Inside the world’s tropical forests, there are the agents of disease that have the power to bring our way of life to a halt. How we learn to live with these forests will determine our fate, hastening or slowing the onset of future pandemics and the climate crisis. BBC Travel and Future Planet explore two sides of our relationship with forests in two stories; this story is the second, and you can read the first here.
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.”
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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.
Indonesia has already been intensively deforested, which fuels the nation's long and deadly forest-fire seasons (Credit: Getty Images)
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 – Sebastian Troeng
“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.
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.
What we have seen with deforestation is that people are not afraid because they apparently think ‘the government is distracted with this health crisis, they won’t pay attention to us’ – Ane Alencar
“That’s what worries me. It’s the confluence of several bad things happening at the same time,” he says.
Rising reports of logging in the Amazon in lockdown is thought to have been fuelled by a lack of ability to enforce restrictions during the pandemic (Credit: Getty Images)
Brazil confirmed its first case of coronavirus on 28 February, but while most of the economy has since come to a halt as state and municipal government implement lockdown measures, deforestation has not. In April, rainforest destruction increased 64%, compared with the same month last year, according to the country’s space research agency, INPE. In the first four months of 2020, rainforest destruction rose by 55%, compared with the same time last year, clearing an area of 1,202 square kilometers (464 square miles).
“What we have seen with deforestation is that people are not afraid because they apparently think ‘the government is distracted with this health crisis, they won’t pay attention to us’,” says Ane Alencar, science director of the Brazilian environmental organisation, IPAM. “It’s an opportunistic thing.”
In March, the country’s two environmental enforcement agencies, Ibama and ICMBio, cut their forest monitoring services. The agencies said mobility restrictions impeded their ability to carry out their tasks, and they couldn’t risk the health of their staff or indigenous communities by trying to continue regular service.
Alencar says the majority of deforestation in 2020 so far happened through land grabbing of public property. Data released by IPAM show that the first three months of this year, 53% of this destruction took place on undesignated public land, protected areas and indigenous territories, compared to 38% last year. This will likely be turned into cattle land, Alencar says.
Deforestation in Brazil has spiked since last year, when President Jair Bolsonaro took office. Shortly after being sworn in, he began promoting the development of the Amazon rainforest, including indigenous reserves, calling it necessary to lift locals out of poverty. Last week, Bolsonaro authorised the army to deploy in the Amazon to fight fires and illegal logging. But environmentalists say this will not solve the problems on the ground in the long term. Alencar, and other conservationists, say the president’s own policies have helped bolster land grabbing, as well as illegal mining and logging.
Conservationists are concerned that the increased deforestation they are seeing in lockdown will lead to even bigger forest fires during Brazil’s dry season than were seen last year. Forest fires in the Amazon generally occur during the dry season when people employ a slash and burn method to turn forest into agriculture land. In 2019, Brazil’s forest fires increased by 84% compared with 2018. Smoke from the fires led to a public health alert, causing respiratory illnesses in people living in nearby cities.
As well as harvesting timber, land is deforested in the Amazon for cattle ranching and growing crops (Credit: Getty Images)
Many of Brazil’s hospitals are already overloaded as they try to cope with cases of Covid-19. In early May, the country was declared the new global epicenter of coronavirus.
“It’s already a nightmare, but it’s going to be a triple nightmare,” says Alencar.
Neighbouring Colombia has already seen an uptick in forest fires in the first months of 2020. In March, the country registered 12,953 hot points – thermal anomalies that indicate higher risk of forest fire – in Colombia’s Amazon rainforest, according to the Amazon Institute for Scientific Research, SINCHI. This is almost three times more than the 4,691 hot spots indicated last year during the same month. While hotspots don’t necessarily turn into fires, they are a close indicator; scientists say 93% of registered hot points are later confirmed as forest fires.
Miguel Pacheco, natural resources and livelihoods coordinator with WWF-Colombia, says quarantine measures have not been the cause of this increase in hotspots, but they could exacerbate the problem. Since Colombia went into lockdown in late March, monitoring flights by the armed forces that normally circle the region have significantly reduced. This could allow armed groups to take advantage of this lack of environmental control and continue to clear the area for cattle, coca plantation or other crops, as long as these quarantine measures persist, he says.
Environmental authorities also reported an increase in illegal logging, wild animal trafficking and poaching of large cats since quarantine began, says Pacheco.
In Colombia, lockdown poses the next in a long line of social changes that have fuelled deforestation. The destruction of rainforest has been a major concern since 2016, when the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government signed a peace agreement. When the guerrillas demobilised from their holding areas in the jungle, it left the regions open to exploitation. In many areas, that meant armed groups and other organised crime cleared the forest for cattle and pasture land, particularly the Amazon states of Caqueta, Meta and Guaviare, some of the most affected.
In Colombia, clearing forested regions leads to more hot spots where forest fires are highly likely to follow (Credit: Getty Images)
The country’s lockdown has brought to a halt all post-conflict development and conservation programmes with communities in these remote jungle regions, most of which also lack access to schools, hospitals or other public services. This has created another vacuum of other forest monitoring bodies like NGOs and government institutions.
Deforestation does not necessarily end in the jungle. It can also happen in the centers where economic decisions are made – Carolina Gil
“Everything is kind of on standby right now, and I’m sure that this will be reflected later on when the data reveals what actually happened in these territories,” says Carolina Gil, north-west Amazon regional director with the Amazon Conservation Team in Colombia, who has been continuing her work from her home in Bogota during lockdown. Gil says even before lockdown, she received reports that park rangers in the Amazon national parks and protected areas had been receiving death threats from armed groups, warning them to leave their posts.
The way back
The solution to the ongoing deforestation and illicit activities is not so easy, says Gil. It involves better forest monitoring by governments, a crackdown on organised crime, and more programmes developed to understand and support communities in the rainforest. It also involves people in cities and overseas, helping them to understand the role they play in the deforestation of tropical forests, she says, by reflecting on how their consumer habits – from beef to cocaine – could be supporting it.
“We have to have a bit more judicious and rigorous reflections about deforestation, which does not necessarily end in the jungle. It can also happen in the centers where economic decisions are made,” says Gil.
In the long term, conservationists agree that the solution to saving the world’s tropical forests involves working closely with local communities, empowering them to be active conservationists in their own territories.
In some cases, this includes supporting traditional indigenous lifestyles of living with nature. In others, it involves developing sustainable alternative revenue streams that go beyond ecotourism projects. The latter has become a popular conservation strategy over the years, but, as the current global health and economic crisis indicates, is not always reliable, says Troeng. One option, he says, is for governments to pay local communities to work as forest rangers, take on reforestation projects, or work with them to develop sustainable forest products, like honey or bamboo harvesting.
Enforcing indigenous people's rights to manage rainforest land sustainably is one way to slow the spread of deforestation (Credit: Getty Images)
In Colombia, Pachecho says deforestation hot spots reduced by up to 70% in 2018, and have stayed low, in areas where local communities have been involved in forest and landscape management programmes in the Amazon states of Guaviare and Caqueta.
But in the short term, it’s important that governments make tropical forest areas a priority, and remain focused on enforcement activities, says Troeng. He cites two examples where this is happening. In the Philippines, after learning about increased illegal logging, wildlife trade and fishing in the country, the government stated publicly that it would not tolerate such activities and began to crack down on these crimes. In Peru, the agency that monitors protected areas is still in the field, and conducting patrols and enforcing environmental regulations when necessary, despite Covid-19, which is “encouraging”, Troeng says.
It’s also important for decision makers globally to be aware of these dynamics moving forward, as they begin to think about investing resources to kickstart the economy again. “I think there’s definitely an opportunity,” he says. “Let’s figure out how we can reverse these negative trends because we’re going to need it in the battle against climate change.”
This ramped-up deforestation is not likely to go away when lockdown is lifted; the same economic pressures will still be there, as well as the opportunities to exploit the rainforest. Illegal economies often work faster than governments’ and NGOs’ ability to formalise and implement conservation strategies, says Gil. Of course, the longer these illegal activities are left to expand in tropical forest areas, the harder it will be to reverse the damages to these ecosystems and rainforest communities. This increases the urgency to think about new ways to tackle deforestation, both in the tropics and abroad.
The emissions from travel it took to report this story were 0kg CO2: the writer interviewed sources remotely from the safety of lockdown. The digital emissions from this story are an estimated 1.2g to 3.6g CO2 per page view. Find out more about how we calculated this figure here.
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