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OPINION: The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating global deforestation

by Henriette Walz | Rainforest Alliance
Friday, 4 September 2020 11:55 GMT

An aerial view shows a deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But more remote monitoring - and action by consumers - can help

Henriette Walz is the global theme lead for biodiversity conservation at the Rainforest Alliance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated communities around the world. But it has also brought some short-lived environmental benefits: Global carbon emissions will be lower in 2020  (estimates range from 5% to 8%), pollution has decreased, and wild animals enjoyed more freedom, sometimes even in urban centres.

But what about forests? Have they, flourished? Unfortunately not. It looks like deforestation is accelerating in 2020.

In 2019 already we lost a football pitch of primary rainforest every six seconds. Preliminary remote sensing reports show that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was higher every month this year compared to 2019, as were deforestation and degradation rates in Ghana.

WWF found a 150% increase in deforestation in 18 countries for March over the same calendar month last year.

There are several reasons for this distressing surge in deforestation, some related to the pandemic, some not.

In Brazil, for example, the government had already begun dismantling environmental agencies and policies. There and elsewhere travel restrictions (crucial to slow the spread of COVID-19 to rural areas) have prevented forestry services and conservationists from monitoring forest boundaries.

A survey of conservation organizations found that 85% could not go into the field. Many protected areas around the world report problems with budgets and effectiveness due to lockdown measures.

From Costa Rica to Kenya, ecotourism has collapsed. These activities not only provide revenue for the communities but they also often fund activities that help monitor and guard protected areas.

The fact that deforestation is accelerating is very bad news for all of us. Thriving tropical forests, along with other natural climate solutions like forest conservation, could help us achieve 37% of the emissions reductions needed to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Forests also regulate microclimates and generate rainfall, helping farmers to better cope with climate impacts. All told, 1.6 billion people worldwide depend on forests for their livelihoods.

What can be done about the current surge in deforestation? In the short term, remote forest monitoring should be implemented wherever possible.

The Rainforest Alliance recently performed deforestation risk assessments of certified cocoa farmers in West Africa and sent the assessments back to the farmer groups, who can now use this information to prevent further deforestation.

Where conservation organizations have partnered on the ground, work can continue remotely as well. 

We also need an immediate wave of collective action from companies, governments, consumers, and policymakers. Relief spending should support the farming and forestry communities in countries that supply our favourite products.

The private sector can also use its considerable power to pressure governments into more responsible behaviour, like the dozens of European companies that have threatened to boycott Brazilian exports if a bill that encourages more deforestation of the Amazon passes.

Then, as we begin sowing the seeds of economic recovery, we must ensure we build back better.

Stimulus packages should include tax incentives for a transition to a green economy. Recovery spending should align with (rather than replace) conservation spending.

The European Union's recovery package is a good start, but institutions will have to be held accountable for the implementation of the green pledges. The EU should also take its responsibility for imported deforestation, including by adopting legislation on corporate due diligence.

Finally, we must build resilient economies that don’t push thousands into poverty - and put ecosystems at risk - when shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This effort should include creating thriving local economies that allow communities to make a living while protecting the land from which they live.

The COVID-19-induced crisis underscores how interconnected our challenges are. It should be noted, for example, that keeping forests intact is key to preventing future pandemics.

Building back better will mean balancing human rights, environmental values, and economic well-being - and it will mean making forest conservation an urgent priority.