Resilience Dispatch #2: Forests and Public Health: Where Do We Go From Here?; A COVID-19 Update on Our Work

Apr 1, 2020
Schoolchildren in Huamantanga, Peru, examine a watershed model at their science fair.
Forest Trends and partners are engaging upstream communities on environmental health
as part of our work on water security in Peru. 

In this edition

Forests and Public Health: Where Do We Go from Here?

Kerstin Canby, Senior Director

When threatened, the pangolin — also known as the scaly anteater — curls up into a ball, hiding its head and face under its tail. While helpful in the short term, this posture prevents the pangolin from seeing the big picture, or how it might get out of the situation.

In last week’s dispatch, we discussed how human intrusion into natural areas increases our risk of being exposed to new diseases like COVID-19. Helping prevent the next pandemic, protecting forests, and increasing our resilience to climate change are inseparable missions.  But what can do we do?

In the long term, one response is to crack down on deforestation caused by illegal hunting, mining, and logging. As I noted in a recent op-ed, many countries already have laws on the books to rout out illegal logging. The problem can be in enforcing these laws, and in eliminating demand for illegally-source products.

A large part of our work focuses on helping forested countries develop governance systems that enable them to better manage forests, crack down on illegal activities, and put an end to the corruption that inevitably pops up when valuable natural resources are involved. We’ve seen that doing so can help these nations attract responsible investors, who are eager to see governments weed out bad actors who undermine the competition with lower costs.

We also advise countries and retailers that import timber, soy, beef, palm oil, and other commodities on how they can make sure that shipments linked to illegal forest loss aren’t entering their markets. New technology like DNA analysis can help.  But the private sector also needs to be a partner.

Coronavirus has brought new attention to illegal deforestation and the wildlife trade. These feel like enormous and impossible issues, but the reality is that solutions to these problems do already exist. I think we need to do a better job communicating the solutions we have in our toolkit. And by “we,” I don’t mean Forest Trends alone. Meaningful action has been driven – and will continue to be driven by – an unusual coalition of business, government, communities, and conservation groups working together.

An Update on Our Work

Beto Borges, Director, Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative
Kerstin Canby, Senior Director, Forest Policy Trade and Finance Initiative
Jan Cassin, Director, Water Initiative
Stephen Donofrio, Director, Ecosystem Marketplace and Supply Change Initiatives
Gena Gammie, Deputy Chief of Party, Natural Infrastructure for Water Security Project
Fernando Momiy Hada, Chief of Party, Natural Infrastructure for Water Security Project

We are preparing for social distancing measures to be widespread and for strong limits on travel until at least June 2020 and possibly as long as a year. This has required some re-strategizing on how we’ll do our work.

On the ground

Some field research and project implementation will be unavoidably delayed in order to keep our partners safe. But we expect in the long-term to be able to complete planned work successfully.

In places where Forest Trends’ operating model is to facilitate investments in nature and help design projects, we’ll be very active during this time. We’ll continue to develop our pipeline, ensuring that projects are ready to go when the time comes. We’ll also be shifting resources away from approaches that require travel and in-person meetings toward R&D and alternative outreach.

We’re getting creative in how we support our partners and communities. Since we can’t provide technical support in-person right now, we’re exploring podcasts, CNN-style interviews with experts, live virtual Q&As, and good old-fashioned webinars (attendance is way up!). The WhatsApp messaging app has become an important tool to stay connected with indigenous leaders in South America. We are even exploring using WhatsApp to coordinate seed collection across communities for some upcoming agroforestry work in Brazil – interesting times!

We’re also doing what we can to keep up the flow of information on how to stay safe. Some indigenous tribes/villages have completely closed to the outside world, out of concerns that they are more vulnerable to the virus and local health assistance is often precarious. We recently distributed official COVID-19 protection guidance from the Special Secretary of Indigenous Health in Brazil to our indigenous partners.

We’re currently working in Peru to develop a protocol for field visits to avoid exposing vulnerable, isolated communities to the virus. We’ll be looking for ways to share this protocol with our partners and other organizations when it’s ready so that others can use it.

Influencing policy and regulation

In some areas, government officials are working from home and able to continue collaborating with us. Other officials and agencies are fully occupied with the COVID-19 emergency and probably will be for quite some time.

We need to be especially flexible and able to move quickly when government partners are ready to re-engage. We’re already hearing of government interest in projects that can help keep jobs and economies afloat. It will be important to ensure that “green” projects and jobs are on the table and shovel-ready.

This will also be true for our work on policy: our past experience has been that it’s important to keep up momentum even during periods when official engagement is low (for example, due to a hostile political situation). When windows of opportunity do open, we will be ready.

Trade and market analysis

We’re redoubling our efforts to deliver trade and market analysis on timber, agricultural commodities, carbon, and climate finance. Providing robust information for decision-makers is even more important during this very fluid time.

Trade data analysis, so important for our work on illegal deforestation, may be difficult this year, since impacts of COVID-19 will overwhelm any global trade trends. We’ll monitor this situation as it develops. But we’re moving ahead with planned work on carbon markets benchmarking, and hope to provide some important insights soon on coronavirus impacts on carbon markets and climate action.

Backyard Biodiversity

Biodiversity isn’t just for far-off places like the Amazon. Backyards in suburban and urban areas matter more for native plants and animals than you think.

Here’s how you can make your own property a biodiversity sanctuary.

What you can do this afternoon

Hang out a bird feeder. Bird feeders have been shown to support greater diversity and help bird populations, especially when you pick feeder designs and seed blends targeted to local species.

Plan a butterfly garden. Even if you live in an urban area, you can create an oasis for butterflies.

What you can do this weekend

Attract birds and other wildlife by planting native species. Native trees, shrubs, and flowers are one of the best ways you can help local bird populations.

  • You can look up native plants best suited to attract birds in your area on the Audobon Society’s Native Plant Database
  • How to plan a native plant garden
  • The American Forest Foundation recommends these native tree species:
    • New England: Sugar maple, white pine, and paper birch
    • Mid-Atlantic: White oak, American beech, river birch, and red maple
    • Midwest: Bur oak, honeylocust, and crabapple
    • Deep South: Live oak, loblolly pine, and tupelo
    • Northwest: Douglas-fir, yellow cedar, and beaked hazelnut

What you can do this year

Create pollinator habitat. Plant a mix of flowering plants to ensure long-lasting blooms throughout the season. Try to avoid chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides. You can also create shelter for pollinators – especially important in places where their natural habitats may be gone or under pressure.

Leave room for a little wildness on your property. 

  • Add a small pond or other water feature and watch the dragonflies, frogs, salamanders, and other bugs and small mammals arrive.
  • Leave fallen logs in place or dead trees standing (if it’s safe) to promote soil fertility and create shelter for wildlife.
  • Birds love thick hedges or shrubs to build their nests in.
  • In the fall, leave seed heads on your native seasonal plants to give wildlife a chance to eat them before you clean up.

Get rid of invasives. Invasive plants compete with native species for space, sun, water, and nutrients. Our forests have been invaded by plants like kudzu, buckthorn, golden bamboo, bush honeysuckle, and autumn olive. Learn the invasive and noxious plant species of concern in your area and work to remove them on your property and in your neighborhood.