This article was written by Stefanie White and originally published on Yugen Caribbean. This article is republished here as part of a content-sharing agreement with Cari-Bois News.
Earlier in 2020 there were some much needed good news in the midst of a global tragedy. The reduction in human activity due to lock-downs appeared to be giving the world’s ecosystems a much needed break. Air pollution dropped, endangered South Asian river dolphins returned to parts of the Ganges and global greenhouse gas emissions plummeted by 17%.
Beyond these visible effects, there were more subtle changes in our behaviour. We started looking to more local solutions for our basic needs, reduced consumption of non-essential goods, saw a rise in “kitchen gardens” and even got used to communicating with colleagues via Zoom.
More than that, there was a new realization that something like this could happen. After decades of expert warnings of looming global crises, here was a real and unignorable threat, one that transformed our lives, one which required everyone coming together -metaphorically speaking- to solve. One we couldn’t just change tabs on or scroll past.
Some of us dared to wonder: would this disaster change our global psyche and usher in a new age of unity, activism and healing for a different existential threat: global climate change and biodiversity loss?
At the same time, stark warnings have been coming in from experts and activists alike. Unprecedented downswings in greenhouse gas emissions were due to temporary lock-down measures, and we could see these gains turn into losses if the economic recovery isn’t managed right. Activists warned that as conferences and events were cancelled, we were losing precious time in the fight against climate change. Countries saw a rise in plastic pollution due to the increased use of single-use plastics, improper disposal of masks and PPE, coupled with a reduction in recycling during lock-downs.
On the ground conservation experts paint a troubling picture.
Here in the Caribbean, the impact of the reduction in international travel on the tourism sector represents an unprecedented challenge. Aside from the massive socio-economic impacts, the loss of revenue from tourism can have big repercussions for our ability to meet our Sustainable Development Goals including the protection of our biological heritage, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for a couple of reasons. First, economic hardship often means a loss of government funding for initiatives that are deemed less essential, like environmental projects, and greater leeway for polluting industries in an effort to foster economic growth. The loss of eco-tourism in particular, also has a more direct impact on the conservation of key habitats, and the communities that rely on them.
Turtle poaching on the rise
In Trinidad and Tobago, one such example is the community-led conservation of sea turtle nesting beaches. Dr. Michelle Cazabon-Mannette, a local expert in turtle conservation explained via email some of the ways visiting turtles are already being affected.
“The closure of beaches with no provision for beach patrols by the CBOs [community-based organisations] has contributed to an increase in poaching of nesting Hawksbills in particular, and reduced the collection of monitoring data […] The closure of borders and beaches will have impacted the economic activities around turtle conservation, particularly at Matura and Grande Riviere which usually host thousands of visitors annually who pay for tours and accompanying services.”
In the wider Caribbean region, she explains,
“Some other countries rely heavily on international volunteers to help patrol their beaches and with the closure of borders have had significantly reduced man power to patrol their beaches, and lost income because these volunteers pay for the opportunity.”
When asked which impact she is most concerned about, she explained,
“I am most concerned about the poaching in the short term, but the economic impact to the communities is also a long term concern as if they are no longer able to rely on income from their tour activities, this may impact their ability and willingness to continue the important work they do.”
Eco-lodges are feeling the pinch, with consequences for the environment
A similar sentiment was echoed by a representative of Asa Wright Nature Centre, a historic eco-lodge, nestled on 1200 acres of mature tropical forest in the Northern Range, Trinidad.
“The loss of international travel has entirely removed our income stream. Unlike other NGOs which operate on voluntary support, we are a business, and most of our conservation efforts are carried out by paid employees. Further, Asa Wright is a big part of Trinidad and Tobago’s international brand for eco-tourism, so it brings in visitors and provides customers to independent tour operators across the country.”
The Nature Centre employs around 40 staff members with roles including patrolling and maintenance of trails, as well as ecological monitoring of the site’s 256 bird species, including the enigmatic oilbirds, bearded bellbirds, and mammals including deer, ocelots and tamanduas. With long-term loss of income, the pandemic could mean the closure of this 50+ year chapter of Trinidad conservation and history.
Beyond the conservation of their immediate surroundings, the big picture for institutions like Asa Wright, is to give communities the opportunity to act as stewards of their local ecosystems and reap the rewards of their protection.
Particularly in hard economic times, it is important that communities gain more benefits from the protection of their environments than from their destruction. According to Dr. Cazabon-Mannette,
“The economic hardship citizens are facing as a result of Covid-19 may have also contributed to the upsurge in [Hawksbill] poaching […] [Community based organisations] provide a valuable service that our government agencies are unable to fill with their own limited resources. This system of community co-management works quite well, but if the value of their presence is not recognised and they are not allowed some privileges as other “essential” workers were to continue their work, there are major ramifications.’
The need of local communities to utilise their environments should be viewed as an opportunity, not an obstacle to conservation
Despite this bleak outlook, the vulnerability to economic impacts may be a sign, not of conservation being done wrong, but being done right. In countries which lack either the financial resources or the political will to enact radical environmental change, making conservation economically sustainable may be the best solution. Conservation that creates jobs and uplifts communities, will always be more effective than that which relies purely on public funding and shuts out local communities.
Visiting turtle villages like Grande Riviere, Trinidad, it is clear that most members of the community take pride in their role in turtle conservation, and have a reverence for their natural heritage which is stronger than a temporary downswing in economic fortunes.
The pandemic will pass. In the meantime, the eco-tourism sector and communities in areas of environmental importance need to be supported, by governments, and private citizens alike, so that they will still be there when lock-downs end and international travel resumes.
A wake-up call?
The truth is the real impact of Covid-19 won’t be determined by the temporary changes we’re seeing now, but rather what we learn from what has happened and how we choose to rebuild.
The question becomes, can the habits and mindsets we form during lock-down be maintained to sustain real change? There is some evidence that when individuals are forced to form green habits, such as having to use bicycles rather than cars, they maintain these habits even after restrictions are lifted.
Further, the boost to populations of animal species and drop in greenhouse gas emissions, give vital information on what can be achieved through changes in our behaviour. This not only provides useful data for governments and climate and conservation researchers, but shows us that change is possible through a different way of being.
Many of us have grown up under the impending threats of climate change and mass extinction, while watching older generations fumble, unwilling to change the status quo. Similarly, infectious disease experts have warned for decades that our encroachment into wild ecosystems put us at a risk of such an outbreak of animal-borne disease. For once, governments are looking to science to guide us through a crisis. It’s hard to see us coming through the other side of this without a change in our collective psyche. Maybe we won’t settle for platitudes because we know what’s at risk, and with this new knowledge we will press on with new urgency and rebuild in a truly sustainable way.