Three women work at an artisanal mine in Asia at dusk
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The Environmental Consequences of COVID-19 in Fragile States

The COVID-19 pandemic could have severe impacts on the environment in fragile states, compounding the challenges faced by their governments and their populations. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
By Alec Crawford on June 9, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic could have severe impacts on the environment in fragile states, compounding the challenges faced by their governments and their populations. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

For fragile states, the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are immediate and potentially devastating. The virus threatens to overwhelm already overstretched and under-resourced health systems. When it is compounded with the loss of jobs, the collapse of capital and remittance flows, and disruptions to commodity supply chains and food systems, among other knock-on impacts, there are serious concerns for the stability of these countries and the well-being of their citizens. For those countries most in need of progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the pandemic threatens to stall or reverse any tenuous gains that have been made.

Less well discussed is what the pandemic might mean for the environment in fragile states, and how these impacts—on watersheds, forests, wildlife, fisheries, and ecosystems—could undermine peacebuilding efforts, further driving instability.

Food systems and the biodiversity connection

Most immediately, disruptions to both domestic and international food systems could increase food insecurity for the poorest and most vulnerable. In most fragile states, agriculture remains the dominant source of livelihoods. Cutting farmers off from their markets and even from their fields due to lockdowns could threaten local food supplies, with restricted supply potentially leading to a spike in prices just as incomes are contracting. The shutdown of fisheries could further compound food security risks. A repeat of the 2008 food price crisis—and the social instability that resulted—is a growing concern. In response, there could be rapid increases in the conversion of land to agriculture; local subsistence hunting; and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. If not sustainably managed and controlled, these actions could have a significant impacts on local biodiversity and, consequently, ecosystem and community health.

Cows graze on grass with hills in the distance
A livestock farm in southwest Colombia / ©2016CIAT/NeilPalmer

Mining, conflict, and land rights

Beyond food, the mining sector is a key pillar of many fragile state economies. The pandemic has led to the shutting down of a number of mining operations, both by government decree and by corporate policy. This could push thousands into the informal, already crowded artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector at large-scale mines. With governments increasingly unable to enforce what few regulations may exist for these remote operations, the high environmental and social costs could include deforestation, water pollution, and the increased use of cheap mercury in processing; elevated health and safety risks relating to the influx of untrained miners; and the expanded use of child labour as schools close and incomes are reduced. Women will bear many of the impacts. Should these ASM operations spring up in close proximity to large-scale mines, tensions and conflicts could also emerge between miners and companies.

With governments increasingly unable to enforce what few regulations may exist for these remote operations, the high environmental and social costs could include deforestation, water pollution, and the increased use of cheap mercury in processing.

Finally, as governments retreat from more rural areas and direct their resources and attention at the fight against COVID-19, they could leave a vacuum easily filled by non-state armed groups or criminal organizations seeking to exploit the situation for revenues or territorial control. As an example, with the imposition of lockdown measures in Colombia, community and land rights activists were quickly targeted by groups involved in illegal mining.

Fewer tourists means less revenue to help protect nature

Not many tourists travelled to fragile states prior to the pandemic; however, the sector was an important source of jobs, investment, and revenue for many of these countries. What tourism existed has often been closely tied to nature, including visits to expansive national parks, mountains, and waterfalls. Many of these biodiversity hotspots were home to significant conservation programming, funded in part by tourism receipts.

An elephant crosses a river at sunrise in a national park in Botswana with tourists looking on in distance
Tourism at national parks in fragile states has dropped off sharply / iStock

The collapse of these revenues and the halted flow of visitors for the foreseeable future put these critical ecosystems under considerable strain and significantly impairs the ability of governments and conservation managers to monitor and protect habitats and wildlife. Given the high correlation between biodiversity and conflict, reduced oversight of protected areas and critical ecosystems could lead to increased competition for and exploitation of the valuable natural resources found within their boundaries, including timber, charcoal, bushmeat, and minerals. Conservation International reports that illegal poaching has increased since the pandemic began, while deforestation has surged in Brazil and Cambodia. Global Witness notes that, in the latter, environmental defenders are increasingly finding themselves under threat. In the absence of effective state intervention, increasing tensions and grievances within and among stakeholder groups could turn violent.

What tourism existed has often been closely tied to nature, including visits to expansive national parks, mountains, and waterfalls. Many of these biodiversity hotspots were home to significant conservation programming, funded in part by tourism receipts.

In the longer term, once economies start to open up again, cash-strapped governments in fragile states may rapidly increase their focus on extractives and natural resource-based industries, such as forestry, fisheries, and mining, to generate quick revenues. This could happen at the expense of strong environmental, fiscal, and socioeconomic considerations. It could also lead to increased competition for resources among interest groups, the capture of resource rents by governments, rapid environmental degradation, and fraying of the social contract between citizens and the state.

Environmental degradation and competition over natural resources

Should environmental degradation and competition over natural resources increase as a result of the pandemic, it will not inevitably lead to conflict. However, when both increase in a context of state fragility and weak governance—to say nothing of a changing climate—and where the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased unemployment and economic collapse, the likelihood of violence increases.

Unfortunately, in many fragile states, we are already seeing increasingly draconian responses to the pandemic from governments known for their corruption and authoritarianism. By further eroding the trust citizens have in public institutions—if there was any trust to begin with—these responses are making it harder for communities and governments to cope with the pandemic and its economic, social, and environmental consequences.

Two fishermen in India lift a fishing net on a sunny day on the beach
The responsible sourcing of fish is one way for fragile states to improve resource management / iStock

What can be done to avoid this and support fragile states?

All hope is not lost, however. There is much that can be done—by communities, civil society, governments, donors, and international organizations—to stave off this possible future and instead move toward one of good governance and sustainability. Fragile state governments must, of course, be held accountable for their actions by the international community, and efforts must continue to strengthen governance—that’s nothing new. But the broader focus must remain on supporting and building the resilience of communities, ecosystems, and governments, to ensure that they have the capacity to respond to and recover from future shocks. This includes support not only for health systems, but also for climate-resilient infrastructure, improved water management, more sustainable food systems, alternative livelihoods, and robust climate adaptation planning and implementation.

Support from the international community will be necessary and must continue to grow.

Within the extractive and agricultural industries, governments must be supported in their efforts to enforce and improve resource management regulations. Alongside companies and consumers, they can also redouble their efforts to ensure the responsible sourcing of timber, fish, agricultural products, minerals and metals, both through voluntary initiatives and regulatory mechanisms. It is important that the gains achieved in this area pre-COVID-19 be maintained and that these commodities be extracted, processed, and traded in a way that respects human rights, protects the environment, and promotes peace. Support services must be offered to artisanal and small-scale producers specifically, to ensure that they are protected from COVID-19 while also being able to generate the incomes they need to support their families and communities. These communities can be made a central part of recovery efforts, through employment in infrastructure projects and programs to support livelihood diversification.

A group of women work at a small mine during the day surrounded by rocks
COVID-19 could push thousands into the already crowded small-scale mining sector / iStock

The shrinking coffers of fragile state governments will not be able to cover all of this; support from the international community will be necessary and must continue to grow. And while support for fragile state communities through tourism may still be a ways off, conservation practitioners working to protect critical ecosystems can still be supported from afar.   

Achieving the transition toward sustainability and stability will require considerable energy, commitment, and resourcing—all of which are admittedly in short supply as countries wrestle with domestic health challenges and budgetary shortfalls. However, the pandemic has underscored that, in a highly globalized world, countries ignore the needs of fragile states at their peril.