Interview

Q+A: Rollback of environmental protections continues during COVID-19 pandemic, expert says

Conservation International's Rachel Golden-Kroner
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As the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown limits civic participation, some officials are dismantling ecosystem protections, an environmental governance expert has said.

Rachel Golden-Kroner, a social scientist with Conservation International who studies the cyclical pattern between environmental rollbacks and deforestation, has been monitoring policy changes.

“Many leaders are taking advantage of the fact that the coronavirus has limited the public’s ability to participate in these decisions despite the cruel irony that by scaling back protected areas, governments are silently weakening policies that can help minimize future pandemics,” Golden-Kroner said. “In most cases the catalyst for shrinking or eliminating protected areas in recent months is to make space for infrastructure developments, agricultural expansion, or increased fossil fuel mining – like in Brazil and Canada.”

She argues that governments must be vigilant in enforcement of protected areas and support green coronavirus recovery measures as opportunities to reinforce the value of nature.  

Golden-Kroner, who has had research findings published in such journals as Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and Conservation Biology, shared some potential consequences in an exclusive interview with Forests News.

Q: How do you define rollbacks?

A: “For the purposes of the Conservation International Global Conservation Rollbacks Tracker, environmental rollbacks are defined as decisions by governments to weaken environmental protections through the proposal, approval, implementation, or advancement of policies (e.g. laws, rules, regulations) since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic. This includes loosening of restrictions that affect lands and waters, species and climate-related protections, as well as indigenous peoples and local community rights. Because this is a global tracker, we are taking a broad approach to our definition of rollbacks to get a rapid sense of what is going on during the pandemic. There are other actions occurring around the globe beyond what the tracker reflects, including delayed international meetings, changes to funding or funding management (e.g. enforcement), and appointments of officials who have expressed support of environmental rollbacks – all of these things have negative impacts on nature.” 

Q: How do you know that the rollbacks are occurring specifically due to COVID-19?

A: “We are tracking any announcements and proposals of rollbacks reported since March 1, 2020, around the start of the pandemic’s global spread, as well as the reported advancement or implementation of decisions made before that date but occurring since March 1. We cannot say for certain that each rollback is moving forward due to COVID-19 but we do know that these rollbacks are happening during a time when civic participation is limited because of social distancing and public gathering restrictions. As public attention is focused elsewhere, some officials have admitted to taking advantage of the pandemic to roll back environmental protections, have cited the pandemic to justify decisions, or included rollbacks in COVID-19 economic recovery plans. Rather than including rollbacks in recovery plans, governments should consider expanding protected areas because the healthier our relationship with nature, the healthier our communities and economies will be.” 

Q: In your view, what are the long-term implications?

A: “There are three long-term implications. The first is related to environmental justice. Rollbacks are occurring during a time which it is difficult for many folks to participate in decision-making processes; some rollbacks explicitly involve limiting public consultation. This could perpetuate the disproportionate exclusion of the most marginalized voices and enhance inequalities and injustices. We know that the communities who have contributed the least to environmental issues, like climate change, are also the most likely to be affected by its impacts. Rollbacks could further lock in unjust extractive activities in poor communities, further exposing them to pollution and negative health impacts.

“The second is related to ecological impacts. Many of the rollbacks we have documented, if implemented, will lead to the loss and fragmentation of natural ecosystems. New infrastructure that these rollbacks authorize, like airports, roads, and dams, will have long-term impacts for wildlife and habitats. Oil and gas development authorized by these rollbacks, if implemented, will further contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, and biodiversity loss.

“Third, these rollbacks reduce our quality of life and put human health at increased risk. Deforestation and degradation increase the risk of future pandemics by putting humans and wildlife in closer contact. Not only do some rollbacks increase the chance of zoonotic disease emergence, but they reduce opportunities for recreation, too, which have been a balm for mental and physical health during lockdowns. They also reduce biodiversity when it is becoming increasingly important that we preserve diverse ecosystems for the benefit of humanity.”

Q: Which areas will be most affected?

A: “So far, many of the rollbacks we’ve identified have been enacted, advanced, or implemented in the United States, as well as India and Brazil. Some rollbacks affect one specific protected area, while others affect many parks or Indigenous lands in a given country; still others affect environmental regulations in general and processes for public consultation. 

“The drivers of each rollback will affect their impacts. Some authorize clearing of all forest cover within one site for housing (like in Malaysia) or airport development (in Albania), others will lead to seabed mining – and associated pollution and biodiversity loss (in the Cook Islands). Several rollbacks (in India and Brazil) will increase road construction, and accelerate habitat fragmentation, while others (in Greece) authorize oil and gas across many protected areas.

“We haven’t quantified the total spatial extent of these rollbacks, but we do know that a variety of ecosystem types are at risk including tropical rainforests in Brazil and Malaysia, grasslands and boreal forests in Canada, and peatlands in Scotland. The United States for example, is home to a wide variety of ecosystems and rollbacks affect ecosystems across the spectrum -– including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the Alaska tundra (oil and gas drilling), the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts marine protected area in the Atlantic (commercial fishing), and the Organ Pipe National Monument in the Arizona desert (border wall construction). In short, rollbacks that increase industrial-scale development and extraction are happening on every continent, across a variety of ecosystem types.”

Q: How does this affect tropical areas specifically?

A: “To date, rollbacks have happened in several tropical countries, including but not limited to Malaysia, Brazil, India, Ecuador, Kenya, and Colombia. These include all categories of environmental rollbacks that we are tracking: Indigenous peoples and local community rights, land and water protections, species, and climate. Some notable examples include:

  • India: Clearance of more than 30 projects in protected areas, elephant and tiger reserves for coal mining, roads, and power lines;
  • Brazil: Attempts to authorize mining on Indigenous lands, construct new roads, and legalize occupation of Indigenous lands by land grabbers, usually for the purpose of agribusiness or mining;
  • Ecuador: Construction of an access road for oil development deeper into Yasuní National Park through the Amazon rainforest, moving closer to the “intangible zone” intended to protect Indigenous people in voluntary isolation; and
  • Malaysia: Proposal to reduce the Kuala Langat Forest reserve by 97 percent to make way for a housing development, despite the fact that the area supports Indigenous livelihoods, hosts a carbon-dense peatland, and protects endemic species.”

Q: What is the solution?

A: “First, governments must stop rollbacks to environmental protections, especially because these very rollbacks are consequently putting communities at risk when we should be focused on policies that first protect people and nature. In the short term, rollbacks could put humanity on an undesirable pathway in which we go back to business as usual or even worse, a pathway toward further economic and environmental decline. The alternative and much more desirable pathway is one where we change our relationship with nature for the better.

“A recent report shows that for every dollar invested in protected and conserved areas, five dollars is generated in returns; it pays to protect nature. Pandemic recovery plans must include green funding to support nature-based solutions that have multiple co-benefits for nature and humanity including protection of lands and waters, incentives to prevent deforestation and reduce climate change, and policies that support economies and prosperity of the people who rely on nature most.

“Transparency is key at both the international and national levels. We should continue to track rollbacks and hold governments accountable for their decisions. It is essential that communities are able to participate in decision-making processes, and that responses to the pandemic do not exacerbate inequalities. The long-term wellbeing of people and nature is inextricably linked with environmental and animal health and must be a priority. As a global society, the time is now to transform our values and change our relationship with nature for the better before it is too late.“

Q: Is there anything else you would like to answer that I didn’t ask?

A: “Because we rely on publicly available information, and because new policies are approved every day, we recognize that the Global Conservation Rollbacks Tracker is always evolving. We will continue to update the tracker weekly; please submit information about rollbacks to this online form. At the same time that rollbacks to environmental protections are happening, we recognize that some countries and cities are adopting green COVID-19 recovery plans that support communities and the environment (like New Zealand, Chile, and Pakistan). Solutions are available; we have to deploy, scale, and sustain them – to ensure that we survive and thrive on this planet.”

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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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