In the previous two blogs in this series, we looked at how deforestation and forest fragmentation can create the conditions in which pandemics can arise and at how forests are faring amidst the pandemic. And we underscored the point too often overlooked that investments in forest conservation may actually be some of the smartest and most cost-effective investments we can make to protect public health.
Pandemics arise from diseases that are new to humans. These diseases often originate in wild animals, crossing the species barrier where people come into close contact with wildlife. This transmission often happens where forest environments are disturbed. Thus, reducing incursions into the forest can reduce the opportunities for such zoonotic disease transmission to occur. By maintaining intact forests and restoring ecosystems, the forest conservation and restoration programs that are at the core of USAID’s Sustainable Landscapes program can help to hold the line against further forest fragmentation that feeds the risk of pandemics.
From the public health perspective, a key lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that pandemic prevention programs are worthwhile investments. Programs that jointly support public health and conservation take a “One Health” approach. One Health is a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to addressing public health threats that acknowledges the interconnections between public health, animal health, agriculture, and environment. One Health devises cross-disciplinary solutions that bring together experts in these diverse but closely linked disciplines to encourage holistic and synergistic approaches that achieve resilient and sustainable outcomes from local to global levels.
Sustainable landscapes programs can also play an important role in the economic response to the pandemic. Besides the direct public health risk of the pandemic, it is also depriving many communities of much-needed income. The pandemic has depressed economic demand and removed or reduced sources of income for many people. For example, tourism is down dramatically around the world, leaving those who depend on it for income in search of other alternatives.
Forest conservation and restoration efforts can be a boon to depressed economies and communities desperate for income. Conservation requires enforcement, which means hiring rangers and investing in systems and institutions that support them. Restoring forests and other degraded landscapes requires physical labor to ready the land and plant and tend the trees and newly restored vegetation. A key element of Sustainable Landscapes programs, and more broadly, development programs funded by USAID and some other development agencies is engagement with the private sector. Aligning private sector business models with Sustainable Landscapes objectives can create long-term stable employment and economic activity in lines of work that support conservation.
For example, USAID’s Green Invest Asia program is promoting sustainable commodity production in Southeast Asia by helping banks and financial institutions to design and implement investment strategies in support of this objective, assisting businesses in the agriculture and forestry sectors to attract finance for sustainable production of commodities like rice, rubber, timber, coffee, coconut, and cacao, and connecting sustainable producers with sources of finance. The program is developing guidance on improving farm productivity in sustainable ways, which means more income for farmers.
Taking a broader view, it’s no surprise that the pandemic has set back development. A September 2020 study by the Gates Foundation found that the pandemic had already tipped nearly 37 million people into extreme poverty and paused or reversed progress against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sustainable Landscapes programs have an important role to play in helping countries to get back on track against these goals. Sustainable Landscapes programs support the “five Ps”—people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership—that the SDGs address. Collectively, well-designed Sustainable Landscapes programs support at least 12 of the 17 SDGs: (1) ending poverty and (2) hunger, and supporting sustainable agriculture; (3) promoting good health and well-being, as discussed above; (5) empowering women and girls; (6) ensuring availability of clean water, including by protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems; (7) providing clean energy by replacing unsustainable biomass with alternative cooking and fuel options; (8) supporting inclusive economic growth and employment through (12) sustainable consumption and production; (13) supporting climate mitigation through carbon storage, and resilience; (15) protecting biodiversity through conserving forests and other landscapes; (16) promoting peacebuilding and reducing illegal logging and associated trafficking; and (17) supporting countries in their efforts to undertake these activities, through partnership.
As countries chart their own paths for development and recovery from the health and economic impacts of COVID-19, sustainable landscapes programs have important roles to play. It’s long been apparent that these programs strongly benefit multiple development objectives. Now they are more critical than ever as we battle the pandemic and move forward with recovery.
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.