Resilience Dispatch #5: “We Really Need to Come Home.” A Conversation with Dr. Bruce Beehler; Update on Indigenous Communities and the COVID-19 Emergency

May 1, 2020

In this edition

I think this the longest stretch of time I’ve spent without travel in decades. Certainly since we founded Forest Trends twenty years ago. This spring, I’ve tried to spend a few hours every day in the woods that surround my neighborhood by the Potomac River, observing the forests awakening.

Over the years I have spent many, many hours planting native trees and working to get rid of all the invasive species, like ivy and wisteria vines, that are a huge problem in this area. Recent weeks have afforded me time to really feel like I can make a dent in this lifetime challenge. Walking and working in the woods is a very satisfying and safe activity in these social distancing times. And as Dr. Bruce Beehler points out in a recent conversation shared in this dispatch, it can be a real source of joy.

I hope you’re finding your own ways to do good work and find joy these days. Please keep in touch. We like to hear from you.

All my best, Michael

“We Really Need to Come Home.” A Conversation with Dr. Bruce Beehler

Michael Jenkins, Forest Trends
Bruce M. Beehler, Ornithologist and Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History

Michael Jenkins:

Bruce and I first met in 1991 in the highlands of Papua New Guinea when we were looking for birds of paradise. Recently, he has been writing about how biodiversity is appearing in our lives during the COVID-19 pandemic and what that really means.

Bruce, what I would like to talk about today is the idea of resilience and biodiversity. The piece you wrote for the Washington Post was perfect, because I think many of us have been having similar conversations with people about wildlife sightings during the pandemic. “I’m seeing all this wildlife that I’ve never seen before.”

You took a trip recently to track migrating birds. Could you share a little about that trip and what it left you with in terms of the bigger picture for biodiversity?

Bruce Beehler:

I went the whole length of the Mississippi River, following birds during spring. I started in eastern Texas and southern Louisiana and I followed the river to its headwaters, and then continued northward into Ontario as far as I could drive.

What I saw was something fantastic. Hundreds and hundreds of green spaces, beautiful protected areas – some local, some county, some state, some federal. I camped in all these places. I saw bears and moose and wolves. I saw indigenous people living in these places. I saw local people who were fishing and bird watching and reveling in nature. It was really uplifting to see.

Michael Jenkins:

Given a chance, biodiversity can be quite resilient. It can bounce back. What we’re seeing recently in our backyards is a signal from nature about resilience, that we need to be paying attention to.

Bruce Beehler:

Hear, hear!

Michael Jenkins:

At Forest Trends, we’ve always focused on ecosystem services and functions and encouraged others to think of them as fundamental to all life, including us, rather than thinking of nature as separate from us, or something we find only in protected areas.

At our ten-year anniversary celebration at Forest Trends, Al Gore came to speak, and we were able to talk for a little while.

I was describing our work to Al Gore, and he says, “Climate is the envelope of all of this.” And it really struck me because I had always thought of climate as an ecosystem function. I’ve been thinking about that analogy a lot lately. If climate is the envelope, biodiversity is the letter in the envelope. And if you follow my thinking there, what would that letter say?

Bruce Beehler:

At the moment, the letter would say “Oh my gosh, ouch! The envelope is on fire!”

Michael Jenkins:

What small but practical things would you advise people to do for nature and biodiversity from home right now as they shelter in place with their families?

Bruce Beehler:

People can start in their back yards, making them more wildlife friendly. It doesn’t take a lot to achieve this. They can volunteer at a nearby park. Or do like you do, Michael, and plant native tree species in openings.

This kind of physical work produces a lot of joy. When people get their hands on the earth and are doing this, they will fall in love with their work and what they see.

[Keep reading on the Forest Trends blog]

Indigenous Communities and the COVID-19 Emergency: An Update

Marcio Halla, Forest Trends, Local Economic Initiatives lead
Jacob Olander, EcoDecisión (and long-time Forest Trends partner)We have been in constant communication in recent weeks with the indigenous leaders with whom we partner in Rondonia and Mato Grosso, Brazil. We are also getting information from our networks across the Brazilian Amazon on the short and long-term challenges that indigenous communities are facing.The most urgent situation, which the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored, is food insecurity. It’s an incredible situation to see communities going hungry in the middle of one of the world’s storehouses of biodiversity. Emergency food relief is needed in some cases. We’re also looking at how traditional food production, promoted through seed exchanges and knowledge-sharing, and small animal breeding systems (chickens, aquaculture, and so on) could be ramped up to provide food security in the medium-term.Supply chains have all but frozen. Communities dependent on sales of their products (for example, Brazil nuts) to the market are not able to sell or deliver product during the current isolation measures. We’re busy working to identify work-arounds and interim supports.We need to make sure that food relief is coupled with other measures to avoid further weakening food production and food security. There’s a long and well-documented history of food aid aggravating the problems of hunger.In the long term, this is a wake-up call for communities and their allies to work aggressively and creatively on more resilient local economies and food systems.  We are observing increasing threats to the indigenous territories during this pandemic. The situation in the Brazilian Amazon is terrible and getting worse, because of political decisions to support economic interests related to mining, logging, cattle ranching, land grabbing and others. The number and intensity of threats, attacks and violent acts, including murders of leaders are growing.Short-term emergency measures are important, but in the medium and long-term the need is to strengthen indigenous institutions – including advocating for their legal rights – and territorial protection, including having the technological, financial, and technical resources to monitor indigenous lands against illegal incursions.

Further reading:

How Will COVID-19 Affect “Net Zero” Commitments and Natural Climate Solutions?

Hot off the press! A new market survey from our Ecosystem Marketplace team shows that companies say they’re sticking to their climate pledges to go “net zero.” But market watchers fear a rebound in emissions, especially if economic recovery packages favor fossil fuel-intensive sectors.

See the Full Infographic

What we’ve been reading and watching

Some (deliberately non-coronavirus-themed) recommendations from Forest Trends’ staff:

The Atlantic: Why Italians Are Growing Apples for Wild Bears
NPR: A Flying Photographer Looks Down On Earth In Awe And Sorrow
The Guardian: Ten of the best travel documentary films
National Geographic: Follow that writer! 10 wild trips by road and rail