Nature hasn’t bounced back during the pandemic. But it still can.

Mariana Ferreira
Head of Science, WWF-Brazil
Co-Chair, IUCN WCPA COVID-19 Protected Areas Task Force

Aerial view of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, in Maués. © Andre Dib / WWF-Brazil

This week a year ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In the course of a year, this novel virus has resulted in personal tragedies for millions, and huge economic and social setbacks, especially in the world’s most vulnerable countries.

In the first weeks of the pandemic, I recall people seeking small glimmers of hope in nature. There were headlines and gripping social media posts of nature bouncing back and a part of me wondered if there was some solace we could find in those stories. The positive news, however, was short lived. The latest evidence, compiled in a special edition of the IUCN PARKS Journal on COVID-19 and protected and conserved areas (PCAs), shows that far from bouncing back, nature conservation has been deeply affected by the pandemic.

With the collaboration of 150 authors, and co-edited by Brent Mitchell and Adrian Phillips, working closely with the new WCPA Task Force on Protected Areas and Covid-19, the edition, released earlier this month, examines the causes, consequences and implications of this global pandemic from the perspective of PCAs.

Amongst its findings, it notes that more than half of the PCAs in Africa and a quarter in Asia have seen reduced conservation actions, such as enforcement, community outreach and monitoring. More than a third of all park rangers in Central America reported being fired, a pattern followed closely by South America and Africa.

The economic numbers are stark too. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a global loss of up to USD$ 174 million jobs that rely on tourism and the elimination of US$ 4.7 trillion from the sector’s contribution to national GDPs (a 53% loss compared to 2019). Dramatic changes to PCA visits have had negative consequences on conservation funding, businesses and importantly, the livelihoods of people who supply labour, goods and services to tourists and the service sector. Communal conservancies in Namibia, for example, could lose US$ 10 million in direct tourism revenues, threatening funding for 700 game guards and 300 conservancy management employees, and the viability of 61 joint venture tourism lodges employing 1,400 community members.

And behind each figure, each statistic, are people and communities. The pandemic has severely affected Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs). Although it is impossible to generalize, there are common themes, such as the decision of many villages to self-isolate, the interruption of festivities, the increasing importance of subsistence activities and traditional medicine and in some places, restrictions have prevented communities from protecting their lands. Those who were able to keep their traditions alive and were able to protect their rights and territories were more resilient to the impacts of the pandemic.

Aerial view of Barra de São Manoel Village Tapajós Riverside deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, in Maués. © Andre Dib / WWF-Brazil

In Brazil, where I live, due to a decrease in enforcement activities and increase in the value of gold, there have been a record number of illegal mining operations on indigenous lands, especially in the Amazon. Also, last week, the country reached the sad mark of more than 1,000 indigenous people killed by COVID-19.

This is not only heartbreaking personally but also goes against what science is telling us.

The direct and indirect drivers that affect the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 are numerous and interacting, and their relative impact on the emergence of new diseases differs geographically with natural, cultural, social and economic conditions. According to IPBES, land use change has been linked to more than 30% of emerging infectious diseases reported since 1960. Thus, if we want to minimize the frequency, impact and spread of new zoonotic diseases, we need to prioritize the maintenance of healthy ecosystems, especially in tropical regions where the pace of deforestation remains accelerated.

PCAs, including IPLC territories, are one of the most efficient tools to curb deforestation and habitat degradation and play an important role in reducing the risk of new zoonosis. At the same time, effective and equitably managed PCAs help maintain biodiversity, sequester carbon and support livelihoods. And yet, many of these areas and their communities have been severely hit by the pandemic.

The need for urgent action

After a year, it is possible to assess, albeit on a preliminary basis, how countries are incorporating nature conservation into post-COVID strategies. While some have already understood that economic recovery offers an unprecedented opportunity to make rapid changes towards green and sustainable investments, others are still lacking behind. For the 17 countries that have included nature conservation in their post-COVID recovery packages — such as creating green jobs in Kenya, New Zealand and Pakistan — at least 22 countries have proposed or enacted 64 rollbacks that weaken environmental protection — United States, India and Brazil appear with a prominent role among this group.

In Brazil, among those rollbacks that directly impacted PCAs, we have seen a significant reduction in environmental fines in 2020, a reduction on environmental protection budget for 2021, the relocation or replacement of field staff, a proposal to allow mining and oil and gas extraction within indigenous reserves without their consent, and proposals for the reduction and degazettement of several protected areas.

The evidence is clear: investments in nature-based solutions, including protection and restoration of PCAs and community territories, can promote health, ecosystem services and long-term biodiversity benefits. In addition, well-managed PCAs can promote advances in the social development agenda, including job creation and diversification of income alternatives, sustainable food production and safe access to drinking water.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragic reminder of human’s abuse of nature and the evidence we have shows we still have a long way to go in fixing this. We continue to undermine nature when science clearly shows that we need to act urgently to better protect and conserve it, both as a safety net for affected communities and as one of our strongest allies against future zoonotic outbreaks. Global leaders must act on the lessons learnt from this crisis and step up support, recovery and investments in and to protected and conserved areas, and the local communities and Indigenous people that depend on and safeguard them.

Emerging from the pandemic, nature can bounce back and help communities and societies on their path to recovery too — but we have to act now.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.

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