Land systems’ insights from the pandemic and lock down

It will take time to make sense of the myriad changes the COVID-19 pandemic has brought and continues to bring into our lives as scientists, and into the socio-ecological land systems that we study. We gathered virtually in June 2021 as a group of land systems scientists working in the Americas to explore these changes by sharing our observations and insights. In our meeting, we identified several likely patterns of change including: 

  • Reduced mobility of migrant workers and, as a result, a decrease in remittances
  • A rise in smallholder and subsistence agriculture
  • A rise in land use and trade in illicit commodities
  • Relatively unaffected large scale mechanized agriculture supply chains

Although it is too early to say if these changes are here to stay or are temporary pandemic phenomena, they have created a unique opportunity to study the resilience of socio-ecological land systems to large scale disturbances. 

Differential effects of the pandemic on flows of people, goods, and money  influencing land systems

We considered how the COVID-19 pandemic offers an “experiment of opportunity” to increase our knowledge of the dynamics, pressures, constraints, and elasticities of socio-ecological land systems. Contrasting the pandemic’s effects on the circulation of goods, money, and people formed the core of our first impressions, observations, and speculations. While these fluxes are affected by both gradients and constraints, most of our attention focused on the latter (since it is easier to observe the cessation of a flow than to measure changes in flux intensity). 

Widespread cessation of people moving within, across, and between places is the most salient feature of the pandemic with respect to land systems. New or renewed appreciation of green  spaces has risen in many cities. Moreover, the activity of smallholder farmers in their home rural areas seems to be increasing, at least in South and Central America. Many of these smallholders have left after losing jobs in cities or in larger farms abroad, coping with the “stay at home” premise enforced at different degrees all around the globe. The circulation of land products, particularly in the case of commodity crops (like soybeans) produced under high mechanization, appears to be almost unaffected, suggesting that the pandemic’s constraints on international trade and the associated logistics were overcome very rapidly. Traffic in illegal goods (like cocaine) has seen increased activity in the Americas, perhaps in response to relaxed control and enforcement coupled with increased demand. This “relaxed” control and enforcement has also been cited as an influential factor pushing the recent peaks in deforestation observed in the Brazilian Amazon. 

These changing flows of people and goods also influence the flow of money. While the financial fluxes associated with the most important agricultural commodities of the region can grow as a result of rising prices, the flow of remittances is not closely linked to crop prices but rather to supply-demand dynamics of the labor market as shaped by governmental regulations and policies and by their enforcement. Remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean exhibited resilience in the face of the pandemic, according to the May 2021 report on remittances from the World Bank. Following a sharp drop in regional remittances in the second quarter of 2020, the rebound in remittances actually increased by 6.5% over 2019. Possibly, part of the reported increase in remittances may have arisen from the need to use formal banking channels to send money since travel was restricted. The new GLP working group on Remittance Dynamics and Land Change is exploring these phenomena. 

Will the pandemic create a growing globalization divide in the food production systems with the most mechanized supply chains gaining spread and most work-dependent ones getting more local? How will the barriers for people's circulation change in the coming months? Will the barriers be removed at the same speed for different countries or income groups? Will the social and cultural drivers of migration and travel remain unaffected? What roles are supra-national governance organisms having during this global disturbance?

We encourage the community of land systems researchers to consider how the pandemic has affected their own study systems. Are the patterns and hypotheses we describe here pertinent to your land systems as well? Or have other patterns of change been observed?  What can the pandemic teach us about land systems that we may not have learned otherwise? We noted that the formal disintegration of the USSR in December 1991 also had a vast and synchronous impact on land systems in Eurasia. Much scholarship has emerged from that momentous event, particularly on the dynamics of land abandonment and agricultural deintensification (which also has a new GLP Working Group). 

COVID effects on our work

Just as we have seen the world changed outside our home-offices, our lives have experienced transformations, too. Human interactions had to be rearranged: we were suddenly working in near isolation, trips cancelled, fieldwork readjusted or postponed, and for shared resources (like lab equipment) new challenges for workable schedules, while observing pandemic protocols to minimize infection. For some, these cumulative challenges threatened their mental health; for others, the enforced pause in busyness offered time to reflect and reevaluate. 

These dislocations have, at the same time, brought some creative ways of re-inventing our work, conversations, and time arrangements. Some of these new arrangements saved both money and carbon (like remote review panels or webinars). Others have been less successful. While an online conference enables potentially more participation, the quality of the interactions suffers and the exchange of science is dessicated. The pandemic also influences our ability to study the impacts of Covid-19 itself on socio-ecological land systems, because we are not able to conduct interviews with stakeholders, for example. On the other hand, the large-scale impact of Covid-19 across national borders provides an opportunity for a “natural” experiment in governance, the resilience of land systems, or the vulnerability of farmers. Some researchers also felt they had more time to dedicate to their own research because of less bureaucracy in place, but others found that the increase in familial care responsibilities reduced their ability to focus. These challenging times need challenging solutions. Early career and caregiver researchers are in special need of ways to get re-integrated into the institutional systems of scientific research. The hiatus in research productivity caused by the “lost year” of 2020 will only be clearly evident in the next few years. 


We thank all the participants of the WG Meet & Greet June 2021 for their insights and discussions that contributed to this blog post.