Study finds no connection between increasing deforestation and the COVID crisis
- Macroeconomic analysis suggests that deforestation trends have not changed significantly over the past year as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- It was expected that lockdowns and layoffs, as well as the unprecedented stimulus spending in response, would lead to spike in deforestation, but this was not the case, the analysis shows.
- Still, campaign groups say there are signs of unsustainable forest products expansion plans in Asia.
- Conservationists urge world leaders to use the climate conference later this year to make recovery programs more sustainable.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out and national governments responded with bans to varying degrees, conservationists warned that it would spur illegal logging in tropical countries. They argued that with fewer eyes and ears to monitor, coupled with a rapid supply of short-time workers in the form of unemployed people migrating from the cities to their home villages, the world’s rainforests would inevitably suffer a blow.
In fact, environmental activists interviewed by Mongabay in June 2020, just months after the pandemic began, said their organizations had already seen signs of increased illegal activity.
But according to new research in Forest policy and economy, The various forces acting on the global macroeconomy have largely balanced each other out, so the increase in deforestation in one part of the world has been offset by declines in other parts.
Global Forest Watch (GFW) found that tropical forest tree cover decreased by 12.2 million hectares (30.5 million acres) in 2020, up 12% from 2019 levels, according to the new Paper. That is an area almost the size of Greece.
However, the researchers write that the analysis should focus on a “three-year moving data average that continues to decline in 2020 with the large declines from 2016 to 2018”. This is because the loss ratios in 2020 were still well below those of 2016 or 2017, so that the three-year average 2018-2020 is significantly lower than in the two previous periods (2016-2018 and 2017-2019).
The trends in the three largest tropical forest countries – Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Indonesia – continued largely unaffected by the COVID-19 crisis.
During the pandemic, there were three main drivers of the global economy, all of which were pushing in different directions: supply-side constraints, declining demand, and then the impact of government financial packages to stimulate economies.
“We have found that deforestation-inhibiting and deforestation-enhancing factors have practically neutralized each other so far,” the authors report.
The paper questions other studies linking reports of increasing deforestation to the pandemic. A study by WWF Germany found that forest disturbance warnings in the period February-June 2020 increased by 77% compared to the same period in 2016-2019. The WWF attributed the increase to “accelerated loss of forest management and increased land grabbing during the government lockdown”.
Other reports, such as the aforementioned Mongabay, “linked” tropical forest data from Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) “causally” with anecdotal accounts of deforestation, the paper says.
“The general problem in justifying these studies is timing,” the authors write. “Many tropical countries had not yet taken lockdown measures when registering higher GLAD warnings. In fact, countries with the sharpest rise in deforestation warnings in February / March, such as Colombia or Thailand, were not closed until the end of March. This timing discrepancy effectively renders any statement attributable to a suspension invalid. “
Lead author Sven Wunder, senior scientist at the European Forest Institute, told Mongabay in an interview that even now – more than a year and a half since the pandemic broke out – it is too early to say what long-term effects COVID-19 will be.
“We had this very strong fiscal reaction dominating things, but it can’t go on like this,” said Wunder. “If you let these stimulus programs run out, what will happen?”
Historically, a booming economy almost always leads to increased deforestation because it stimulates greater demand for raw materials and more investment in land use projects, Wunder said. The money that has been injected into the global economy since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced reactions to other global crises such as the great recession of 2008 or the US Marshall Plan, the aid program for Western European countries to support their economies after the World War, dwarfed II.
The paper’s figures show that the stimulus packages in major European countries such as France, Germany and the UK were ten times the size of 2008. However, Wunder says the measures cannot go on like this and that it was not a booming decade like the 1920s after the end of the First World War and the Spanish flu.
Frances Seymour, Senior Fellow of the World Resources Institute (WRI), told Mongabay that Miracle’s paper offers a useful perspective on the overall impact of the pandemic on global deforestation rates, but was surprised at one point.
“It was interesting to note that they discount a 12% increase in tree cover loss with primary forest loss as insignificant,” she said. “When the rest of the world economy was shrinking and you can still have a 12% increase, that’s amazing. It is an indicator of the resilience of the various drivers that lead to forest loss. “
Seymour added that her long-term concern is that environmental issues will move further down the priority list as governments seek to help their economies recover from the effects of the pandemic.
“When governments are in crisis, they understandably focus on short-term job creation programs rather than thinking about the sustainability of those jobs,” she said. “There is also a tendency to become more protectionist so that one is not so dependent on the world economy. Both are bad for the forest. “
Daniel Carrillo, director of forest campaigns for the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), says there is clear evidence that fiscal stimulus programs continue to fuel unsustainable business practices. In the past few months, he said, Asia’s two largest pulp and paper companies, Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd (APRIL) and Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), both announced plans to expand their facilities.
APRIL’s proposed expansion of its pulp production capacity to 5.8 million tons per year in Sumatra, Indonesia, could endanger 120,000 hectares of natural forest, according to an analysis by an environmental group. APP’s OKI facility in southern Sumatra will more than double as part of its proposals to increase production capacity to 7 million tons per year.
“The fiscal stimulus is happening and these two companies are announcing these expansion plans at the same time, and we see these two things as linked,” Carrillo told Mongabay. “We are concerned about these plans because pulp mills have been responsible for deforestation, land conflicts and violations of indigenous peoples’ rights for decades.”
Now, says Carrillo, it is important that world leaders at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in November, address the question of how recovery programs can be made more sustainable.
“There is an opportunity to study the impact of these fiscal incentives and how indigenous communities have been excluded,” he said.
The pandemic has made those who are at the forefront of forest protection more vulnerable, said Aina Grødahl, senior advisor at Rainforest Foundation Norway, which has mapped the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic among 60 indigenous and environmental groups in tropical rainforest countries.
“Actions emerging from the pandemic, such as lockdown and martial law, have impaired the ability of environmental police and other societal functions to counter land invasions and illegal activity,” she said.
Seymour says the single biggest single impact of COVID-19 could be how it affects the popularity of world leaders like Jair Bolsonaro, the controversial president of Brazil. Bolsonaro enacted policy that harmed the Amazon rainforest long before the coronavirus emerged, but now the question is whether the pandemic – and how Brazil responded to it – fueled or undermined it.
“The likelihood of Bolsonaro being re-elected – that dynamic is most important to the future of the Amazon,” she said.
Wunder S., Kaimowitz D., Jensen S. & Feder S. (2021). Coronavirus, Macroeconomics, and Forests: What Likely Impact? Forest Policy and Economics, 131. doi: 10.1016 / j.forpol.2021.102536
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Banner image of a lumberjack in a forest by FotoRieth via Pixabay.