The hidden toll of lockdown on rainforests (BBC Future Planet)

QUITO, ECUADOR –  You might be forgiven for thinking that the global lockdown measures keeping us all at home can only have been good for the environment. Pollution in cities has decreased, wild animals have increasingly been spotted entering urban areas, and many new cycle lanes have opened up worldwide.

But in the world’s tropical forest regions, it’s another story. Environmental agencies have reported an uptick in deforestation during lockdowns, as well as increases in poaching, animal trafficking and illegal mining worldwide. The trends are alarming, environmental experts say, and could be hard to reverse.

“This narrative of nature having been given a break during Covid, it’s not entirely accurate. It’s accurate in cities and peri-urban areas,” says Sebastian Troeng, executive vice-president of Conservation International. “But unfortunately in the rural areas, the situation is almost the inverse.”

Troeng says it’s too soon for detailed data on the scale of the problem since lockdowns began, but their offices have been receiving almost daily reports of increased deforestation from around the world. Brazil and Colombia have seen an uptick in illegal logging and mining; the Philippines has also reported illegal logging and wildlife trafficking; Kenya has reported increased bushmeat and ivory poaching, as well as increases in charcoal production, which has been illegal since 2018; Cambodia has seen an increase in poaching, illegal logging and mining; and similar reports have come from Venezuela and Madagascar.

Concerns have also been raised in Malaysia and Indonesia, which have the highest deforestation rates in South-east Asia, while in Ecuador, indigenous and afro-descendent communities have reported increased illegal mining in the Choco and Amazon rainforests.

There are two main factors that could be driving these trends, says Troeng. The first is criminal groups and opportunists expanding their activities, taking advantage of lockdown and diminished forest monitoring and government presence. The second is that people living in these rural areas are facing increased economic pressures and are forced to rely more heavily on nature for food and income. In some cases, such as Madagascar and Cambodia, there has been a large urban-rural migration as people lose their jobs in the cities or return home to be with their families during quarantine, which has put extra pressure on local environments.

“What worries me is that we’re seeing these emerging trends, and they’re not going to be reversed when Covid measures are lifted because they’re related to economic factors. So my anticipation is that we’re going to have to deal with this for potentially months and years,” says Troeng.

Destruction of the rainforest will have severe ramifications. For indigenous and other communities who live there, it means a destruction of their way of life and may lead to conflict with the criminals who encroach on their territory. Studies have also shown that destroying rainforest ecosystems raises the odds of new pathogens making the jump from animals to humans. It also harms our ability to deal with climate change, as tropical forests are a key component in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Amazon losses

One of Troeng’s biggest concerns right now is the Brazilian Amazon, which is seeing unprecedented levels of deforestation, increased illegal mining in indigenous territory and widespread cases of Covid-19 through Amazon communities.


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

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