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28 September 2021

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on forest communities and forest resource use

A Kichwa woman tending her crops in Mishkiyakillu, Peru

Photo: Vicki Brown / Forest Peoples Programme

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives around the world. Communities depending on forests and forest produce, such as wild foods, have both been at times blamed for the outbreak, while being among the hardest affected by the pandemic. Existing challenges such as insecure land tenure, infrastructure inequalities, access to health care, or government neglect have been exacerbated. Forest communities – making up to 1.6 billion people worldwide – were indeed already marginalised before the pandemic. How did the pandemic impact their livelihoods and environments and how did they cope?

The outcomes of the pandemic on forest landscapes are numerous, diverse, and yet not well understood. To find out more, Focali and SIANI invited experts from around the world for an online dialogue to present and discuss the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on forest communities and forest resource use. Representatives from the forest and Indigenous communities, civil society actors and researchers attended the dialogue, bringing a diverse group of voices to the table to map impacts, reveal knowledge gaps and identify opportunities for a green and inclusive recovery process.

The first part of the event was dedicated to presenting studies aiming to display the situation of forest communities during COVID-19. Two major reports were published at the beginning of the year;

Rolling back social and environmental safeguards in the time of COVID-19 – by members of the Forest Peoples Programme, and

Initial Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Sustainable Forest Management – Asia-Pacific States – written as a background paper for the United Nations Forum on Forests Secretariat.

These reports provided a ‘first glimpse’ of the diverse challenges that forest and Indigenous communities and forest management have faced on the ground in different parts of the world. Our dialogue provided a unique opportunity to further expand this emerging evidence base through the input of participating speakers from South America, Africa, and South-East Asia.

Movement restrictions and a retreating state

The picture of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on forest and Indigenous communities isn’t as black and white as some might want to depict it. Some indeed enjoyed a revival of traditional knowledge; while others saw their access to land greatly diminished. State presence in many rural areas decreased while COVID-19 infection numbers skyrocketed. According to several speakers, disruption of essential state functions, especially in remote areas, led to an increase in land grabbing and illegal deforestation by private, non-state actors.

As Ricardo Camilo Niño Izquierdo, Technical Secretary of The Indigenous Secretariat of the National Commission for Indigenous Territories of Colombia, stated that “The pandemic has been the best scenario for illegal activities to increase”. Noting the heightened risks for people defending their territories, opposing those carrying out illegal activities, he further tragically testified that: “There has been a significant increase in the murder rate during the pandemic”. Colombia stands out with the darkest figures on murdered environmental defenders in the report Last line of defence recently published by Global Witness. They similarly to Camilo report how Indigenous peoples were particularly impacted during the pandemic; “official lockdowns led to defenders being targeted in their homes, and government protection measures were cut.”

These trends run counter to the objectives of the peace agreement signed in 2016, and have increased the vulnerability and exposure of Indigenous territories to serious internal conflicts. Similar reports of increased violence to Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon were raised by Keyla Barrero, anthropologist at the National University of San Marcos of Peru; “It has been clear that the state has not generated strategies to safeguard the lives and integrity of these peoples and their leaders”. Government responses to economic distress from the pandemic may also further contribute to the marginalisation of forest populations and Indigenous groups. Participants noted that the governments of Colombia and Peru have prioritised the expansion of logging, industrial agriculture, and the energy sector in or near Indigenous territories as a response to revive economies hit by the pandemic.

More broadly, new government directives have been passed at a much higher pace, repeatedly without governmental bodies consulting marginalised groups. While forest communities have already often been ignored from key decision-making processes that affect their lives, this has been further amplified by the pandemic.

“Urgency has always overridden the slow and messy processes of participation in democracy and of assuring the rights and livelihoods of Indigenous peoples and local communities”, Anne Larson, CIFOR-ICRAF, explained.

Examples of violated rights and lack of participation in the shadow of COVID-19 have been observed around the globe. In Colombia, for instance, decisions about the re-use of glyphosate to combat coca plantations were made without consulting the impacted Indigenous communities, even though in 2015, the high court suspended the sprays based on evidence of cancerogenic risks for humans and damages to the environment. In Brazil and Indonesia, governments expanded agribusiness and mining on forest communities’ territory in the name of economic recovery. For further examples e.g. from India, Kenya and Vietnam raised by speakers and dialogue participants, watch the dialogue recording.

These events all highlight the complex role of the state during the pandemic. Some participants argued for a need for a more significant state presence to protect fundamental rights, while others expressed concern that actors within the state have used the pandemic as an opportunity to advance agendas at odds with forest communities’ interests. Anne Larson discussed the difficulty of holding governments accountable in such unprecedented times. Yet, there may still be reasons for hope. Raymond Achu Samndong, The Tenure Facility, argued for the potential of uniting voices of Indigenous peoples as a means to ensure governments are more attentive and accountable during the crisis. Throughout the dialogue, participants emphasised the need to unite communities to fight for more secure rights over resources in order to reduce vulnerability and move resilience-building forward.

Women from the Batwa Indigenous forest community, close to Okapi Wildlife Reserve in Eastern DRC, in focus group discussion on forest use and rights with Raymond Achu Samndong, Tenure Facility.

Self-reliance and self-organisation key to survival for forest communities

Besides the negative aftermath of the pandemic, some positive outcomes were documented during the event, such as the ability of forest and Indigenous communities to self-organise in response to the momentous challenges they have faced. When movement restrictions were imposed, village councils, community organisations, and other key local actors have often proved to be crucial in rallying communities to mobilise against encroachment on forest resources and to provide essential relief to their communities. As basic state services became disrupted, self-reliance has often been essential for survival. Local actors and institutions have also often been key channels to pass on recommendations related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Less access to medical care and markets has resulted in higher reliance on traditional knowledge, foods, and medicine in many contexts. While communities depending on wider markets were hit hard by imposed lockdowns, fewer open markets also initiated a renewal of forest foraging and traditional forest recipes. For some communities in the Philippines, for example, when the usual shopping facilities shut down or encountered supply shortage; “their ancestral domains turned into their supermarkets”, as reported by Denise Margaret Matias, ISOE. Traditional food systems and wild foods have proven to be vital to ensuring basic needs and greater resilience of many communities. In some cases, youth returning to rural areas have brought new ideas and increased labor for agriculture and domestic tasks, thus helping to revitalise farm and natural-resource-based production systems.

“Their ancestral domains turned into their supermarkets” said Denise Margaret Matias, ISOE & SIANI Expert group
on wild foods in Asia.

Despite these positive outcomes, the situation remains critical. Lalisa A. Duguma, CIFOR-ICRAF Nairobi, made it clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a systemic disruption for forest and local communities, whose situation was already precarious pre-COVID. Lalisa further stressed that “Forests need to be seen as part of a larger agroecosystem since what affects forests is not only limited to the forest space”, as drivers of deforestation coupled with crises as the COVID-19 pandemic show. He outlined the need to learn from the pandemic and focus on agroecosystem resilience to be better prepared for future shocks. Forest communities, already facing a wide range of challenges from climate change, market shocks, and uncertain support from governments, were hit hard by the pandemic. The need to chart a path toward recovery and greater resilience is plainly evident. But what should recovery mean, exactly? Recovery into what and for whom?

Knowledge gaps for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic

The second part of the event was dedicated to discussing the need of further research and action for securing sustainable forest use and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The quick pace at which the pandemic developed and its associated travel restrictions have made gathering key information about the COVID-19 impact on forest communities a challenge. There are thus still big knowledge gaps in understanding what the effects have been in different contexts and, therefore, what recovery is needed going forward.

The different time scales in which recovery needs to take place was discussed during the event; immediate relief cannot operate in the same way as longer-term, systematic solutions. As Alark Saxena, Northern Arizona University put it based on his focus on emerging trends in India: “We need to ask what timescale we talk about when we talk about knowledge. Are we talking about immediate knowledge or are we talking about the long-term?

In many parts of the globe, lockdowns and associated reductions in economic activity in urban areas resulted in a large number of seasonal and migrant labour going back to their rural homelands. Subsequently, rural areas have faced both challenges and opportunities. In India alone, an estimated 10 million people lost their urban employment and returned to rural areas. How this may impact rural livelihoods and natural resource use over the long-term is as yet unclear. Some have argued that an increased population of rural, forest-dependent people may result in increased forest degradation; others have suggested that a return of labour may positively impact existing natural resource management systems. Social safety nets – as in effective financial state support for example – have proven to be key in community survival, but their exact functioning must be researched on, to find out for whom, when and where they effectively worked.

Looking at forests more comprehensively, including both environmental, animal, and human factors is necessary to get a broader understanding of forest landscape dynamics. “Humans must be considered part of the forest landscapes or forest ecosystems”, Alark stressed. Such integrative knowledge is necessary in order to find holistic solutions that align with complex and differentiated trends on the ground.

Indeed, as examples from India, Colombia, Peru, Kenya, Vietnam, and the Philippines showed during the event, the outcomes of the pandemic have varied dramatically across countries and regions, and often even from community to community in the same area. No long-term data on impacts for forest use and the well-being of forest communities is available yet. This underscores the importance of continued collaboration between regions and action levels to gain a deeper understanding of realities on the ground and needed policies and action ahead.

Photo by Juan Carlos Huayllapuma CIFOR

Small-scale Agroforestry producer Nicanor Agustín Huaypa of the Indigenous Community Nueva Ahuaypa in Peru.

Photo: Juan Carlos Huayllapuma / CIFOR

Pathways for a green and inclusive recovery of forest communities

Incubating collective action by uniting local and Indigenous peoples is likely to be an important aspect of inclusive recovery. Cooperation is a crucial foundation for resistance and strength. Governments tend to prioritise those who are large in number. Importantly, collective action should not be conceived as a purely ‘local’ activity; multi-stakeholder dialogues and platforms connecting regions and actors to the global scale are also meaningful. Recognising that the poor and marginal may be the most affected by COVID-19 impacts, and often has the least capacity to respond, recovery action should explicitly adopt a leave-no-one-behind approach. The following action areas suggest areas of focus for a green and inclusive recovery.

1. Protecting resource rights

Decades of research suggests that securing access to land and giving forest populations control over natural resource management can play an important role in helping to safeguard rural welfare while further promoting the sustainability of broader forest landscapes and livelihoods. If rural populations are to be empowered to act as stewards of forest landscapes, a rights-based approach is needed to ensure that diverse stakeholders have meaningful avenues to influence decision-making.

To effectively advocate for the needs of forest communities, it is essential to go beyond ‘broad-brush’ narratives of dominant trends to understand the diverse nature of challenges and needs in different contexts. Evidence-based studies are thus greatly needed. For academics, it remains important to ensure that research incorporates the voices of diverse populations, and that any communication material utilises their perspectives and speaks to policy actors in language that provides clear, actionable solutions. Although researchers can play an advocacy role, rural populations themselves must have a direct and meaningful voice in these processes. Thus, there is a great need to ensure that such populations have means, channels, and actionable rights to engage in these processes – not just through occasional stakeholder consultations, but as key actors in identifying needs and defining response strategies.

2. Centering local voices in policy debates

Participants widely agreed that recovery should be seen as a community-led activity – that is, fundamentally driven by the interests and aspirations of forest people most affected by the pandemic. Accordingly, equity and social justice must be at the core of a green and inclusive recovery. Learning from forest and local communities also implies giving voice to village councils and other local institutions most directly tied to rural populations. This does not, however, signify that governments can simply stand aside. Centring rural voices in policy debates demands higher-level government authorities’ active support, involvement, and collaboration to ensure that stakeholders have the resources and support to act upon their objectives. For example, basic social protection mechanisms – especially food and income support – have often played a critical role in protecting the basic security of rural populations during disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, protecting local resources’ rights and autonomy may also often require government action.

3. Moving from short-term recovery to broad societal transformations

In charting pathways for recovery, several dialogue participants expressed the conviction that responses should focus not only on short-term goals in response to the pandemic, but in promoting broader changes that foster greater security, prosperity, and sustainability of rural communities in forest landscapes over the longer term. There is a real risk that short-term actions in national recovery plans may go against these long-term objectives. “Rolling back on environmental and social protection in the name of promoting economic recovery is a step in the wrong direction”, as stated by Caroline de Jong, policy advisor, Environmental Governance Programme at Forest Peoples Programme.

Economic growth has been a central objective of many recovery plans, which too often does not acknowledge nor protect social and environmental rights. Instead, participants expressed the conviction that economic activities should be seen as a means to an end: merely a basis to promote the well-being of different populations. Seen in that light, economic activities are only a small part of a broader set of activities needed to advance long-term recovery goals, which must necessarily include actions that ensure progress toward a wide variety of human and environmental objectives.

However, these action areas should just be the beginning of a broader transformation. Most dialogue participants expressed the hope that the unprecedented disruption of the pandemic might also serve to galvanise deeper, more fundamental change in the ways that our societies are organised, and the place of forest-dependent populations within them.

“The pandemic should serve as a catalyst for transformative change, ending the over-exploitation of natural resources, addressing inequality within and between nations, and guaranteeing the rights of all,” said Caroline de Jong, of the Forest Peoples Programme.

The story of how governments, the private sector, academia and civil society will use the pandemic as a catalyst for transformative change is still to be written and played by us all.

Authors: This dialogue report and the recommendations were co-authored with input from the dialogue participants by Magdalena Knobel, Harry Fischer, Jesica López and Maria Ölund .

About the initiative: This dialogue was the first in the Focali – SIANI Dialogue Forum – a pilot initiative during 2021 for multi-stakeholder exchange and joint action on interlinked forest, biodiversity and livelihood issues. The initiative is an expansion of the ongoing Focali – SIANI collaboration.

Videos: Watch texted recordings of the first and the second sessions and read the full program.

Contact: For questions about the Focali – SIANI Dialogue Forum contact:

Event card