For those concerned with the future of forests, the COVID-19 pandemic has simultaneously offered cause for great concern, and renewed hope. On one hand, the pandemic is occurring at a time when forests are already under unprecedented pressures from climate change, amplifying concerns about unsustainable forest extraction in the name of economic recovery. On the other hand, however, the crisis has helped to gather momentum around the notion of a “green recovery,” including setting aside additional land for forest conservation. Drawing insights from past and ongoing research in India, we highlight an issue that exemplifies the tension between these two poles: the role of forests as social safety nets for rural communities in developing countries. It is well established that forests can provide critical resources for rural livelihoods, especially in times of crisis, and preliminary reports suggest that these resources have become even more important in the context of India's COVID lockdowns, and mass return migration from urban to rural areas. As the second wave of the pandemic continues to unfold in India, we highlight some key research priorities, including: 1) understanding how and to what extent forest-dependent communities and industries are changing their use of wood- and non-wood resources in the context of return migration and economic stress; 2) tracking shifts in forest cover, structure, and composition that may result from increased extractive pressures; 3) assessing the role of institutions, whether local, national, or international, in mediating these outcomes. Drawing on these observations, we suggest some key principles for integrating forest-based livelihoods into “green recovery,” founded on principles that articulate forests as complex and integrated social-ecological systems, prioritize equity, and build on past learnings of community-based forest management.

Recent CMI publications: