Clean air belies Covid-19’s environmental downside


In Central America, fires proliferated as the pandemic caused a lull in enforcement. (Photo by Melvin Merida)

In Honduras, fires have torched forests while rangers shelter to avoid contracting Covid-19. In Mexico, fishers illegally ply the habitat of the endangered vaquita porpoise, no longer impeded by environmental patrols. And in Guatemala, villagers opposing mining projects have had to suspend “resistance camps” they have maintained at mine entrances for years.

In much of Latin America, the coronavirus lockdown has undermined the ability of enforcement officials, activists and communities to protect the environment. Clear skies and lower emissions may point to collateral benefits of global paralysis, experts say, but they also belie risks. “Maybe nature is resting, but the delinquents are not,” says Jean Paul Geoffroy, who leads a campaign by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a U.S.-based nonprofit, to protect the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) in its sole habitat in the Upper Gulf of California.

From Mexico to Brazil, many of the rural and indigenous communities crucial to forest and wildlife protection are sheltering, as are the forest rangers and activists who support them. Markets for fish, timber and produce have been disrupted, depriving locals of income they need to live and to invest in habitat protection.

Fears that the novel coronavirus could infect the crew of Sea Shepherd’s two patrol boats in the Upper Gulf prompted the organization in April to dock the vessels in the Pacific port of Mazatlán, Geoffroy says. The boats monitor the dwindling vaquita population and confiscate illegal gillnets set by poachers of totoaba, an endangered fish whose swim bladders fetch huge sums in the black market. The vaquita become entangled in the gillnets and drown; only about ten are believed to remain. “Social distancing on a ship is extremely complicated,” Geoffroy says. “If one infected person gets on my ship and spreads the virus, that’s it.”

On land, weakened protection is evident in the hobbled response to forest fires and illegal logging. In Brazil, a deforestation spike has prompted a militarization of enforcement. (See related story in this issue’s Around the Region.)

Jeremy Radachowsky, director of the Mesoamerica and Western Caribbean Program for the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), says fires this spring in the Moskitia forest corridor, a tropical forest in Honduras and Nicaragua, were the worst in memory.

Fires also raged in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a northern Guatemala protected area that is part of the Maya forest, which reaches into Belize and Mexico. The Moskitia, home to indigenous groups and wildlife including Baird’s tapirs, jaguars, howler monkeys and scarlet macaws, has lost a third of its forest since the early 2000s as ranchers and criminal gangs have cleared land to raise cattle and build airstrips. Fires have also become more severe due to climate change.

Brazen land-grabbing
But land-grabbers were emboldened by the lockdown, says Radachowsky. Local communities—key players in forest protection— were unable to get food and supplies to rangers and local fire brigades. Environmental police and military forces were diverted to the Covid-19 response, he says. Ranchers and criminals set fires deep in the forest and built a road into the Tawahka’s territory, near the Nicaraguan border. From January to the end of April, the number of fires detected by satellite in Honduras’s area of the forest was up to 500 times the average of the past 17 years, the WCS says. “This could be the beginning of the end for that forest,” he says. “It’s absolutely devastating.”

Communities that safeguard local forests now find markets for their crops and timber closed or impossible to reach. In Moskitia, farmers dumped their crop of xate palm, which is used in floral decorations, says Radachowsky. Ian Thompson, Brazil director for The Nature Conservancy, says Covid-19-screened crews had to be fielded in Pará state to help communities get Brazil nuts to market.

In Guatemala, villagers who have had to suspend anti-mining sit-ins claim mine owners are using the pandemic to try to win support.

Xinka indigenous community members opposing the giant Escobal silver mine 50 miles (80 kms) southeast of Guatemala City, say Canadian mining company Pan American Silver, Escobal’s owner, sent food donations to nearby villages in early May while gathering recipients’ identity numbers and handing out questionnaires about the mine.

Escobal was closed in 2017 after Guatemala’s Supreme Court found that the Xinka had not been consulted in accordance with international rules. Pan American Silver, which bought the mine last year from Tahoe Resources, settled a case brought by victims of a 2013 shooting of protesters at the mine entrance and agreed to hold consultations.

Contacted by e-mail, Siren Fisekci, Pan American Silver’s vice president for investor relations, responded that the company donated supplies “without condition” to all its local communities, and did not gather information. Mine critics insist the company is being manipulative. Says Luis Fernando García Monroy, a Xinka leader from the village of Casillas who is involved in the mine opposition: “Covid has created a very delicate situation for us.”

Government maneuvering
Government pursuit of controversial projects and policies amid the pandemic also has drawn criticism.

In Bolivia, Interim President Jeanine Áñez is under fire for promoting a major expansion of transgenic farming on the questionable grounds that more gene-altered crops are needed to safeguard the domestic food supply in the face of Covid-19. (See “Citing pandemic, Bolivia plans wider use of GMOs”—this issue.) In Brazil, green advocates are calling for the ouster of Environment Minister Ricardo Salles following the release this month of a videotape showing him urging the cabinet to roll back conservation regulations while public attention is riveted on the pandemic. (See “Outrage in Brazil over forest-protection rollbacks”—this issue.)

And in Colombia, the government provoked a legal challenge when it attempted to hold a virtual public consultation this month on a highly contentious matter—resumed aerial spraying of glyphosate to eradicate coca crops. Liliana Ávila of the nonprofit Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) cites the lack of protocols for such consultations, which she says would be inaccessible to many rural and indigenous communities due to limited Internet access.

Farmers in Nariño state, where the spraying would take place, sued and in May won an injunction from a Nariño court to stop the consultation. “This is a question that merits a proper public debate,” Ávila says. “In this context, that’s not possible.”

If there’s a silver lining, experts say, it’s that the Covid-19 crisis provides a prime opportunity to make the case to funders and governments that environmental and public-health policies must be brought into better alignment.

“The connection between water, health, food production and resilience to climate change seems very obvious today,” says Claudia Vásquez, director for Colombia and Ecuador at The Nature Conservancy. “We’ve been trying to show these linkages for many years. Now that we are facing terrible problems everywhere, it has become clearer for our partners.”

- Victoria Burnett

Liliana Ávila
Senior Attorney
Human Rights and the Environment Program
Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (Aida)
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(571) 926-1322
Luis Fernando García Monroy
Xinka Parliament of Guatemala
Cuilapa, Guatemala
Tel: +(502) 3106-7101
Jean Paul Geoffroy
Campaign Manager
Operación Milagro
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Tel: (818) 736-8357
Jeremy Radachowsky
Mesoamerica and Western Caribbean Program
Wildlife Conservation Society
New York, NY, United States
Tel: (203) 240-2204
Ian Thompson
Director for Brazil
The Nature Conservancy
São Paulo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 91) 3514-5501
Claudia Vásquez
Director for Colombia and Ecuador
The Nature Conservancy
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(571) 606-5837