Expert: COVID, climate change create ‘perfect storm’ for Amazon fires

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on July 7, 2020.

A year after unprecedented fires ravaged the Amazon, the latest data indicate the world’s largest rainforest faces an even higher risk of fires in 2020. 

Drier than average conditions — exacerbated by climate change — and the COVID-19 pandemic have created what one expert calls “a perfect storm.”

“Predicting the fire season is not straightforward,” said Karyn Tabor, senior director of ecological monitoring at Conservation International, in a recent statement. “Fire season in the Amazon is influenced by ecological, climatic, social, cultural and economic factors … from sea surface temperatures that influence rainfall in South America, to commodity-driven deforestation and the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

With insight from satellite data and reports from the field, Tabor and her team project a particularly intense — and potentially devastating — fire season across the region. 

Deforestation, COVID-19 and fires

Deforestation in the tropics has surged since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect, according to recent reports from Conservation International field offices. Evidence suggests that the majority of these activities were enabled by weakened enforcement efforts that people exploited — some driven by desperation for food and income, others by profit.

Regardless of the motivation, the destruction of these tropical forests could have devastating consequences for countries across the Amazon Basin as fire season approaches.

Data derived from Firecast — a tool developed by Conservation International to track and predict forest fires in tropical countries — found that more of the Amazon fires in 2019 occurred in places that had been completely or partially deforested, which dried these areas and enabled faster burning. 

“There is no doubt that climate change and deforestation are intensifying fire seasons in the Amazon and elsewhere in ways that negatively impact livelihoods and the environment,” Tabor said. 

Rather than decreasing deforestation in preparation for this fire season, however, many governments are actually easing anti-deforestation laws amid the pandemic, she added.  

“Some governments have used widespread focus on the pandemic to quietly roll back environmental protections designed to prevent deforestation which in turn fuels the capacity for future fires to take hold.”

‘Uncontrolled spread’

Burning land to clear space for agriculture is a common farming practice in the Amazon. As climate change accelerates and conditions become drier, however, these small, controlled burns can too easily escalate into uncontrollable infernos, Tabor said. 

“We are seeing warmer than average Atlantic sea surface temperatures just north of the equator, which usually indicates a drier-than-average fire season in the western Amazon,” she explained. “Drier conditions do not mean there will be more fires in number but indicate that there will be more area burned due to fire size and the increased risk of uncontrolled spread.”

These drier conditions stand to have the greatest impact on Peru and Bolivia during the 2020 fire season, as well as the Brazilian Amazon states of Amazonas and Maranhão, according to Firecast and data from NASA. 

Driven by climate change, high temperatures mixed with drier conditions could have potentially dire consequences for the health and livelihoods of people who live in these areas, especially Indigenous peoples. 

“As we approach the time for annual agricultural burning, the monitoring and tracking risk of uncontrolled fire spread remains imperative for the safety of all people in the region. Everyone suffers from these fires, from the people living and working in urban economic centers compromised by smoke pollution to rural indigenous communities,” Tabor said. 

“In many regions it is expected that fires will impact Indigenous peoples who are already struggling to battle the health impacts of COVID-19. Increased smoke will exacerbate respiratory issues caused by the virus, and forest destruction will affect intact forests, farming land, livestock and other resources these communities rely on to survive.”

Expert: Rollbacks of environmental protections imperil nature — and human health

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on June 28, 2020.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, countries around the world have been shrinking or eliminating areas set aside to protect nature — some to drill for fossil fuels, others for urban development

Yet the environmental rollbacks that some governments claim could help humanity recover economically from the coronavirus could put humanity more at risk of future pandemics, writes Rachel Golden Kroner in a recent article in Scientific American. 

“We know that land use change is the most significant driver of emerging infectious zoonotic diseases, like the virus that caused COVID-19,” explains Golden Kroner, a social scientist at Conservation International. “By opening up protected areas to development … we run the risk of creating the conditions for another pandemic, even while we’re still dealing with the current one.”

To track global rollbacks of environmental protections since the onset of COVID-19, Golden Kroner created a database that draws on news articles, government documents and expert field analysis. 

What she discovered: From Alberta, Canada, to Selangor, Malaysia, protected areas have been weakened on nearly every continent in recent months — and many of these decisions were made without input from local communities. Along with threatening human health, research shows that scaling back environmental protections can harm wildlife, increase global greenhouse gas emissions and put Indigenous peoples at risk.

She says one of the best ways to protect human well-being and the health of the planet is for countries to invest in protected areas as part of their economic stimulus packages and national recovery efforts. 

“These efforts provide an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen protected areas and the livelihoods they can support, addressing economic and environmental priorities at the same time,” she writes. 

“And by improving the health of surrounding ecosystems, such protections can make local communities more resilient against future public health threats.”

Read the full story here

For billions without clean water, ‘wash your hands’ is complicated

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on June 17, 2020.

Fueled by research that hand-washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, sales of soap have skyrocketed in recent months.

But for the one in three people around the world who do not have access to clean water, this simple step in disease prevention isn’t so simple.

Rural populations disproportionately lack effective water, sanitation and hygiene services — known collectively as WASH — due in large part to a lack of infrastructure, high costs and weak governance. Meanwhile, climate change, pollution and development are diminishing freshwater sources and ecosystems at a rapid rate, compounding the problem.

Conservation News spoke with the director of Conservation International’s WASH in Watersheds program, Colleen Sorto, about how when it comes to water and human health, where your water comes from can be just as important as how you use it. 

Question: How big of a role does WASH truly play in preventing the spread of disease?

A: According to experts, handwashing can reduce the spread of disease by more than 20 percent — and using improved hygiene practices when managing human waste can reduce that risk even more. Delivering WASH is about providing communities with access to clean water through taps and pipes, as well as latrines and proper handwashing and hygiene education — because they all go together. Think about it as a three-legged stool: Access to clean water sources is one leg, healthy behaviors are another and infrastructure such as waste systems and latrines is the third. You need all three legs for the stool to balance.

Increasing WASH access in villages, schools and healthcare facilities to educate people on the value of hygiene in disease prevention is crucial, but only part of the story. Often people neglect to think about where the water for these services is coming from — and what happens to that water once we’re done with it. 

Q: What does this have to do with conservation?

A: Water, poverty and the environment are interconnected, and the long-term sustainability of WASH depends on nature’s ability to provide reliable sources of water — which is where conservation comes into play. Through Conservation International’s WASH in Watersheds program, we help communities link WASH and freshwater conservation activities in a holistic way. In South Africa, for example, poor land and water management practices have impacted the catchment of the Mzimvubu  — one of South Africa’s last free flowing rivers. Destructive grazing practices, invasive plant species and inadequate sanitation infrastructure have degraded the river and reduced the quality and quantity of water flowing to communities downstream. 

Since 2015, Conservation South Africa (CSA) — Conservation International’s local affiliate — has worked with communities in this area to improve the well-being of local people by restoring the health of their watershed. Our first step: Separating the main water sources for animals and people to decrease the likelihood of contamination by livestock and potential disease outbreaks from animal waste. Then, we worked with local volunteers to remove water-thirsty, invasive plants in the region and restore natural springs, while collaborating with the local government to launch several education campaigns about good health and sanitation practices. 

Q: What are the other benefits of conserving freshwater ecosystems? 

A: Along with helping to ensure more reliable sources of water, protecting watersheds can mitigate local and downstream flooding, increase soil’s ability to absorb water, and sustain inland fisheries that contribute to food security. To help additional communities get these benefits, CSA is working to replicate the WASH in Watersheds program across the region. The municipality is also considering how they can link our spring restoration approach with their future investments in infrastructure.  

Particularly in times of crisis, freshwater conservation can build resilience for rural communities and the species that inhabit these crucial ecosystems, while helping communities prepare for future pandemics.

Q: How?

A: Freshwater conservation can help us all prepare for— and mitigate the impact of — future pandemics by providing communities with the water they need to support WASH activities such as handwashing.

Although a lot of our WASH work is focused on communities, there are crucial roles that governments, businesses and NGOs must also play. Policies, practices and programs for local communities must support local people with the tools they need to access WASH. 

Once countries address the most basic needs, then they can engage in broader goals of freshwater stewardship, management and sustainable development to focus on long-term protection of water sources. At international, national and local levels, it is about bringing together governments, businesses and NGOs to identify the barriers that are in place and figuring out how to knock them down. Ultimately, WASH in Watersheds is all about giving communities the tools they need to help themselves.

Study: COVID-19 jeopardizing world’s protected areas

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on June 3, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic is jeopardizing areas set aside to conserve nature, according to a study published yesterday. 

As havens for wildlife, the world’s protected areas, such as national parks and reserves, are a line of defense against outbreaks of zoonotic diseases — that is, diseases that spread from animals to humans.

Yet the pandemic is putting the future of protected areas — which cover just over 15 percent of the world’s land area — at risk, according to Rachel Golden Kroner, a social scientist at Conservation International and co-author of the paper. 

Golden Kroner spoke with Conservation News about the pandemic’s effects on people who depend on protected land, and on how the pandemic could be used as cover to remove those protections altogether.

Question: How is the pandemic impacting protected areas?  

Answer: The coronavirus pandemic has the potential to undermine decades of conservation efforts to establish and support protected areas worldwide. Protected and conserved areas are some of the most effective tools for conservation, and are crucial for sustaining plant and wildlife species, securing livelihoods and mitigating climate change. Not only has the pandemic taken countless lives, it has also crippled the livelihoods of people that rely on protected areas for income. Global protected areas have more than 8 billion visitors per year, which generates around US$ 850 billion annually. Now that tourism and travel have ground to a halt, it is much more difficult for park rangers, tourism operators and indigenous communities to keep protected areas intact because there is not enough revenue to support them. Without rangers to enforce protected area laws, we’ve witnessed an increase in poaching and illegal deforestation in the tropics. These illicit activities are both degrading forest ecosystems and perpetuating the global wildlife trade, which experts say likely exacerbated the spread of COVID-19. Humans may also be exposing wildlife to the disease itself, including endangered gorillas — which are often vulnerable to human respiratory diseases.

Q: Are you seeing countries try to stop this?

A: Some countries like those in the European Union are actively working to increase protections for nature amid the pandemic, but many are actually doing the opposite. As governments scramble to rebuild their economies, many countries are using the pandemic to roll back environmental protections in certain areas so that they can be used for mining, drilling or development of infrastructure. While lockdown restrictions remain in place, local communities who depend on the revenue and resources from protected areas have had a limited voice in decisions made for these conserved lands. Legal rollbacks of protections, known as protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement (PADDD) events, can accelerate deforestation, carbon emissions and habitat loss. This is especially concerning because we know that keeping natural ecosystems intact is critical to helping reduce the spread of zoonotic diseases.

Q: So can protected areas help prevent future pandemics?

A: Research shows that land use change is a major cause of zoonotic diseases because as humans encroach deeper into forests, they and their livestock are increasingly exposed to wildlife — and the diseases they may carry. Protected areas and conserved lands are important tools for conserving biodiversity and reducing land use change, so they can also help reduce the risk of future animal-borne disease outbreaks.

Further, protected and conserved areas have actually helped communities stay resilient amid the pandemic. For example, REDD+ carbon credit payments from the Alto Mayo Protected Forest of Peru have provided a steady flow of revenue for nature conservation and local communities in this region.

Q: How do we ensure that protected areas stay protected?

A: One of the most urgent needs is funding. As I’ve mentioned, many protected areas and conserved lands have seen severe drops and funding and need emergency financial support from stimulus packages or government financing. Any efforts to rebuild after the pandemic must take a “do-no-harm” approach by fully considering the needs of local and indigenous communities, with a focus on health, equity and sharing of resources. Participation of these communities in decision-making is essential.

Next year, world leaders will convene at a major UN biodiversity conference to develop a roadmap that will guide nature conservation efforts for the next decade — the period in which we must slow global warming, protect our ecosystems and save species under threat. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, this event offers a chance for humanity to rebuild even stronger by protecting at least 30 percent of land and sea, a target set by scientists that is crucial to helping the planet rebound and mitigating climate change. We will not be able to thrive on this planet unless countries stop harmful environmental rollbacks and instead commit to strengthening nature conservation at a global scale for the long term.

Pandemic crippling small-scale fishing worldwide, study finds

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on May 26, 2020.

Demand for seafood has plummeted since COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect around the world.

For the 260 million people who depend on the fishing industry for their livelihoods, that decline could have catastrophic impacts well beyond the current public health crisis. 

new study seeks to analyze the extent of that damage to small-scale fisheries — the coastal and non-industrial fishing enterprises that make up more than 90 percent of the global fishing industry. 

Conservation News spoke to one of the paper’s co-authors and the manager of Conservation International’s coastal community fisheries program, Dr. Elena Finkbeiner, about the bright spots for coastal fisheries amid “coronavirus chaos” — and what must happen to pave the road to recovery.

Question: Why are fisheries struggling right now? 

Answer: After reviewing news articles and firsthand reports from around the world, there are three main takeaways from our study that concern us about the future of the world’s small-scale fisheries. The first issue: The safety of the fishers themselves. Many small-scale fisheries are located in developing countries, or rural communities, which often lack the health infrastructure to protect fishers against disease spread and infection. Other fishing communities may be hotspots for infection due to proximity to their international ports, and because fisheries are highly mobile. Certain groups within fishing communities — women, migrant workers and indigenous peoples — face higher health risks due to existing inequalities.

Second: Many fishers cannot even get out on the water right now due to restrictions. Three out of seven people globally rely on fish as their main source of protein, and small-scale fisheries contribute around half of total fish production in the global market. Despite these contributions, governments often undervalue the importance of small-scale fisheries for food security. For this reason, some countries have not considered an “essential” service — and fishing activity has completely ceased since lockdown began, leaving people without income or food. 

Third: The pandemic is exacerbating vulnerabilities caused by existing stressors, such as climate change. In many areas, extreme weather events have become more frequent due to warming ocean temperatures, which can severely disrupt fishing activities and deplete fish populations even under normal circumstances. Now, the pandemic is adding to these challenges for many islands such as Fiji, which was recently hit by a major tropical cyclone at the onset of the nation’s coronavirus lockdown. 

Q: How are fishing communities coping with pandemic restrictions? 

A: Fortunately, there have been some bright spots for small-scale fisheries amid the coronavirus chaos. After advocating for their rights during lockdown, many small-scale fisheries have reopened and are taking advantage of existing or newly formed local food networks to support local food security, while staying in business. As demand for exported seafood has plummeted, these food networks have actually been some of the most resilient economic systems and sources of revenue during the pandemic. The success and resilience of these localized seafood markets could be a cause for the fishing industry to re-examine its high dependence on the international fish trade after the public health crisis is over.

In various coastal communities, such as in Mexico, Canada, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands, there has also been an emergence of multiple “share economies,” which is when small-scale fisheries help particularly vulnerable individuals in their community gain access to food. For example, in Oaxaca, Mexico, a fishery has organized efforts with the government to donate 45,359 kg to 54,431 kg (50 tons to 60 tons) of fish weekly to the most vulnerable households. 

Q: What effect is the pandemic having on marine species and ecosystems?

A: While some news outlets have called the pandemic lockdowns a “blessing in disguise” for marine ecosystems because of reduced fishing pressures, there is so much more to the story. Due to low levels of fishing activity, fish populations and ecosystems are expected to rebound in some areas. However, these conditions will not last forever — and some people are actually taking advantage of them to practice illegal fishing. 

According to recent reports from Conservation International field offices, poaching and deforestation in the tropics have increased since lockdowns went into effect, largely enabled by weakened enforcement efforts that people exploited. We are seeing similar reports that identify an uptick in illegal fishing activity, for that exact same reason. The number of people patrolling the waters or enforcing marine protected area laws has decreased, so there is not enough capacity to properly control illegal fishing activities. A surge in illegal and unregulated fishing activity could have major impacts on global fish populations — and the communities who rely on them for jobs and income.

Q: What do small-scale fisheries need to recover post-pandemic? 

A: In the short-term, governments, NGOs and other actors need to help these fishing communities get the resources they need to weather the pandemic, including access to food, relief funds, personal protective equipment and assistance programs to support their fisheries in the long-term. 

For example, with the support of the Blue Action Fund, Conservation International Ecuador is providing protective equipment to local fishing communities across the Galápagos Islands to ensure that fishers and park rangers can continue to work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. For the isolated populations in the Gulf of Guayaquil on the coast of southwestern Ecuador, Conservation International is leading efforts to provide immediate economic support and food to vulnerable families who typically depend on mangrove fisheries for their livelihoods. 

The private sector also plays an important role to ensure people have proper social and health safeguards such as protective gear all along the fishing supply chain — from the fishers to the people handling and storing the fish once it is caught to the local distributors selling the fish. Although many seafood markets have been disrupted, it is crucial for buyers and suppliers to maintain relationships with and continue sourcing from small-scale fisheries so that they can access the market during these difficult times. 

As a global community, we can all do our part to mobilize resources and support for small-scale fisheries, which are crucial for food and livelihood security around the world. 

Meet a scientist: the island-hopping adventurer

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on May 14, 2020.

Editor’s note: A 2017 survey found that 81 percent of Americans could not name a living scientist. No, not a single one. At Conservation International, we have lots of scientists you should know. Here’s one.

Mael Imirizaldu is a regional officer for Pacific and French-speaking countries for Conservation International’s Center for Oceans, where he helps countries and communities conserve the ocean that they depend on.

Conservation News spoke with Imirizaldu about a life-changing underwater encounter, the indigenous community that helped him connect with his island home and the benefits of being a generalist.

Question: What has growing up on an island taught you about nature? 

Answer: When I moved to New Caledonia from France as a child, I was in awe of the amazing landscapes and how much space there was to explore — it covers more than 1.8 million hectares (4.416 million acres), which is larger than Sydney, Australia. And with its size comes its biodiversity: There are around 3,270 plant species recorded on the islands — and three-quarters of them are found only in New Caledonia. The island also holds the world’s biggest lagoon, which is home to more than 2,400 species of fish, including legions of sharks, the elusive dugong and my personal favorite, the manta ray. 

Can you imagine a better playground? I was lucky to spend so much time as kid in the waters surrounding the island, gaining a wealth of knowledge about the fish we caught, the coral reefs we explored and the ocean we sailed — all without even realizing I was learning. These hours underwater instilled a deep love of biology in me and a drive to learn about all of the intricate ways that nature is connected. From apex predators such as sharks to the tiny phytoplankton floating in the water, every single species is necessary to keep a marine ecosystem balanced. 

When I got to university, I was shocked to find out that this thing that I loved to do for fun was something that I could dedicate my studies to — and eventually transform it into my career. 

Q: What is one moment underwater that you’ll never forget?

A: I don’t know if you realize how difficult this question is for me to answer — there are too many amazing moments to count! 

One of my favorite moments is actually from when I learned to dive as a teenager. I took my first open dive in the Boulari Channel, which is a famous spot for manta rays. I had always admired manta rays from videos and photographs, but I never imagined that I would see one in person. After being in the water for around 30 minutes (and nearly colliding with an ancient-looking loggerhead turtle), I saw a massive shadow heading straight toward me. A manta ray swam up and presented its stomach to me, which is a common way for these majestic creatures to greet each other. I was hypnotized by the manta ray’s fluid movements, but I was even more moved by the intelligence I saw behind its eyes. Later, I learned that manta rays have one of the largest brains in the entire fish world and can recognize and interact individuals — just like humans do. 

Q: So that manta ray led you into conservation?

A: That first encounter was certainly a defining moment for me, and it solidified my desire to spend the rest of my life conserving marine species — and the ocean they depend on.

Another reason I’ve dedicated my career to protecting the Earth is because of my island upbringing, where I was strongly inspired by the Kanak culture. The Kanak people are the native indigenous people of New Caledonia. They have a deep cultural connection to their natural environment and consider themselves the customary guardians of nature in this region. Although I wasn’t born into or raised by this community, I had the chance to spend some time immersed in it and I learned to look at nature differently.

As humans, we tend to see nature as a commodity for food, income or entertainment. But Kanak culture has taught me that wildlife, fish and plants are so much more than that: Manta rays have personalities, the river brings water to the community, the soil enables us to grow crops, trees clean the air we breathe. The elements of nature are distinct — they can embody ancient spirits, for example, and they can contribute to every aspect of a community’s way of life. 

It took me some time to find my own way that I could also act as a guardian for my island and the ocean, but I eventually realized that conservation was the perfect vehicle to protect both nature and people. 

Q: What does your work look like these days? 

A: My goal has always been to be a generalist. I have this love-hate relationship with science because I never wanted to specialize in just one thing and I didn’t always feel like I fit in the academic world. But my science background has taught me how to use monitoring tools and research techniques to help support conservation efforts on my home island and the rest of the Pacific, while meeting inspiring scientists and conservationists along the way. Seven years ago, I officially joined Conservation International to help launch a marine program in New Caledonia. This role involved completing field research, developing ocean conservation projects with the people of the island, and building trust and connections with local communities, governments and businesses. 

Now that the program is well-established, my role has expanded. As a regional officer for the Pacific and French-speaking countries,  I help identify new sites and communities across this area that want to engage in marine conservation and find ways that we can support them. Despite the vast geography these islands are situated across, and their various ecosystems, a lot of these countries and communities are running into the same challenges and external environmental threats, including overfishing, pollution and climate change. 

Q: As a professional protector of the ocean, what advice would you give to the next generation of conservationists?

A: Be curious. Even when I struggled in certain academic courses or faced a particularly challenging moment in my career, my curiosity has always driven me to find answers and creative solutions. Another piece of advice: Have an enthusiastic attitude about everything thrown your way. Two years ago, I went on a trip to Futuna Island and had to do a survey on coconut crabs. As someone who prefers to spend their time underwater, walking kilometers around in the bush with mosquitos and red ants to find these spider-like crabs at night seemed like a grueling experience to me. But I was curious and enthusiastic about what results we might find, and was able to provide crucial information to the local community, while learning new skills that have helped me become better at my job. I also built great relationships and have fond memories that bring a smile to my face every time I think of them.

Most of the time you will have to make things happen, but other times opportunities will come your way and you have to seize them. If you don’t push yourself to try new things, you will never know what skills and connections could have grown out of them. 

Study: ‘Green’ recovery proves better for climate, economies

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on May 5, 2020.

Just as countries begin to ease lockdown restrictions and seek ways to revive their broken economies, a new study suggests a greener path to recovery. 

The study’s authors — a group of climate experts and economists — analyzed more than 700 economic stimulus plans created during or following the 2008 financial crisis, the most serious global economic downturns since the Great Depression. 

They discovered that green policies such as those that support renewable energy and energy efficiency resulted in greater immediate economic benefits and higher long-term savings compared with traditional stimulus packages.

The study comes a week after world leaders met virtually for the international summit known as the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged governments around the world to include climate action in their coronavirus fiscal stimulus packages.

Though global emissions are on track to drop by nearly 8 percent this year, the threat of climate change has not suddenly vanished. Experts caution that once life returns to normal, emissions rates will once again soar — unless governments take steps to curb emissions and invest in clean technologies. 

Along with transitioning away from fossil fuels, the study recommends that countries invest in projects that restore or conserve nature and support climate-friendly farming in rural regions. Not only could investing in the protection of nature provide jobs and bolster the global economy, experts say that it could help prevent future pandemics by limiting people’s contact with wildlife — and the diseases they may carry.

“As we enter an unsteady economic future, it is more important than ever that we invest in prevention strategies that will have an impact,” said Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan in a recent statement. “Natural climate solutions — the protection, restoration and improved management of land, oceans and forests — have the potential to protect us from not only future disease spread but also the looming crisis of climate change.” 

Read the full story here.

Poaching, deforestation reportedly on the rise since COVID-19 lockdowns

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on April 30, 2020.

Poaching and deforestation in the tropics have increased since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect around the world, according to recent reports from Conservation International field offices.

A surge in agricultural expansion and illegal mining has accelerated forest loss in Brazil and Colombia, said Conservation International’s CEO, M. Sanjayan, in a recent statement

At the same time, Conservation International reports from Kenya signal that bushmeat and ivory poaching are on the rise. Although some of this stems from food needs in rural areas, evidence suggests that the commercial trade of illegal wildlife products has also expanded.

According to one expert, the causes are clear.

“In Africa, there has been an alarming increase in bushmeat harvest and wildlife trafficking that is directly linked to COVID-19-related lockdowns, decreased food availability and damaged economies as a result of tourism collapses,” said Matt Lewis, who leads Conservation International’s work on wildlife trafficking issues in Africa.

A decline in travel coupled with strict lockdowns have caused a sharp drop in Africa’s tourism revenue, which helps to sustain wildlife reserves and community conservancies across the continent. Without money to support rangers’ salaries and airplane patrols, nature reserves — and the highly endangered animals they protect, such as elephants and rhinos — are left vulnerable to poachers. 

Disease and the destruction of nature 

In South America, the Amazon is under renewed siege mere months after fires scorched massive swaths of the world’s largest rainforest. In Brazil, Amazonian deforestation is at a nine-year high, reports show. In neighboring Colombia, fires in the country’s Amazonian region more than doubled in March compared with the same month last year.

Evidence suggests that the majority of these activities were enabled by weakened enforcement efforts that people exploited — some driven by desperation, others by profit.  

“Poachers are very good at utilizing loopholes,” said Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, Conservation International’s senior Vice President for the Africa field division, in a recent interview with Good Morning America. “Add that to the fact that most of the people in outlying communities have lost their livelihood or source of income … we are seriously concerned and not too surprised to see some increase in incidents of poaching.”

Sadly, the destruction of nature — particularly of tropical forests — could actually lead to more frequent disease outbreaks in the future, Sanjayan noted. 

“Poaching and deforestation are unfortunate and disturbing, as our health — and the health of our economies — are inextricably linked to the health of our planet. Wildlife trafficking and tropical deforestation created the conditions that enabled COVID-19 to spread to humans in the first place. 

“Now, by accelerating the destruction of nature, we are only increasing the risk of future pandemics.”

Looking ahead

To minimize poaching and land degradation in Africa, Conservation International is working with governments to help provide alternative livelihoods for rural communities. Using a community-driven approach, Conservation International’s Herding 4 Health program will work with farmers in high-biodiversity rural areas to help degraded rangelands recover and become more resilient to climate change and natural disasters, while improving cattle health and providing a steady income stream — even during uncertain times.

Over the next five years, Conservation International will expand this work to cover more than 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of rangeland, with the target of eventually reaching more than 25.5 million hectares (about 63 million acres).

“In times of stress, such as a global pandemic or climate change-related disaster, rural communities often turn to nature for their survival,” said Lewis. “Sadly, this is often through over-exploitation of resources through poaching, cutting down forests for charcoal and fuelwood, and other damaging activities. Resilient communities are better equipped to handle stress, and both nature and people benefit as a result.”

Notes from the field: Indigenous peoples protecting nature through tradition

This article originally appeared in Conservation News on April 29, 2020.

Though news headlines about the state of the planet may seem bleak, they don’t always capture the whole story. Right now, around the world, the work of protecting nature and the climate is happening in the field — and achieving small triumphs that don’t make the news. 

Here are three recent conservation success stories you should know about. 

1. A modern-day effort to restore the Amazon, powered by tradition 

In Portuguese, the term “muvuca” is traditionally defined by a large group of people in one place. For communities in the Amazon Basin, this term inspired a new way to restore the forests surrounding their land — through a muvuca of seeds.

The Xingu region in northern Brazil is surrounded by Amazon rainforest and the dry savanna of the Cerrado corridor. Over time, the majority of this once-thriving area has been severely degraded, converted into land for soybean farms and ravaged by the fires that burned through the Amazon in 2019

To restore the forests, the people of Xingu implemented the muvuca farming technique — sowing a large and varied mixture of seeds that yield plants native to the area, such as cashew and açaí. With financial and scientific support from Conservation International, Indigenous peoples and farmers have worked with a Brazilian conservation organization called the Socio-Environmental Institute for more than a decade to perfect this technique. By using traditional knowledge, the group ensured the seeds used would produce the highest yield of vegetation native to the land, while restoring the soil.

Through the Xingu Seed Network, local farmers, Indigenous peoples and community members helped gather seeds for each muvuca, which is typically composed of 90 kg (198 lbs) of seeds yielding up to 120 different species of plants per hectare of forest. The group has already helped plant enough seeds to yield more than 1.8 million trees and has seen a range of positive impacts on the region, from improved water quality to increased agricultural production. This method could also help tackle climate change by growing more diverse native forests — which absorbs significantly more carbon than forests with a single type of tree, studies show

“Apart from its positive impacts on biodiversity, muvuca addresses social and economic challenges such as food security and livelihoods,” explained Mauricio Bianco, senior vice president of Conservation International Brazil. “Families can earn income from the restoration processes and increase agricultural production of food species such as beans, peas and corn.” 

“People from the forest are often the most invested in protecting and restoring it,” he continued, “because they are seeing a clear benefit by doing so.”

More about muvuca herehere and here.

READ MORE: Could an innovative reforestation program help stem climate-change fueled wildfires worldwide?

2. Indigenous leaders establish haven for sea turtles 

In the waters of the Lau Islands of Fiji, endangered green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles find sanctuary amid the vibrant corals and abundance of fish in Duff Reef. 

But this reef is at risk, threatened by overfishing and vulnerable to warming waters caused by climate change.

To protect these waters — and the species they support — the Mavana village of Fiji’s Lau Islands recently collaborated with Conservation International to create a new marine protected area. Covering 6.2 square km (2.4 square miles), this area will prevent fishing and diving activities that could disturb the turtles’ habitat. Once restrictions are lifted following the COVID-19 pandemic, Conservation International scientists will attach tags to the sea turtles in this area to further understand their movements — and how to most effectively protect them.

This protected area is part of a 12-year strategy launched by the Fijian government in partnership with the chiefs of the Lau Province and Conservation International in 2019 to protect nature across the entire Lau province — which is made up of a chain of 60 islands in eastern Fiji which spans 335,000 sq km (129344 sq miles). With support from village chiefs throughout Lau Province, this plan aims to help fishers and communities protect the waters they depend on for food and jobs from illegal fishing, while ensuring that the coral reefs surrounding these islands are more resilient to the effects of climate change.

This work was made possible by the late Leisenia Qarase, chief of the Mavana village and former Prime Minister of Fiji. Qarase helped to create the Duff Reef MPA and championed nature conservation throughout the Lau Islands of Fiji.   

3. Preserving a culture — by protecting ancient trees

For the Indigenous Kanak people of New Caledonia, the cloud forest of Mount Panié provides everything they need to live — from fresh water to food to traditional medicine.

Not only is this forest crucial to the Kanak peoples’ survival, it is also central to their identity. Mount Panié holds the only stand of dayu biik, a critically endangered subspecies of the thousand-year-old Kauri trees, which the Kanak people believe holds the spirits of their ancient ancestors. 

“The Kauri is among the oldest plants on Earth,” explained Gilio Farino, in a newly released video by Emmy award winner Shawn Heinrichs. “When we mention our elders, there is also the spiritual aspect. The kauri is an old plant, and I believe it is the origin of all of the nature in itself.”

But these forests face increasingly severe droughts worsened by climate change as well as invasive species such as pigs and deer that contribute to soil erosion on the island. 

To protect the trees they revere, the Kanak people have worked with Conservation International for the past two decades to establish the Dayu Biik Association, a local organization that manages the 5,400-hectare (13,300-acre) Mount Panié Wilderness Reserve. 

Now, the Kanak people are working to expand the reserve to cover 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) of land to protect the entire kauri tree population — and to preserve their cultural heritage.

2020 was supposed to be the ‘super year for nature.’ What now?

This post originally appeared in Conservation News on April 22, 2020.

A pandemic has slowed the pace of life. It has not, however, slowed climate breakdown.

Before COVID-19 appeared on anyone’s radar, world leaders and climate activists declared 2020 a “super year for nature”, with several global climate conferences set to chart a course for slowing climate breakdown and protecting biodiversity over the next decade.

But most of these conferences have been pushed to 2021, leaving observers wondering: What does a super year for nature look like during a pandemic?

On Earth Day, Conservation International climate experts offer the steps that countries and individuals must take to ensure that postponing climate conferences won’t mean postponing action — and give reasons for hope amid a time of crisis.

  1. Listen to the science

From practicing safe social distancing techniques to developing proper medical treatments, one of the most crucial ways that countries can help curb the spread of COVID-19 is to follow guidelines backed by research, public health experts agree.

The same is true of the climate crisis, said Shyla Raghav, the vice president of climate change Strategy at Conservation International.

“We have the science that tells us exactly how we can confront climate change as a global community — and we must listen to it.”

To help governments determine where to focus their efforts to slow climate change, recent research by Conservation International scientists revealed how much carbon is stored in various ecosystems across the globe — and which areas of nature we can least afford to lose.

The scientists identified pockets of “irrecoverable carbon” — vast stores of carbon that are potentially vulnerable to release from human activity and, if lost, could not be restored by 2050. (Why 2050? It’s the year by which humans need to reach net-zero emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change).

Irrecoverable carbon spans six of the seven continents, including vast stores in the Amazon, the Congo Basin, Indonesia, northwestern North America, southern Chile, southeastern Australia and New Zealand. These ecosystems contain more than 260 billion tons of irrecoverable carbon, most of which is stored in mangroves, peatlands, old-growth forests and marshes. This amount of carbon is equivalent to 26 years of fossil fuel emissions at current rates.

“We are talking about a generation’s worth of carbon contained in these critical ecosystems,” explained Allie Goldstein, a climate scientist at Conservation International and the paper’s lead author, in a recent interview. “The good news is that we now know where this irrecoverable carbon can be found — and it is largely within our control to protect it.”

And countries don’t need to wait for global negotiations to protect these places, according to Raghav.

“There is a suite of conservation tools that governments can use to protect this carbon, from establishing or expanding protected areas and national parks, to providing financial incentives for sustainable agriculture, to supporting community conservancies and indigenous peoples’ rights over the land they steward.”

Not only could conserving these places help avoid climate catastrophe, research shows that protecting nature could also help prevent future pandemics by limiting humanity’s exposure to wild animals — and the diseases they may carry.

“When human activities such as logging and mining disrupt and degrade these ecosystems, animals are forced closer together and are more likely to be stressed or sick, as well as more likely to come into contact with people,” said Lee Hannah, an ecologist and senior climate change scientist at Conservation International, in a recent interview.

“Fundamentally, we need to reimagine our relationship with nature.”

  1. Engage local communities — and make sure everyone’s voice is heard

While global climate conferences are put on hold, country governments have an opportunity to build new connections with cities and communities — and to look locally for climate action, explained Shyla Raghav, Conservation International’s vice president of climate change strategy.

“Countries and communities have long been divided on how to address climate change. Slowing down has given us a chance to strengthen connections between local communities and governments — and start making changes right now.”

As individuals self-isolate to curb the spread of COVID-19, many governments are already using technology such as webinars and virtual meetings to continue climate negotiations at both a local and national level. Climate activists are also moving their efforts online — and using social media campaigns directed at government offices to push for climate action.

But not every community has equal access to technology, added Maggie Comstock, Conservation International’s senior director of climate policy.

“Technology has the power to connect people worldwide — but it is difficult to match the pace of progress achieved through in-person negotiations,” Comstock said. “Governments must make an extra effort to engage those that might not have access to a full suite of technology, such as indigenous peoples. All voices are important in the fight to stop climate change, and we can’t leave any countries or individuals behind.”

For indigenous peoples and vulnerable communities worldwide, the impact of COVID-19 is exacerbating existing challenges such as food insecurity and limited access to information, explained Kristen Walker Paneimilla, senior vice president of Conservation International’s Center for Communities and Conservation.

“In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, countries and organizations must support indigenous and local communities both financially and by recognizing indigenous rights.”

  1. Take a breath — but don’t take your foot off the pedal

There is at least one bright side to the postponement of these global climate conferences, according to Raghav.

“The brief hiatus gives us time to prepare even more for success when the conferences occur in 2021 — and to advocate for more ambitious targets and commitments for countries and sectors to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”

While this hiatus offers an opportunity for countries to prepare, Comstock emphasized that world leaders must continue to act on climate policy where they still can.

“2020 can still be a year of ambition — we can’t take our foot off the pedal. Even though most global climate negotiations are postponed, now is the time to accelerate climate action at a national level,” said Comstock.

“This year, countries are encouraged to update their country-level commitments under the Paris Agreement — how each country is supporting efforts to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Countries must find ways to make their emissions reductions goals a reality and increase the ambition, conferences or no conferences.”

  1. Learn from the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Across the globe, governments and individuals are taking swift action to curb the spread of COVID-19, from sheltering in place to issuing multi-trillion-dollar relief packages in some countries.

Experts agree that countries must take similarly rapid and decisive actions to end the climate crisis — which could kill approximately as many people as the number of individuals who die of cancer and infectious diseases today if global warming is not limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), research shows.

The silver lining: The world’s response to COVID-19 shows that it is possible for humanity to take action at the scale necessary to stop climate change, Raghav said.

“Crises like this pandemic demonstrate the incredible capacity of societies to come together in the face of unprecedented, insurmountable challenges and adapt,” she said. “This is exactly what we need to tackle climate change.”

Additionally, the recent decline in global emissions illustrates that changes in human behavior can show tangible results for climate action — even at an individual level.

“In the same way that the world is cooperating to slow this pandemic, it is going to take just as much urgency and participation from governments and individuals to slow the rise in global temperature,” Comstock said.

“If there is one positive thing that people can learn from this pandemic, it is that every single person has a role to play to end global crises.”