in Palawan, where a minor outbreak of leprosy among indigenous people was detected in late 2017, in sitio treatment is often the only feasible approach.

“Better treatment options and the relatively low risk of transmission means that it’s not necessary to isolate patients,” Navarro told IPS. “Many cases, such as the ones discovered last year here [in Palawan] are among people with little access to healthcare, so our best option is to bring treatment to them.”

“That also helps to reduce some of the social stigma patients face, by giving us a chance to educate their communities and eliminate some of the fear of the disease,” she added. “Changing social attitudes still is a big challenge, however.”

Situations like the outbreak in Palawan, where eight cases were discovered among an indigenous community in the southern part of the island, are relatively rare. Most cases, according to a local government official, are individuals who remain in the community, but often struggle for acceptance.

“To our knowledge, we have about 10 people from this barangay who come to the health centre for treatment,” Alexander “Bong” Medina, chairman of a barangay in San Jose Del Monte in Bulacan Province north of Manila told IPS.

“The treatment is provided free, and we do our best to assist them socially, but it’s difficult,” Medina explained. “These are poor, what you might call marginalised people to begin with, and they often don’t realise there is assistance available until it’s too late, or they are afraid to come in because of the shame. And we don’t really have resources to go seek them out.”

Persistent problem

The Western Pacific Regional Office of the WHO views the Philippines as somewhat of an outlier in terms of leprosy incidence. The Philippines has the highest incidence of leprosy of any country in the region – about 1,700 new cases have been identified in each of the last three years, although that rate is half what it was a decade ago – and is largely responsible for the region being behind the rest of the world in achieving the 1 in 10,000 benchmark.

According to data from the Philippines’ Department of Health, although the overall prevalence of leprosy is less than 0.4 cases per 10,000, 1,660 new cases were identified in 2017 alone, with about 6.7 percent of those being children under the age of 15. This Southeast Asian nation, which comprises some 7,000 islands, has a population of over 104 million.

To address the problem, the Philippine government in 2016 launched the National Leprosy Control Programme (NLCP), a multi-agency effort involving the DOH, WHO, and a number of private sector and NGO partners with the goal of “a leprosy-free Philippines by 2022.”

To better calibrate the programme’s response and identify pockets where leprosy is still prevalent, the first major initiative of the NLCP is the completion of a baseline population survey, being conducted in cooperation with the Regional Institute for Tropical Medicine and expected to be completed sometime this year.

The programme is also working to raise public awareness and understanding of the disease by promoting various activities, such as World Leprosy Day in January, a national-level Leprosy Control Week in February, and National Skin Disease Detection and Prevention Week, which is held the second week of November.