There are several drivers of global forest or tree — cover loss. Illegal activities aimed at capitalizing on growing human needs is a significant one. Illegal wild animal trade is often cited as one of the most lucrative black-market businesses in the world after narcotics, human trafficking and weapons. The United Nations’ World Wildlife Day theme for 2021 is “Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet.” Some of the most pristine forests that remain today are those managed by indigenous people the world over. But more often than not, these are the very people who face the biggest brunt of everything from development activities within forests — whether legal or illegal — to climate change to wildlife crime. We take a broad look at the criminal side of the wilderness that’s exacerbating environmental & societal issues, and hurting indigenous populations, set against a backdrop of shrinking forest cover.
By Deepti Govind
The illegal wild animal trade is worth between $5 billion and $20 billion a year, according to the Global Environment Facility, an international partnership among governments, civil society, and the private sector to support conservation. This is often ranked as the world’s fourth most lucrative black market business after narcotics, human trafficking, and the weapons trade. And it goes hand-in-hand with other kinds of wildlife crime, including illegal logging.
Worth almost $152 billion a year, the illegal timber industry accounts for up to 90% of tropical deforestation in some countries and attracts the world’s biggest organized crime groups, Interpol said in a statement in December 2020. Of that, the world’s most widely traded illegal wild product is rosewood, which increases 700 times in value between the criminal logger and end buyer.
Durable, fragrant rosewood, used to make furniture and musical instruments, is the world’s most trafficked wild product by value and volume, according to a National Geographic report on the world’s battle to protect rosewood — the world’s most trafficked wild commodity. Rosewood is trafficked even more than ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales combined!
“Forests and woodlands have an important environmental role and provide essential services for hundreds of millions of people. They sustain the resources so many communities around the world rely on for their livelihoods, as well as the broader food security, climate regulation and economic stability for the entire world. Celebrating these livelihoods and seeking to learn from those who live directly from and within forests will allow us not only to highlight the critical importance of forests for humanity and for the planet, but also to discuss how we can make our relationship with them and all the wildlife species they harbor more sustainable,” the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’s (CITES) Secretary-General Ivonne Higuero said in a press release on 2021’s Wildlife Day theme.
But before we even begin to learn from these communities, we first need to be aware of how deeply affected they are by wildlife and environmental crimes committed around the world. Many of them lose their homes, and their only known way of living when forests are intruded upon — either legally or illegally — for development. The good thing is, across the world policymakers and relevant groups have been increasingly recognizing the contributions of indigenous people toward conservationists’ goals of protecting biodiversity, wild places, and ecosystem functions. It has been a dominant trend, in fact, over the past 20 years, according to an article in Mongabay. Historically, though, indigenous people tended to be marginalized, undervalued or even criminalized in some cases.
Brazil, home to the greatest rainforest in the world, has had its share of issues when it comes to the impact of deforestation on indigenous people. Last year, the Xikrin people of the northern Amazon decided to take matters into their own hands when their homes were threatened by everything from fire to deforestation and invasion, the Guardian reported in August 2019. Armed with rifles and wooden batons, groups of Xikrin warriors swept through their extensive territory in the state of Pará back then. And whenever they encountered fire-scarred land, illegal clearances and habitations, they went from hut to hut, ejecting the invaders and confiscating chainsaws and other tools.
By law, that ought to have been the task of the federal police but the elders of the indigenous community felt there was scant hope the government — led by President Jair Bolsonaro — would enforce their rights. The 1,651,000-hectare Trincheira Bacajá indigenous territory was officially recognized by the government in 2000. Nobody but the 1,100 members of the Xikrin community has the right to live on it. The land-grabbers first started to creep into the area in June 2018, using a rough road that had been cut into the forest by illegal loggers. The Xikrin filed complaints to official agencies several times, but to no avail, the Guardian article added.
Even today, nearly two years after the Xikrin people’s ousting of invaders, Brazil’s indigenous people continue to lead their own individual battles against environmental crime as the government still appears unwilling to interfere. As recently as Feb. 26, BBC discovered that parts of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest are being illegally sold on Facebook! It includes national forests and land reserved for indigenous people, and some of the ads are for plots the size of 1,000 football pitches. Facebook said it was “ready to work with local authorities”, but indicated it would not take independent action of its own to halt the trade, BBC reported. Meanwhile, campaigners have claimed the country’s government is unwilling to halt the sales. “The land invaders feel very empowered to the point that they are not ashamed of going on Facebook to make illegal land deals,” said Ivaneide Bandeira, head of environmental NGO Kanindé, the BBC report said.
But there are several other examples across the world of environmental crimes displacing indigenous people. In other parts of South America, the drug trade is sending fear down the spines of indigenous communities from Peru to Colombia and Ecuador. For more than five decades, indigenous communities in the northern Philippines have pushed back against the planned construction of hydropower dams on the Chico River system, a Mongabay article says. The Chico and its 12 main tributaries are the lifeblood of indigenous communities in the Cordillera region of the northern Philippines. And even here, it’s these communities that are taking up for nature.
When conflict and climate change come together, it forms a toxic combination that drives people away from their homes, said a post on ReliefWeb, a humanitarian information service provided by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Of the 20.4 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate at the end of 2018, a third were located in the world’s least developed countries, which are often highly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, or which suffer from a scarcity of resources and infrastructure, the ReliefWeb post added.
People affected by armed conflict are disproportionately impacted by climate shocks and environmental degradation. This includes the 66 million people the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates are currently living outside of regular governance systems, in areas controlled by non-state armed groups, ReliefWeb said in a press release on Feb. 27.
One soccer pitch’s worth of tree cover is lost every second, according to a Bloomberg article, which stimulates the number of soccer pitches lost since a reader lands on the article’s page. The article is based on 2019 tree cover loss data from Global Forest Watch. The world is not on track to meet the UN Strategic Plan for Forests target of increasing forest area by 3% worldwide by 2030, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in its The State of the World’s Forests 2020 report.
The Amazon rainforest will collapse and largely become a dry, shrubby plain by 2064, a new study published in December 2020 for Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development concluded. Models predict once 30-50% deforestation is reached in the south, this will decrease the amount of rain by up to 40 percent in the west, also changing the environment there from tropical forest to open forest and savanna, Science Alert reported, based on the December 2020 study.
That’s why the theme of the United Nations World Wildlife Day this year is “Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet.” It aims at highlighting the central role of forests, forest species and ecosystems in sustaining the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people globally, and particularly of indigenous and local communities with historic ties to forested and forest-adjacent areas. Roughly 28% of the world’s land surface is currently managed by indigenous peoples, including some of the most ecologically intact forests on the planet.
On Feb. 23, UN Secretary-General António Guterres also addressed climate-related security risks to international peace and security in his remarks to the Security Council. Here’s an excerpt of some key points he made:
In closing, we leave you with this video that narrates the inspiring tale of a single man who managed to plant a forest larger than Central Park NYC, by himself; and the hope that it inspires everyone – not just indigenous peoples – to do whatever they can, small or big, to protect and conserve nature.