How biodiversity loss affects our mental health

Biodiversity loss can therefore lead to economic losses. [iStockphoto]

A friend's family recently lost their patriarch, leaving some siblings as the undesignated custodians of property. No sooner had most family members dispersed than a few siblings began to use their new found power.

They sold property and leased family land at laughable rates. When there was nothing left they turned to trees, including one that had been part of the home's identity for over 60 years.

When my friend, now in his 40s, heard about the felling of this particular tree, he was so heartbroken that it felt like he had lost another kin. For days he locked himself in his house, blocked incoming calls and stayed hungry. He began to mourn afresh.

But why hurt over a mere tree? Trees are a key part of our lives. Some are custodians of several family secrets, decisions and vows made under them. They are also home to many insects, crawling animals and birds that somehow become part of us.

When a family in Garissa, Marsabit, Kajiado, Nyando, Budalang'i or Turkana loses relatives, property or livestock to drought or flooding, it is never really just an economic loss, but one of relations.

Our cows have names based on how they are perceived. When I was a child, many dogs were called Ford, due to the political happenings at the time. Bulls are called Jowi (buffalo) or powerful politicians' names, especially if they are good in ploughing, mourning or fighting.

Human beings relate, consciously or unconsciously with nature. We are created to love, and expect love, the unspoken sometimes holding the best of places in our hearts. We also take things for granted, and only learn how much we had when we lose. It is saddest when we cause the loss. A lot of biodiversity around us are unprotected. In Kenya there are a lot of varieties considering the climatic conditions unique to certain areas, leading to particular habitats favourable for different types of biodiversity.

Some of the best protected places for bird watching, for instance, are in the national reserves, lakes and forests. These, insects, the big five and other biodiversity in the water bodies maintain the tourist industry and earn us foreign exchange. They are our source of livelihood, food, medicine, potable water, shelter, beauty and many more.

Biodiversity loss can therefore lead to economic losses. The Masai Mara fame, for instance, cannot be sustainable if the wildebeest disappear. The wildebeest won't act if there are no rivers to cross. The rivers won't survive without trees and a water tower.

And there can never be a water tower when forests are cleared. It is a chain that is linked by human choices. This calls for sustainable use of the environment. A 2022 World Health Organisation policy brief also attributes some "serious risks to mental health and well-being" to climate change.

While the economic and other effects of biodiversity loss and climate change are easy to tell, a lot hidden on how they affect mental health. For my friend, it was anxiety, frustration and a bit of depression, of course worsened by the current economic uncertainty and the fact that they were still mourning the old man.

Some of the things we cherished as children; the rivers, thick bushes and wild fruits that are now so expensive in high end supermarkets, the streams we learnt to swim in and catch fish, the huge stones we basked on, all are just but memories. But losing them now is like losing a kin.

This Mental Health Awareness month, during which we also celebrated International Day of Biodiversity, beware and prevent any such stress by promoting sustainability.

@lynno16/ [email protected]