In May of this year, my 11-year-old daughter asked me if the Covid-19 crisis that the world is currently living through was a positive thing for the environment. Good question. I told her I wasn’t sure.
But then I remembered some good news I’d recently read in the media. News about dolphins swimming in the never-before crystal clear waters of Venice (although there are doubts about this story, read here) and reports of fin whales being spotted off the Cote d’Azur in the south of France. I’d read articles that people in northern India could see the Himalayas for the first time in decades due to less air pollution. I’d seen maps that showed much lower levels of pollution in China first, then Europe and now the US. Maybe the environment was better off…
News reports aside, from my own travels around the Cayuga Collection hotels as they began to empty and move into “hibernation mode” last month, I certainly saw a lot more wildlife roaming the grounds. As a board member of an NGO called ProParques in Costa Rica, I also received reports from our National Park rangers that the parks are recovering from human interference and that they’re seeing more and more wildlife. Of course, fewer cars on the roads and planes in the sky mean lower global CO2 emissions too. It all sounds pretty good.
But there is most likely a flipside to all of this.
In a conversation with Dereck Joubert, a fellow member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World program, I asked him how the wildlife situation was looking around his lodges in Kenya, Botswana and South Africa. His response was clear: “Poachers don’t respect any lockdowns – on the contrary, the lack of tourism is making it too easy for them to hunt.” As tourism is on hold for the near future, Dereck and his wife Beverly have repurposed most of their lodge staff to become rangers, tasked with protecting the wild animals. But it’s a tough fight. As far as Dereck is concerned, the situation is so serious that if there’s no tourism for an extended period, by the time visitors eventually return, there might be no more Big Five left to spot.
Thinking about my own experience over the past 20+ years in Costa Rica, it’s clear that tourism has played its part in the protection of wildlife and forests here too. Many poachers have become guides and even more ex loggers and gold diggers provide services to tourists. As a result, the amount of wildlife that can be observed all across the country has significantly increased in the past years.
When I first worked in Nicaragua circa 2000, there were almost no wild animals to be seen. Most of them ended up on local dinner tables. That has also changed in the past years, thanks to the positive impact of tourism. My fear now is that things will go right back to how they once were. Most people who worked in tourism until March now find themselves unexpectedly unemployed and struggling. It’s only a matter of time before they look to animals, trees, and plants for basic income. We could lose 30 years of conservation efforts almost overnight, and with that, a great many other advances.
Just think about single-use plastics. We were so excited to hear that what we’d been practicing for 10 years was finally becoming the norm in our industry and across the world. But now, in the name of hygiene, everything is back to single-use. A friend of mine in Canada told me the other day that she was not allowed to use her reusable cloth bags in a supermarket and had to instead use single-use plastic ones. And the reasoning? Danger of contaminating others with the virus…
We understand and support the fight against Covid-19, just like we support the measures by our democratic governments to temporarily restrict our rights to freely move around. But just as those civil liberties should only be restricted for a limited amount of time, so the resurgence of single-use plastics should also be temporary and only if absolutely necessary. This crisis should not give oil and plastic companies the right to go full out and recover their losses from previous years.
For now, at the Cayuga Collection, our main concern isn’t whether the environment is better or worse off. There are pros and cons. What’s playing on our minds is the impact on the local communities in the rural areas that have been most affected by the sudden obliteration of tourism activity. Amazon isn’t hiring in the towns we’re talking about, and those who live there are out of options.
The impact on these rural communities and their people will be devastating and have severe social consequences. Many who achieved middle-class status through their tourism income might just fall back into poverty. All that has been achieved in terms of environmental education will be hard to sustain. It’s difficult to think about climate change, recycling and cleaning up beaches when you are hungry and don’t know how to pay your bills.
So, in response to my daughter’s question, there may well be some short term environmental gains, but if this crisis continues for any length of time, our planet and its people will suffer and all the advances in sustainable practices may well evaporate in the blink of an eye.
This is why we should all continue to become more sustainable in everything we do after things are back to the “new normal”. You can count on Cayuga for doing its part on the responsible tourism side of things in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. I would love to hear your thoughts on this blog in the comment section below or write to me directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.