Like other organisations around the world, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been substantially affected by COVID-19 and associated lockdowns and economic downturns. For all the positive nature and air quality impacts reported in some wealthier countries, the overall experience across FFI’s operating network is one of lost livelihoods, lost funding and growing risks from unsustainable activities. Many of our partner organisations, and particularly those that depend on ecotourism and/or philanthropic funding for their operations, have had to make extensive pay cuts and redundancies.
At FFI, we have been relieved that the immediate impact on our own operations has proven less than originally feared. We have managed to adapt our plans, keeping staff active on adjusted priorities where necessary, with only a few individuals furloughed as a result of caring responsibilities. FFI is very grateful for the ongoing support of its donors over the last four months, and the vast majority have been extremely accommodating in allowing us to adjust workplans, thus minimising longer-term impacts on projects and on the organisation. We also went into 2020 in a strong position having built a healthy reserve base through a previous capital campaign.
We are adapting in a number of ways to the lockdowns and new post-lockdown realities, both in the UK and in our regionally-based programmes around the world, where COVID-19 has played out in some very different ways. Nicaragua, for example, has so far refused to impose any restrictions, while Vietnam is emerging into a new normal, having quashed the virus effectively within a few short weeks, at least for the time being. These differing pandemic responses bring different challenges for us to solve.
The sudden transition to home working, both in the UK and in some of our countries of operation, was disruptive initially (especially in countries where home internet access, and even regular home electricity supplies, may not be the norm). We have, however, also seen plus sides with the rapid uptake of new online-technology platforms across the organisation, which has improved cross-organisational and regional representation in meetings, events and training courses. We are actively working to embed these positive developments as the norm post-COVID.
In our countries of operation, we see field teams adapting in many ways. In some cases, teams have taken the opportunity provided by lockdown to process a backlog of data, delaying field seasons until they can be safely resumed. We are also ensuring that our teams and the communities they work with can operate safely, in some cases providing important health information, PPE and hand washing stations.
In some sites we have had to adapt our operations to react to new threats that have emerged as a result of COVID-19 and associated economic disruption; threats both to biodiversity and to the local communities, which are often inter-related. For example, island communities in Honduras and Indonesia have seen a collapse in economic opportunities, compounded by disruption of essential food supplies from the mainland. This has resulted in an up-turn in hunting and fishing, threatening the species we aim to protect. We have been able to repurpose funding to provide emergency food packages and create short-term employment opportunities for community members, whilst also enhancing protection for species most at risk.
The most significant, and potentially long-term, impact we are seeing is to the operations, and indeed future existence, of some of our in-country partner NGOs – particularly where business models are based on tourism. For example, some of the most successful models of community conservancies across Africa are at risk of collapse as a result of COVID-19, threatening to undermine decades of conservation gains.
In response, FFI acted quickly to establish a Partner Crisis Support Fund, and we are extremely grateful to Arcadia and People’s Postcode Lottery for funding to support this. This fund is providing emergency support to ensure our partners’ operations can be maintained in the face of reduced income streams, and enabling responses to new and emerging threats as a result of COVID-19. Having weathered the immediate storm we will work with these partners to help them develop diversified, post-COVID strategies and funding models, and so build their resilience and ability to thrive into the future.
To date we have made 18 grants to partners through the fund (totalling over £700,000), and we aim to raise and distribute a further £1 million. Some examples of the support we have provided are included in a recent report which demonstrates the need for such a lifeline for organisations working at the frontline of conservation around the world.
Case Study: “Fundação Maio Biodiversidade (FMB) is an NGO on Maio Island in Cape Verde that focuses on marine conservation, and runs a long-standing turtle protection project. This is underpinned by funds from paying international volunteers who undertake beach protection, alongside the local community. This model has seen turtle poaching reduce from 40% in 2012 to 1.7% in 2019. The project has been substantially affected by COVID-19 – not just the loss of volunteer manpower to patrol beaches, but also the funding that international volunteers provide. The loss of visitors also affects a homestay programme whereby local women gain income from hosting volunteers; without this income they may be forced to return to turtle poaching to survive. A grant from the Partner Crisis Support Fund will support FMB running costs, thus enabling them to retain critical staff, hire more locals from Maio for beach protection patrols and pay the women offering homestays to host these turtle guards.
Dr Abigail Entwistle is Fauna & Flora International’s Director of Conservation Science and Design.