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Part 1: COVID-19 and Conservation - Forests

Updated: Jun 17

This is part one of a four part series focusing on the links between COVID-19 and conservation through the lens of forests; oceans; wildlife trade and climate change.

Author: T-CPI community member and scientist, Abigail Croker

The mandatory lockdown response to COVID-19 has been widely employed by governments globally, despite extensive public scrutiny and critical political debate (Karnon, 2020). COVID-19 has halted global economic activity, impacting demand for commodities and consumer goods and thus, in many cases, disrupted international producer-consumer relations.

Whilst in some regions lockdown has caused a hiatus in the illicit forestry trade, such as in West Africa where illegal redwood poaching has been suspended due to a crash in demand in China’s domestic furniture market (Inveen, 2020), other regions evince a tragically covert response. In the absence of routine management, authoritative and regulatory bodies, and eco-tourism, and with all types of governmental systems preoccupied by COVID-19 and redirecting resources to deal with the pandemic, opportunities to engage in illegal forestry activities have proliferated.

With fewer agents in the field to police and combat environmental crime, a rise in individuals and gangs engaging in illegal deforestation for logging, mining, and agricultural land-clearing purposes has been observed globally. It appears that the inevitable and looming economic recession has prompted people into risking criminal activity to secure some financial stability.

However, the recorded surge in deforestation rates since the outbreak of COVID-19 has also been linked to a plethora of other environmental and social concerns, most notably a rise in the bush-meat trade, an increased risk of extreme wildfire events as countries and regions approach fire-seasons with minimal preparedness, resources, and man-power, and lastly, the heightened exposure of forest-dwelling indigenous and native people to COVID-19, many of whom lack the resources to deal with the virus effectively.

The spread of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19, are compounded by the global expansion of deforestation, bringing humans and wild animals into closer contact and living proximities. The worldwide surge in deforestation observed this year has sparked concerns over the likelihood of future disease outbreaks. Although the transmission of disease from non-human animals to humans has long been recognised and associated with forest-human interactions (Table 1), for example the spread of yellow fever out of its arboreal monkey-sylvatic mosquito transmission cycle to humans who expanded into forested areas throughout Sub-Saharan Africa (Wilcox and Ellis, 2006), the rapid global propagation and virulence of COVID-19 has brought the debate to the forefront of contemporary health discourse.

Recent evidence has been published by Johnson et al. (2020) and Bloomfield et al. (2020) revealing that viral spillover at the human-animal interface is facilitated by high-risk anthropogenic activity that brings humans, wild species, and domesticated animals into close contact. Deforestation and landscape fragmentation, fiercely accompanied by human encroachment into areas of high biodiversity, have been identified as processes that aid in the direct transmission of zoonotic diseases from non-human species to humans. Not only do these interactions promote the illicit bushmeat trade and heighten the extinction risk of threatened forest-dwelling species, they also accelerate the spread of infectious zoonotic diseases at the global scale.

Case Study 1: Brazil

Brazil is Southern America’s epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, with recent figures suggesting that it is quickly becoming a global hotspot (Magalhaes, 2020). Coronavirus cases have surged in tandem with deforestation in the Brazilian Amazonia,the latter of which has reached its highest level recorded since April 2008 at approximately 327 km 2 in March 2020 (Fig 1). However, this figure is likely to be significantly higher; Kalamandeen et al. (2018) observed a pervasive rise in small-scale deforestation in Amazonia (<1 ha) in recent years, with subsistence agriculture and small-scale and artisanal mining (generally <5ha) not meeting the threshold (>6.25 ha) to be accounted for in deforestation assessments. An upward trend in deforestation in Brazil has been observed since President Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, as he advances plans to economically develop the rainforest and lift residents out of poverty (Spring, 2020). However, since the outbreak of COVID-19, deforestation rates have soared, with illegal loggers, miners, ranchers and speculators revelling in the absence of authority and invading indigenous lands and Protected Areas (PAs).

Illegal activities in the Amazon rainforest increases the likelihood of indigenous peoples contracting the virus from infected individuals from other regions. With scarce or no resources to prevent contagion, limited access to health care (Fellet, 2020) – with only one intensive care unit in the state of Amazonas (The Straits Times, 2020), and living conditions that do not easily accommodate social distancing measures, indigenous peoples are at risk from exorbitant rates of infection and mortality.

Reports estimate that there are currently around 20,000 illegal gold miners in Yanomami territory on the Brazil-Venezuela border, some of whom have spread COVID-19 to the Yanomami indigenous community where a fatality has already been recorded (Bo, 2020). With illegal deforestation activities on the rise, these fears resonate with forest-dwelling communities world-wide.

Due to concerns over the surge in deforestation ahead of Brazil’s high season for forest fires – surging by 55% between January and April 2020, and 64% in April 2020 alone, compared to the same period and month in 2019 – as of Monday 11th May, thousands of military personnel have been deployed to the Amazon rainforest to combat illegal activity (Duncan,

2020; DW, 2020).

President Marcello Brito of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association stated, “where you have deforestation in rainy season, it will transform to fire in the dry season to clear the area” (Spring, 2020). Brito’s statement is reaffirmed by Ms Erika Berenguer, a researcher at the University of Oxford and Lancaster University, who reports that “the beginning of the year is not the time where deforestation normally happens, because it’s raining”, “in the past, when we see deforestation increase in the beginning of the year, it’s an indicator that when deforestation season starts, you’re going to see an increase, as well” (The Straits Times, 2020).

As the northern hemisphere approaches summer and equatorial regions enter their dry seasons, an imminent risk of extreme wildfire activity looms. Human-ignited wildfires have proliferated in recent decades, accounting for 95%, 90%, 87%, 85%, 80%, and 84% of all wildfires in the Mediterranean, South Asia, Australia, South America, Northeast Asia, and the USA, respectively (Read, 2019; Stanley et al., 2020). In Sumatra and Kalimantan, this figure rises to 99%, whilst human-ignited wildfires in the Amazon Rainforest have increased by 84% between August 2018-2019 (Irfan, 2019). Furthermore, official figures for the African

continent are absent, however, The Earth Policy Institute found that 70% of total global wildfires occur in the tropics, of which more than half are in Africa (Larsen, 2009).

The unprecedented increase in extreme wildfires observed over the last few years is only likely to persist amidst, and in the wake of the global coronavirus crisis (Fig 2).

Current research suggests that farmers often wait until the dry season and summer months to carry out illegal land-clearing forestry activities, such as slash-and-burn, to take advantage of the climate and environmental conditions (BBC, 2019). However, as lockdown continues and more people exploit this opportunity to engage in illegal practices, forest-fires are prematurely prevalent across the world and are predicted to worsen throughout the typical fire-season. This is due to fires during the wet season parching and desiccating the landscape, creating precarious conditions which fuel extreme wildfire events during the dry season. Additionally, the dry season has shifted spatially and temporally in many regions of the world due to anthropogenic climate change, extending in duration and delaying the onset of the rains, such as in the Congo rainforest (Fig 3). This presents further extinguishment challenges.

Whilst countries and regions are increasingly threatened with record-breaking droughts, high-temperatures and low-humidity, and more severe climatic phenomenon, such as El Niño and La Niña events (WMO, 2020), that harbour fire-prone conditions, they are now also challenged with tackling an invisible and fatal pandemic. In many countries, the peak of the coronavirus outbreak will coincide with the fire season, and in countries where the peak is reckoned to have passed, there are fears of a second-peak and subsequent return to lockdown. Contemporary wildfire management follows the suppression model whereby they are dealt with as-and-when they arise, largely refuting the importance of fire as a management tool in ecosystems that support fire-ecologies (Tedim et al., 2020). A general lack of prevention and mitigation action, exacerbated by lockdown and the absence of fuel removal practices, and the diversion of national and regional resources to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, leaves global forest ecosystems in a highly vulnerable state. Struggling at the interface between coronavirus and wildfires will be firefighters and

citizens living within and around fire-prone areas.

The pollutants emitted from burning forests, such as PM2.5 and carbon monoxide, put these individuals at a greater risk to the potentially lethal impacts of COVID-19, whilst safe suppression and evacuation methods that incorporate social distancing and sanitation standards seem impossible (Montrose, 2020).

For years, rhetoric has fostered the idea that the current and future integrity of global forest ecosystems lies in the hands of humankind and the decisions and actions we take today.

What if the rhetoric was reversed? What if the current and future integrity of humankind depends upon the undisturbed functioning and ecological viability of forest ecosystems worldwide? This is certainly true if we wish to avoid future global pandemics, such as COVID-19.


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There is so much more knowledge that can be shared when it comes to how we can better protect our natural environment. All too often we miss out on important information simply from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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