The pandemic has wreaked havoc on forests, but it can also be the fulcrum which leads to an end to this scourge on our planet.
During its ongoing assault on our lives, the pandemic has often been hailed as a boon for the environment, if nothing else. Yet while it may have reduced air pollution or led to a resurgence in wildlife in some areas, when it comes to deforestation, the opposite is true.
In Brazil, the virus outbreak prompted the government to relax environmental regulations, causing the country to recently hit its highest level since 2008, amid an upsurge of illegal logging and forest clearing.
In Colombia, there was an explosion in forest fires in the Amazon as the government reduced monitoring and enforcement of forest crimes to focus on the virus. Madagascar, meanwhile, witnessed an uptick in clearing of the mountainous forests to the north of the country, as the economic pressures caused by Covid-19 created a desperate need for new sources of income that could be provided by fields of marijuana, vanilla, and rice. These are just a few examples – while the most up-to-date forest loss figures aren’t due until later this quarter, all signs point to the pandemic having worsened an already bleak picture across the world.
Global deforestation was already trending upwards well before the pandemic began, as WWF’s new report Deforestation fronts: Drivers and responses in a changing world illustrates. The report shows that an area roughly the size of California was lost to deforestation between 2004 and 2017 in the tropics and subtropics alone.
Commercial agriculture – a vital source of livelihood for millions – is the leading cause of deforestation globally, according to the report, with forested areas cleared to create space for livestock and to grow crops. Through deforestation, we are drastically imperiling every aspect of life on our planet. Is it really worth it? As the American biologist Edward Wilson once put it, “destroying rainforests for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.”
Not only is deforestation one of the main causes of the 69 percent average decline in wildlife populations that we’ve seen in less than half a century, cutting trees is also a major contributor to climate change, adding carbon dioxide to the air and removing the ability for existing carbon dioxide to be absorbed. Deforestation can also disrupt the lives of local communities, sometimes with profound consequences.
Chela Umire lives in an indigenous reserve in the heart of the Colombian Amazon, where the deforestation rate in the first three months of 2020 exceeded the total for the whole of 2019.
“The jungle is very important to us because we depend on it,” she says. “We get the animals and our food is guaranteed, and so we can live from it and get useful things for our children. I think that in the future if we don’t look after the forest and all its natural resources, the Amazon will become a desert and rising temperatures will bring an end to human life.”
Ironically, given the surge in destruction of forests over the past year, we also know that large-scale deforestation is one of the biggest underlying causes of pandemics. The more we cut down, the greater the chance we’ll face another catastrophe like the one which continues to ruthlessly steal the lives and livelihoods of millions across the world, with the unfettered destruction of the Brazilian Amazon seen as the greatest risk.
However, there is reason for hope. As well as being a trigger for much of the recent acceleration in forest loss, Covid-19 could also prove to be the very fulcrum which leads to an end to this scourge on our planet once and for all.
Never has it been more urgent that we change our relationship with nature. As governments create policies to address the economic and social impacts of the global pandemic, they can choose to help prevent the next one by addressing over-consumption, and put greater value on health and nature. They can choose to adopt a ‘One Health’ approach to their decision-making and take seriously the links between human health and deforestation and other drivers of nature loss.
Since September 2020, more than 80 Heads of State and Government have pledged to take transformative action to reverse biodiversity loss and adopt a One Health approach. Leaders must now turn these commitments into action. It is encouraging to see the launch of PREZODE - the first global initiative to prevent the next pandemic by reducing pressures on biodiversity - at the One Planet Summit earlier this week. But much more action is needed.
Citizens everywhere can play their part by protecting nature where they live, avoiding products linked to deforestation and other forms of ecosystem conversion such as unsustainable meat, soy and palm oil products; and calling on their leaders to champion policies that halt deforestation, such as through the Together4Forests campaign in the European Union.
There’s still time for the pandemic to turn the tide for the world’s forests. It genuinely could, and should, serve as a trigger for greater action to protect them – and ultimately, us too.
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