Like many organisations, at Synchronicity Earth our response to COVID-19 has been evolving rapidly. Firstly, how can we best look after the health and wellbeing of our UK-based staff? Secondly, how can we provide urgent support for our conservation partners (grantees) around the world, for their work and their communities? And now, while that work continues, we are reflecting on our shared experience of the pandemic, looking to the future and exploring how our conservation programmes, partnerships and networks can contribute to ‘building back better’.
Same disease, different challenges
Through conversations with our partners, we’ve seen how variable the impact of COVID-19 has been on diverse communities around the world.
The first priority for our partners – as for us – is health. But in some cases, the economic crisis developing in the wake of the virus poses an equal if not greater challenge. Widespread lockdowns, which numerous communities have faced without the support and facilities that many of us in the UK take for granted (furlough schemes, internet connectivity, etc.), have had a severe impact. For example, our partner Dynamique des Groupes des Peuples Autochtones in the Democratic Republic of Congo has had to divert funds to support staff who are unable to buy basic necessities such as food, and purchase telephone and internet credit to stay in touch with family and colleagues. Lockdowns are also limiting our partners’ capacity to carry out project work; many on-the-ground conservation activities have become more difficult, sometimes impossible, but our partners are working hard to adapt and continue where they can.
Meanwhile, risks to some of the species and areas they are working to protect are increasing. For example, where roads are closed to contain the spread of the disease, the resulting disruption of the supply of food to communities can lead to spikes in wildlife poaching for bushmeat. There is also evidence that in some places, with the authorities’ attention focused on containing the spread of the virus, activities such as illegal logging or mining are on the rise.
We also support organisations involved in advocacy and campaigning at the international level and for these groups the challenges are different. Vital processes aimed at protecting the natural world have been postponed to 2021. For example, negotiations around a vital new high seas biodiversity treaty have come to a halt. If there is a silver lining here, it is that the organisations involved, such as the High Seas Alliance, have more time to prepare the strongest possible case to present once the negotiations resume in earnest.
Drawing strength from a crisis
Since Synchronicity Earth was founded in 2009, we have focused on building long-term relationships by listening to our partners’ needs and supporting them to grow. Our conservation programmes are based on sound conservation science but also on trusted relationships, giving us a better understanding of what works and what does not, both for the environment and local communities.
The strength of these relationships is critical: providing flexible and responsive funding for core costs and capacity building at this crucial time helps organisations to increase their resilience and gain the trust of their communities. For example, we have provided grant funding to partner Mbou Mon Tour in Democratic Republic of Congo so they can continue paying staff salaries and purchase communications equipment to allow them to do parts of their work from home.
Many of our partners have strong voices in civil society, which means they can play a key role in supporting health in their communities during the pandemic. In Papua New Guinea, our partner Bismarck Ramu Group (BRG) realised that misinformation about COVID-19 was circulating among local people. We worked with a donor to provide flexible funding to enable BRG to temporarily switch the focus of their work to providing accurate health information for local people to help limit the spread of the disease.
From the start of the outbreak, we have been committed to open dialogue with our donors. We are hugely grateful to all of them for their continued understanding and flexibility which has been, for us, an affirmation of their belief and trust in our mission.
Shifting cultural narratives
COVID-19 continues to have profound consequences for millions of people around the world. It has laid bare and often intensified social, economic and racial inequalities, both within nations and between them. The rapid spread of the pandemic across the globe has reminded us that we are all connected, including to people and places that are far away, out of sight and out of mind.
If we want to live in a world where both people and nature can thrive, conservation alone will not get us there. Synchronicity Earth works with a range of people, organisations and alliances, developing networks and partnerships to explore and respond to some of the systemic causes of global biodiversity loss. For example, we provide funding to and have a seat on the Executive Board of the Agroecology Fund, which champions regenerative approaches to agriculture. We created Shoal, a collaboration of funders, industry representatives and NGOs committed to increasing recognition and support for overlooked freshwater species conservation. Meanwhile, our role in developing Flourishing Diversity contributes to the growing movement to support indigenous peoples conserving biological and cultural diversity where it is most threatened.
COVID-19 is a reminder of the strength of communities, the effectiveness of collective action, the power of empathy. Can we harness these positives to begin to change the stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world? Can it be the catalyst for us to begin to address the inequalities in our relationships, both among our own communities, and with the natural world around us? This pandemic may just have given us an unexpected window of opportunity to reconsider the path we are on and the motivation to help us change course.
Jim Pettiward is Head of Communications at Synchronicity Earth, an independent, UK-based charity focused on global biodiversity conservation. We develop conservation programmes to catalyse and grow action, support and funding for overlooked species, regions and ecosystems. Read more about our response to the challenges of COVID-19.