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Covid-19 stimulus plans are undermining conservation efforts

Some national parks in India are being opened up for gas and oil wells

Anupam Nath/AP/Shutterstock

Covid-19 stimulus plans around the world are undermining protected areas for wildlife and habitats more often than not, according to researchers who say the measures are increasing the risk of a future pandemic.

An analysis led by Rachel Kroner at Conservation International found 64 cases of environmental rollbacks, such as opening protected areas to oil and gas wells, in 22 countries between January and October last year. Brazil, India and the US emerged as hotspots for the covid-19-era rollbacks. Kroner and her colleagues found 31 proposals in India to open up national parks and other sanctuaries, including one for coal mining in the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve.

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Last month, a report by analysts Vivid Economics found that much of the $14.9 trillion of stimulus announced by G20 countries will harm nature. The new study builds on that by looking beyond the G20 to countries home to some of the world’s richest biodiversity. Kroner’s research suggests many leaders’ claims to “build back better” ring hollow when it comes to protecting nature.

The findings matter partly because conservation projects have already been hard hit during the pandemic, as ecotourism revenues have nosedived. But there is self-interest too.

“Protecting these intact natural ecosystems helps to contain or reduce the risk of zoonotic disease spillover. So by rolling back protections that would increase natural forest degradation and loss, that increases the risk of future pandemic emergence,” says Kroner.

She says while some of the rollbacks are directly tied to covid-19 stimulus plans, some of them are simply regressive steps that coincided with the pandemic. Eight countries and the EU did provide funding that would help protected areas between January and October, but Kroner says overall the picture is a net negative. She thinks the number of environmental rollbacks is likely to be an underestimate, as that information isn’t always available to researchers.

Journal reference: The International Journal of Protected Areas and Conservation , DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.CH.2021PARKS-27SI.en

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