Like virtually everything in 2020, COVID-19 defined the year for tropical rainforests.
2020 was supposed to be a make-or-break year for tropical forests. It was the year when global leaders were scheduled to come together to assess the past decade’s progress and set the climate and biodiversity agendas for the next decade. These included emissions reductions targets, government procurement policies and corporate zero-deforestation commitments, and goals to set aside protected areas and restore degraded lands. These meetings were to be set against a backdrop of a “lost decade” for tropical forests, where progress on arresting deforestation fell short of ambitions, violence against environmental defenders surged, the effects of deforestation and climate change on forests became more apparent, and outright hostility toward tropical forest conservation grew in some of the world’s largest countries. Yet there were reasons for cautious optimism for tropical forest conservation coming out of the 2010s. The impacts of climate change were becoming so apparent that they were finally starting to provoke a response from the public and private sector; recognition of the role Indigenous peoples play in stewarding forests was rising; technological advances were improving forest monitoring to the extent that ignorance was no longer an excuse for inaction; and interest in forest restoration was reaching new heights.
COVID-19 upended everything: Nowhere escaped the effects of the global pandemic. As COVID spread around the world between February and April, many governments responded with lockdowns, which brought travel, commerce, and industrial production to a halt. Stock markets plunged, the skies above some of the world’s most polluted cities cleared, and carbon emissions fell at a rate unprecedented since World War II. Governments in some countries pumped money into their financial systems, buoying stock markets and kick-starting a euphoric surge in asset values. The price of many commodities that are major drivers of tropical deforestation rebounded sharply. As the lockdowns yielded to pressure to reopen economies and societies, some governments put forth bailouts, economic stimulus packages, and other incentives for forest-destroying industries. Millions of people left cities for the countryside, reversing a long-term trend of migration to urban areas.
Conservation was particularly hard hit in tropical countries. Many NGOs pulled out of field projects, conservation livelihood models dependent on ecotourism and research evaporated, and governments in countries like Brazil and Indonesia relaxed environmental regulations and law enforcement, unleashing a spasm of illegal logging, mining, land invasions, and forest clearing. Deforestation in Brazil, which was already trending upward before COVID, hit the highest level since 2008.
2019’s worst trends for forests mostly continued through the pandemic. Fires in Australia that began in mid-2019 burned into March, while drier-than-normal conditions in the Amazon enabled another active fire season. Governments used COVID as an excuse to crush dissent and critical voices, or were too distracted by the crisis to address rising violence against environmental and human rights defenders, more than 300 of whom were killed in Colombia alone. Social media platforms like Facebook continued to be weaponized against environmental journalists and campaigners.
But as the losses mounted and the world descended into darkness, there were green shoots of hope for environmentalists. Lockdowns provided a tantalizing glimpse into a world with a diminished human footprint and the potential for humanity to come together around a common threat — the kind of unified action needed to address climate change, for example. Skies and rivers cleared, traffic disappeared, and wildlife reclaimed haunts long ago ceded to cars and people. Observers looking for a silver lining hoped that the pandemic would force humanity to reevaluate its relationship with nature, potentially driving a shift toward a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable economic system. Interest in renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, and the circular economy blossomed. A protest movement emanating from repeated extrajudicial killings of Black and Indigenous peoples in the United States and abroad resonated from Milwaukee to Merauke, spurring calls for change and pushing many conservation organizations, especially in Europe and the U.S., to take a hard look at issues of equity, justice, and inclusiveness.
The U.S. presidential election in November raised hopes that the world’s biggest economic power would reassert a leadership role on global affairs, including rejoining the Paris climate agreement. The rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines raised the prospect of the world returning to “normal” far faster than was envisioned at the start of the pandemic. But no one knows what would a return to normalcy would mean for the world’s rainforests.