Measuring the Impact of COVID-19 on the World’s Forests

The Sierra Juárez forest, in the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. The UN Forum on Forests was among the first intergovernmental processes to take steps to assess the impact of COVID-19 on forests. In Latin America and the Caribbean, closed forest-based tourist attractions has meant a significant loss of revenue for some countries. Credit: Emilio Godoy / IPS

The Sierra Juárez forest, in the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. The UN Forum on Forests was among the first intergovernmental processes to take steps to assess the impact of COVID-19 on forests. In Latin America and the Caribbean, closed forest-based tourist attractions has meant a significant loss of revenue for some countries. Credit: Emilio Godoy / IPS

By Alison Kentish
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 21 2021 (IPS)

The COVID-19 Pandemic has affected every sector of society and a global assessment by the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) confirms that its shocks have extended to forests on every region on earth.

Impact severity varies across the Regions; Latin America and the Caribbean, Western Europe and other states, North America, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific, but they range from an increase in illegal harvesting of forest products to loss of critical funding for forest protection agencies.

“The UN Forum on Forests was among the first intergovernmental processes to take steps to assess the impact of COVID-19 on forests,” Alexander Trepelkov, Officer-in-Charge of the UN Forum’s Secretariat told IPS. “This is a critical step in determining how investing in forests can help countries to recover better from the pandemic towards an equitable and sustainable future,” he added.

Forests cover about one-third of the earth’s land area and provide livelihoods for millions of people, including members of rural communities and indigenous tribes. The assessment warns that the pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of those communities.

  • According to the assessment, African forests are among the hardest hit by COVID-19 and efforts to curb its spread. The report from that region stated that forest management activities have been either postponed or cancelled, illegal harvesting has increased and eco-tourism, particularly in the East and South of the continent, has ‘grounded to a halt due to movement restriction measures.’
  • The Asia-Pacific region, which focused on Thailand and Nepal, reported a slowdown in major areas of forestry sector operations, including reforestation.
  • The report on Canada and the US spoke of disrupted forest management and research, that resulted in mill closures and halts in production that impacted livelihoods.
  • In the Western Europe region, researchers noted that hospitality agencies that offer forest-based recreational events were severely impacted by global travel restrictions, adding that women make up the majority of employees in this area and have been disproportionately impacted by the ensuing unemployment. 
  • Eastern European states reported delays in sustainable management programmes.
  • In Latin America and the Caribbean, closed forest-based tourist attractions meant a significant loss of revenue for some countries.

Jamaica’s Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park and UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Heritage Site was one of the sites which closed temporarily, early in the pandemic.

“The national park has places that we encourage people to visit. We initially had shut down our sites, but later on, as there was greater understanding of how the disease spreads and realising that protocols could be put in place, we followed the UN and the Health and Tourism Ministries’ guidelines,” Dr. Susan Otuokon, Executive Director of Jamaica’s Conservation and Development Trust, told IPS.  Like conservation bodies the world over, the Trust, which manages the site, has been trying to fulfil its mandate amid challenges that include reduced funding and the need for distancing when many projects demand physical meet-ups.

“Some of the work that we do in terms of training for sustainable livelihoods with communities and having community meetings, it is challenging so we have had to revisit some of our outreach methods,” said Otuokon, adding that, “we’ve been lucky that some of our funding has not been affected, but some, particularly from government, has been reduced and that has impacted us, particularly our admin and support side.”

While forests are not immune to the shocks of COVID-19, a recurring theme in the global assessment is the acknowledgement by respondents that those ecosystems are critical to any plan to ‘build back better’ and respond to COVID-19. Recommendations on the way forward point to forests as pillars for sustainable job creation, food production, fuel sources and ecotourism services.

“Forests offer nature-friendly solutions for sustainable COVID-19 recovery” said the UNFF’s Trepelkov.  “Healthy forests are vital to addressing many pandemic-induced challenges, including economic recession, increased poverty and widening inequalities.

Some of the assessment’s regional reports also acknowledge those who, despite the limitations, continue to strive for sustainable forest management over the pandemic period. It is something the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust Director has seen among her staff.

We have national park rangers who decided they were still going out in the field, they were still working, they put on their masks and went out because they really believe that their work is very important, in terms of protecting the forests, trying to reduce clearing by farmers, both large and small scale, at a time like this when our water supply is even more critical and we need to maintain our forests,” said Otuokon.

The UNFF expert group is meeting from Jan. 19 to 21, to discuss the findings of the assessment.

 


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