Deforestation and Mining Increased in Tropically Forested Countries During COVID

A new report outlines the harm this has caused to Indigenous populations.

Women are part of the monitoring of the Xakriaba territory, Brazil, 2020
Women are part of the monitoring of the Xakriaba territory, Brazil, 2020.

Edgar Kanayko INUTW (via Rollback Report)

A new report reveals that tropically forested countries are facing higher-than-ever rates of destruction, due to COVID-19. This has had – and will continue to have – a devastating impact on the environment, the global climate, and the many Indigenous peoples who rely on these ancient and biodiverse forests for their homes and sustenance, unless the governments of these countries are called to task and held accountable. 

Researchers with Forest Peoples Programme, the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic of Yale Law School, and Middlesex University London School of Law analyzed how forestry protection measures have changed in COVID times in the five most tropically-forested countries in the world – Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The result is a lengthy report, titled "Rolling back social and environmental safeguards in the time of COVID-19," that details how all of these countries have indeed bulldozed their own environmental protections, citing a need to stimulate an economic recovery.

There has long been a positive link between Indigenous stewardship of land and higher rates of natural preservation. When Indigenous peoples are allowed to control their own lands, territories, and resources, less is extracted and more is protected. This makes them "indispensable for the sustainable management of our planet’s limited resources," as explained in the report's foreword. "The respect and protection of these rights is therefore not only essential for their survival, but for the survival of us all in overcoming this crisis."

Nahua hunters in the Peruvian Amazon
Nahua hunters in the Peruvian Amazon. Johan Wildhagen (via Rollback Report)

With COVID-19's arrival, however, any agreements between Indigenous peoples and the governments of the countries they live in have largely been ignored. One of the report's main findings was that governments have responded quickly to requests from mining, energy, and industrial agriculture sectors to expand, but have not followed through with the Indigenous peoples whose free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) they would normally be required to obtain. In some cases they have insisted on virtual consultations, even though these are "inconsistent with Indigenous peoples’ cultural and self-governance rights."

Governments have justified this negligence by saying it's difficult to meet in person and to use the usual channels of communication, but the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says none of this business activity should be allowed to resume without renewed consent. The Special Rapporteur goes even further, saying that states should "consider a moratorium on all logging and extractive industries operating in proximity to Indigenous communities" during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it is effectively impossible to obtain consent.

Another main finding was that governments have failed to punish extractive industries for engaging in illegal land grabbing, deforestation, mining, and more. Many of these actions have violated domestic and international laws, and have exposed Indigenous communities to the coronavirus by bringing outsiders into their regions. 

The report says deforestation has surged during the pandemic because (1) government have less capacity and/or willingness to monitor forests; (2) governments gave higher priority to the expansion of industrial-scale extractive industry activities; and (3) the capacity of Indigenous peoples to defend their lands from encroachment was restricted.

Jamanxim National Forest, Para, Brazil
A view of Jamanxim National Forest, Para, Brazil. Paralaxis (via report)

Last but not least, Indigenous activists and human rights defenders have faced greater reprisals for their protests during COVID-19. The report says,

"In recent years, there has been an alarming increase in the criminalization of, and the use of violence and intimidation against, Indigenous representatives who try to assert their peoples’ rights. For many Indigenous peoples, the pandemic, instead of affording them some respite from these oppressive actions, exposed them to more oppression, as monitoring mechanisms ceased to function and access to justice became more restricted."

The reports ends with sets of recommendations for governments of tropically forested countries, for governments of countries that purchase the resources extracted from tropical places, for negotiators at the UN Climate Change COP26 later this year, for regional organizations and international financial institutions, as well as for private investors and companies connected to supply chains where deforestation is a risk.

The researchers express fear that, if people wait until the pandemic is over to address these devastating forestry decisions, it will be too late to reverse the damage. They write, "The pandemic can never be an excuse to trample upon human rights and destroy our planet. Instead, the pandemic must serve as a catalyst for transformative change, ending the over-exploitation of natural resources, advancing a ‘just transition’, addressing inequality within and between nations, and guaranteeing the rights of all, including indigenous peoples."

In order to achieve that, governments must prioritize human rights and the environment over economic recovery – but that's a tough sell these days. 

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