This is the second of three blogs examining the issues of the COVID-19 pandemic for sustainable landscape programs. The first blog discusses how deforestation and forest fragmentation can increase the likelihood of future pandemics, and the third blog considers the role of sustainable landscapes in pandemic response.
As the COVID-19 pandemic remakes the world, how is it affecting efforts to conserve forests and reduce deforestation? Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that in many places, the pandemic has been driving an increase in illegal activity, boosting deforestation as both legal economic opportunities and enforcement have declined. According to one estimate, illegal mining and logging operations expanded 55 percent during the first four months of 2020 as compared to the previous year. Let’s review some of the evidence.
Brazil has been much in the news this year, as destruction of its tropical forest continues to ramp up. According to data from Brazil's National Space Research Institute (INPE), Brazil lost more than 130,000 million hectares of forest in August, making it the second worst August on record for deforestation in Brazil. And as of September, more than 600,000 hectares had been lost already in 2020, a pace sufficient to eliminate all the tropical rainforest in the U.S. state of Hawaii in a matter of months. One forest monitoring project reports that roughly 1,000 major fires have been detected in the Amazon rainforest this year, with an average of more than 50 major fires a day in early September. Fires have also tripled this year in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland. Press reports suggest that Brazil’s environmental agency had scaled back enforcement measures earlier this year; it remains to be seen whether a ban on fires the agency issued in July will be effective.
While the increase in deforestation may be traced to government policy, it is also possible that the pandemic is playing a role. The rate of deforestation rose sharply in the first few months of 2020, up 64 percent in April 2020 as compared to April 2019. (2019 was itself the worst year for Amazon deforestation in more than a decade.) Forest watchers blame illegal activity. In an interview this spring, NBC News quoted André Guimarães, the head of Amazon Environmental Research Institute: "Government agencies are in quarantine, the population is in quarantine, good people are in quarantine—but the criminals are not, so they are taking advantage of this momentum to increase their activity."
COVID-19 also appears to be leading to more encroachment on indigenous landscapes, and indigenous people, who are important guardians of the forest in some regions, have been hit hard by the disease. Indigenous groups in Brazil have reported tens of thousands of cases of COVID-19, and at least four important indigenous leaders in South America have died of the disease. The pandemic poses an elevated risk to indigenous peoples, who may be more vulnerable to infectious diseases and often lack access to healthcare.
Elsewhere in Latin America, in Paraguay, a project to create alternative livelihoods for marijuana growers in Eastern Paraguay’s protected areas, has been delayed by COVID-19, putting the forests at risk. In Colombia, forest monitoring declined significantly during the lockdown to combat the pandemic, creating opportunities for land clearing for coca and other crops that may have contributed to the significant increase in “hotspots”––associated with forest fires––that were observed there earlier this year.
In Asia, reductions in government and NGO presence due to COVID-19 have contributed to upticks in illegal deforestation in Indonesia, Cambodia, and other countries, even as legal timber extraction showed declines. In Indonesia’s Leuser ecosystem in northern Sumatra, one of the most extensive and significant rainforests in Asia, forest destruction for palm oil plantations has been increasing. Conservation organizations have blamed the pandemic, which has reduced the government and NGO presence in the region. In Nepal, illegal extraction of forest products increased tenfold following a lockdown.
And in Madagascar, where the pandemic has reduced revenue from tourism, poverty is on the rise, and local communities have turned to the forest for subsistence. Charcoal gathering has increased, and fires were up 80% between March and May, as compared to a year earlier.
In the next and final blog post in this series, we’ll look at Sustainable Landscapes solutions that can help to boost conservation and reduce the likelihood of future pandemics.
Eric Haxthausen is an independent consultant currently working with USAID's Office of Global Climate Change to highlight the link between COVID-19 and sustainable landscapes. Eric previously served as Senior Adviser in the Office of Global Climate Change.