COVID-19 pandemic offers opportunity to rethink status quo conservation efforts

Prioritizing locally managed ecosystems could transform outcomes
Dendrometer bands measure tree growth, here on a rubber tree planted on degraded peatland. CIFOR/Deanna Ramsay

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The coronavirus pandemic creates an opportunity to rethink generally accepted underperforming business-as-usual approaches to conservation, say more than 20 conservation and development professionals in an editorial published by environmental news provider Mongabay.

Current approaches should prioritize locally managed ecosystems, they state.

Initial efforts to address the environmental impacts and origins of COVID-19 are frequently oversimplified and ineffective, highlighting ongoing problems with conventional conservation initiatives, the scientists write, adding that often, these approaches narrow in on one part of a problem without considering situational factors at the community level.

For example, when addressing COVID-19 and other zoonotic diseases, it is tempting to blame the outbreak solely on wild meat sales at wet markets and then enforce strict regulations that ban those wet markets. However, this law-and-order approach threatens to further stigmatize marginalized communities who sell natural resources like bushmeat for their livelihoods.

“Reactionary legal enforcement also ignores systemic factors that drive the wildlife trade, like poverty and the demand for wildlife products from wealthy buyers,” said Terry Sunderland, a senior associate scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and professor in the Faculty of Forestry at Canada’s University of British Columbia.

“As a result, frontline communities are often unfairly blamed for conservation failures,” added Sunderland, who is also one of the authors of the Mongabay article.

In truth, the authors state, communities that depend on natural landscapes are often the most invested and capable land stewards; global land areas owned or occupied by Indigenous Peoples currently contain more than 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, they write, adding that most of these groups have centuries-old practices for living in harmony with their surroundings.

As such, these communities are a wellspring of valuable ecological knowledge that offers the best chance at achieving sustainable land management for the future.

Instead of reactionary conservation efforts, COVID-19 should encourage a shift toward more equitable and just systems, they write. Such systems would embrace local leaders as equal and meaningful partners in implementing sustainable practices that meet conservation targets and improve livelihoods.

The authors detail several steps and “key factors of success.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Terry Sunderland at
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