Pandemics, Environment, and Communities

This month’s Adapting CLD Covid-19 call was focused on the environment, what the pandemic has revealed about our relationship to the environment, and how climate change and the safeguarding of nature could be addressed through community-led development. 


  • Gunjan Veda, Movement for Community-Led Development
  • Nelly Mecklenburg, Institute for State Effectiveness

Keynote Speakers

  • David Bonnardeaux, Director of Environment, Pact 
  • Neil Vora, Pandemic Prevention Fellow, Conservation International
  • Janet Edmond, Senior Director for Peace and Development Partnerships, Conservation International

Environmental and health challenges facing the Globe

In the first part of the discussion, we focused on the link between health and the environment, and how the Covid-19 pandemic is an outcome of misunderstanding the link between the two.

Neil Vora opened his presentation by explaining how human health is related to the health of the planet and animals. He described the concept of planetary health, the idea that people need nature to survive. Emerging infectious diseases have been on the rise since the 1940s due to the worldwide increase in deforestation, wildlife trade, and ecological destruction. Neil explained how this destruction of the natural world leads to global health crises such as the one we are currently facing – no matter the precise source or channel of origin. He outlined a way forward to combat pandemics, advocating for investment in pre-outbreak and post-outbreak pandemic response programs; both must be given attention and are needed to stop future pandemics. The idea presented is that “if we were to reduce environmental degradation, human-wildlife interaction, and regulate the wildlife trade we would be able to stop new pandemics from popping up frequently.” Environmental degradation and its impact on health are an issue of equity. From the destruction of nature, there are other impacts such as malnutrition, mental health disease, displacement, and conflict. Human activities have improved access to energy, per capita food production, and living standards, yet the paradox is that at the same time have caused much damage to the environment which may set back these achievements. “We have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present.” Neil emphasized that we need to begin seeing environmental health, animal health, and human health as inter-linked concepts.

MCLD to combat climate change and future pandemics

Following Neil’s presentation, we discussed the importance of centering communities in the fight for conservation and looked at some of the different ways this could be done.

One participant asked Janet Emond “What can CLD organizations and partners do to help communities be leaders in development and in conserving nature?”

Janet spoke about how the conservation of nature underpins everything and there cannot be sustainable development without it. She stated the need to work to bridge these gaps, mentioning that there is a change in the conservation community, which is now taking a look at a broader range of issues, such as conflict, governance, gender, and rights based approaches. This is a break from the past where projects would be seen more narrowly and as isolated from other issues. They are now being considered as part of a larger whole that greatly reflects MCLD’s belief in CLD and the fight against climate change. Rural communities are a key barrier to environmental degradation, livelihoods, conflict, and health. David Bonnaredeux also added that whereas in the past environmental conservation might have been focusing on a single species or a specific area for conservation, organizations recently have been and should take the more inclusive approach to see lasting beneficial change, ensuring that with conservation efforts there are benefits to communities and people’s livelihoods as a means to ensure long term success. 

David gave the example of work in Uganda to save gorillas that live near a community: As humans move closer into animal habitats the likelihood of cross-infection increases. In this case, some gorillas died due to a human strain of scabies, showing that these diseases can go not only from wildlife to humans but from humans to wildlife. He explained that the solution to this issue was to work with communities to increase sanitation and provide funding to them for the conservation of the gorillas rather than pouring millions of dollars into a project that local communities will never feel any of the benefits. The issues we might imagine as far away are closer than we think they are. David stated that, “If we destroy our habitats, we destroy our systems of regulation that do things like clean our water and our air. The pandemic has shed a light on many of the issues we are facing, this is usually when people start to make a shift – when it affects us personally. Hopefully we use this to understand the connection to nature and our health.” 

Ways forward for CLD and climate change after Covid-19

In this last segment of the discussion we looked at the state of CLD during lockdown and travel restrictions, the effects on the environment and how we could undertake development projects in the future with what we learned from Covid-19. In the discussion, it became clear that communities have been seeing and feeling the impacts of environmental degradation – and taking action. It is our job to help support their leadership in this space.

Q: “How do you get over donor hesitancy to invest in a what if potential without rapid results?”

David suggested that looking at cumulative benefits is most important: “if you only focus on one system of development you won’t really see the benefits there for conservation. If you can put in place measures that benefit communities and keep in mind different aspects like carbon credits and clean water – it is important to think long term when talking to donors about funding projects that might not reveal benefits of return on investment right away. You will save money and get the environmental benefits in the future.”

Q: “What are some of the effects we have seen during the pandemic that have been positive to the environment and that changed the way that we worked and how can we carry that forward?”

David answered this question, discussing how the decline in travel during the pandemic has not only led to less pollution, but has also shown the possibility of keeping development projects going by working through country offices, and allowing local community groups to take on projects for themselves. The pandemic accelerated the capacity of local groups to take on projects and do things that they might have not done before, and we had a larger amount of robust local staff. The pandemic has shown that communities were able to carry out the projects without the input of external organizations. “The future of projects will include consolidating trips, reducing carbon output and at the same time working remotely to rely on locals to carry out their own projects”. The question of how to sustain that change remains at the top of our list: “We can do things like empowering women who are bearing the brunt of climate change, and are also those who will manage plots of land in homes and recognize the need to engage with women and girls.” 

Breakout Rooms

  • Participants in the discussion for group one exchanged methods of how existing programs initiated by organizations have attempted to resolve environment / climate change concerns. In Uganda, the organization African Women’s Service provided local homes with fruit trees named after a child (who will take care of the tree), and taught local people how to make bricks out of existing rubbish. Similarly, in Kenya, the organization My Own Two Hands Foundation, initiated an income generating project / conservation strategy that involved raising trees to sell to larger communities. While working with regional directors of education, the organization has supported admitted students by allowing them to plant a tree and care for it during the duration of their studies. The focus of this project is to expand the process of planting trees in local areas. Meanwhile, other participants discussed how their organizations incorporated environmentally sustainable practices into their programming during the pandemic, and suggested methods to prolong this sustainability. One participant discussed how local people were provided with vegetables and were encouraged to plant these vegetables on their verandas because they could not obtain fresh vegetables from the market during the pandemic. While these individuals were told the fresh vegetables would help to improve their health and immunity, this also helped families and individuals to save money. Similarly, one participant described the importance of working in the future to help communities to revive / rejuvenate plant systems as a method of supporting the future growth of biodiversity. 
  • Another group discussed how the development community and policymakers need to begin thinking about health, conservation, and development as all linked to one another. The group discussed the need to implement MCLD as a key component in fighting climate change and the need to include marginalized groups such as women and ethnic minorities. Elyna Zulu- from The Hunger Project in Zambia talked about promoting nutrition as a  factor connected to issues of climate change and giving people skills to preserve their environment and to guard their source of nutrition as well as nature. 

Climate change is one of four key themes that call participants chose to focus on as we think about taking lessons from the pandemic forward.The others are food security, mental health, and Gender-Based Violence.