Conservation and Coronavirus: Exacerbated Problems, Resilient Solutions
During my time working for SEED Madagascar in the Environment and Sustainable Livelihoods Team, I have begun to better understand the complexities facing conservation projects, despite the evident need for them. Firstly, where do I start? All of nature seems worthy of protection, but conservation efforts require a focus to achieve results. Secondly, conservation requires funding and with many deserving causes seeking the same thing, it can be difficult and time consuming to obtain. And finally, conserving the environment is rarely a priority for governments, despite a healthy environment being necessary to support our society.
These factors affect conservation projects around the world and make them a balancing act at the best of times. It also means that in times of instability such as natural disasters, political coups, warfare, or indeed, disease, this balance becomes harder to maintain. Because of this conservationists, across their various roles are resilient, especially in countries where instability is a prevalent risk. However, the current risk facing conservation is unique, for the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the whole world at the same time and is compounding the existing threats to nature.
How is this impacting conservation in Madagascar? Preliminary results comparing satellite data from March - May 2020 to the same period in 2019 show that there has been an 81% increase in active fires within protected areas. Fire is a commonly used method for clearing land ready for planting before the rainy season, and therefore a large contributor to deforestation. Although this result is not a consistent trend across all protected areas, it indicates that overall COVID-19 has increased human pressures on protected forests here and moved the fire season forward from July to March (Ngounou, 2020).
Across the Global South, such increases in forest disturbance are largely being attributed to the loss of tourism as a revenue for parks and people which is forcing people to rely more heavily on forests for vital food and resources. Furthermore, with protected areas closed, park staff and researchers are not able to conduct the patrols, land management and wildlife monitoring duties required for conservation, increasing the risk of agricultural encroachment and illegal resource extraction. This cascade of impacts of COVID-19 follows a period of drought in Madagascar which make trade restrictions and loss of livelihoods even more devastating for local people with few other options (Eklund, Jokinen & Toivonen, 2020).
In the Anosy region of southeast Madagascar where SEED’s Project Ala works to conserve the rich and vulnerable biodiversity of littoral forests, protected areas have so far been buffered from these severe impacts due to their limited reliance on tourism. Reports from our staff, stakeholders, and communities reveal that there have been no increased fires, logging, or hunting in the forests. However, with the main local livelihoods of lobster fishing and mahampy reed weaving becoming unviable due to reduced market prices, and trade restrictions leading to rising hunger, it is highly likely that threats to local forests will increase in Sainte Luce too.
My intention here is not to paint a hopeless picture, but rather to highlight the importance of the people and projects dedicated to conservation and sustainable livelihoods, now more than ever. Looking at the broader picture can often overshadow the hard work being done at the grassroots level, and the positive impact that this is having. However, it is worth noting the positives; SEED Madagascar is being proactive in monitoring and sharing our experiences of the impact of COVID-19 on communities and projects so that we can adapt our solutions to these ever-changing times.
For Project Ala this means communicating with the forest management committees to improve the reporting of forest use and disturbance, so that we better understand how the needs of local people and the use of the forests are changing during this time. Where it is safe to do so, reforestation activities are also continuing, including clearing firebreaks around protected areas, expanding conservation corridors to improve their effectiveness, and monitoring biodiversity within the forest remnants and corridors. Not only does this benefit conservation of the littoral forests but it also employs members of the Sainte Luce community, providing a much-needed alternative income source.
By being resourceful and proactive, SEED Madagascar is helping to support vulnerable communities severely impacted by the pandemic and is committed to adapting its projects so that they will benefit communities and conserve the environment in the long term. In the aftermath of COVID-19, the need for conservation will likely be greater, while funding and government attention will be reduced. But despite these added pressures to our natural environment, unstable times highlight our reliance on nature when other systems fail. So, it is no time to give up! No matter how small the action to help conservation, it will contribute to a wider solution of protecting nature which in return will help protect ourselves.
Banner image: Firebreaks around a forest fragment in Sainte Luce, Madagascar, August 2020.
- Eklund, J., Jokinen, A., and Toivonen, T. (2020). COVID-19 Causes A Threat to Protected Areas in The Global South – Evidence from Madagascar. Digigeolab blog. [Accessed 29 July 2020].
- Ngounou, B. (2020). MADAGASCAR: Drought Drives 730,000 People to Food Insecurity. Afrik 21. [Accessed 30 July 2020].