Post-pandemic Natural Resource Management in the Indo-Pacific

CSIS Briefs

The Issue

In late 2019, the novel coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China. It is generally agreed that it originated from animal consumption in a market. Increased human interaction with wildlife—be it through the destruction of habitats, the consumption of animals, or other means—increases exposure to diseases, and 58 percent of all pandemics are zoonotic in origin, transmitted through an animal source. Covid-19 should be seen as a wake-up call to the importance of proper natural resource management. Unfortunately, reports are increasingly common that mismanagement of resources is occurring instead as countries and communities react to the virus. Tourism, food, and agriculture sectors have also been significantly impacted by Covid-19 due to lockdowns, social distancing measures, and travel and trade disruptions. As a result, people—especially in the Indo-Pacific region—could return to being increasingly reliant on wildlife, agricultural expansion, logging, and fishing to ensure food security, in many cases in an unsustainable or illicit manner. Covid-19 is currently one of the most prominent threats to the region’s environmental security. These vulnerabilities will also likely provide opportunities for China to gain a greater foothold in the region and establish control of valuable natural resources. Although these issues are not new, they are among those most exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19.

Pre-pandemic U.S. Strategy toward the Indo-Pacific

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has developed a multisectoral approach for the region under the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), which includes making contributions towards the security and safeguard of natural resources. USAID has highlighted the importance of natural resource management, implementing it as part of the IPS’s security pillar; priorities include creating and enforcing environmental safeguards, promoting conservation and sustainable investments and practices, and more strongly regulating and prosecuting illicit environmental activity in the region. This is not new for USAID. Since 2012, the agency has helped to conserve 64 million acres of forest and coastal areas in Cambodia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, reflecting USAID’s long-standing commitment to environment conservation and natural resource management. However, the pandemic has brought in an added urgency to increasing efforts in the Indo-Pacific.

IPS implementation focuses on the range of land and sea spanning from the west coast of the United States to the west coast of India. Under the IPS security pillar, USAID projects in regional countries focus on key environmental concerns, including managing natural resources, minimizing deforestation and emissions, combating illegal environmental operations, and advancing modern energy services.

Natural Resource Management Challenges for the Indo-Pacific in the Face of Covid-19

The two main threats to natural resource management (or NRM) caused by Covid-19 are the negative impact on ecosystems (and thereby resources) of increased human interaction with the environment and the increased disregard for international environmental laws, norms, and regulations by both individuals and nations. These illegal activities occur both in natural terrestrial habitats and in oceans. For instance, China, a significant player in the region, has increased its investment in infrastructure projects across the Indo-Pacific, and it has also undertaken illegal expansion activities in the South China Sea—demonstrating in both cases a blatant disregard for environmental protections, and in some cases, for the sovereignty of other nations.

The two main threats to NRM caused by Covid-19 are the negative impact on ecosystems of increased human interaction with the environment and the increased disregard for international environmental laws, norms, and regulations by both individuals and nations.


As Covid-19 has reached every corner of the world, China continues to spread propaganda that seeks to solidify its geopolitical strength, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing has leveraged its Health Silk Road (HSR) initiative by sending medical supplies and technical assistance to countries around the world, but especially to their neighbors in the region and to the member countries of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). From the start, China has suppressed information on the outbreak, and it has even created propaganda campaigns to negate anti-China sentiment and elevate its own “superior” model for Covid-19 recovery. Beijing has leveraged the crisis and its response and assistance to deepen its soft power control in the Indo-Pacific, particularly among the developing nations already reliant on China for infrastructure development. Many countries—including Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos—have worked with China on developing a pandemic response, relying heavily on China’s provision of assistance and medical equipment. 

China’s global response to Covid-19 through its new HSR initiative has clear foreign policy motives: to assert global leadership and ultimately gain support from other countries in the region to secure greater security and control in the South China Sea. China seeks in part to leverage the Covid-19 crisis and the countries dependent on its aid to meet its claims that of its “nine-dash line” giving it control of about 85 percent of the South China Sea. This invisible boundary outlines mostly international waters, the yearly passing site of about $3.4 trillion in goods. Notably, many of the recipient countries of Chinese pandemic assistance—such as Cambodia and Laos—are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and they have backed China’s territorial claims in the waters, despite not having an Exclusive Economic Zone (Laos has no coastline) that is affected by the nine-dash line. China has also been able to move quickly on natural resource grabs throughout the pandemic, especially in the oceans, because it already had a strong fishing strategy in place. This fishing strategy includes economic support in the form of subsidies to other countries backed by investments in soft power. 

In the spring of 2020, China also took advantage of regional and international attention on the Covid-19 pandemic to quietly extend its claims in the South China Sea, creating two new administrative districts on disputed islands. It also named 80 additional reefs (some of which are artificial or permanently underwater), potentially laying the ground for additional maritime claims in the future. China has also engaged in increased coercion of its neighbors in the region through expanded state-sponsored illegal fishing operations, as well as through the intimidation of foreign oil exploration vessels.

The fallout of Covid-19 highlights some of the great security risks caused by China’s global infrastructure projects, particularly its BRI. The BRI includes an expansive network of highways, railways, and energy pipelines that oftentimes necessitate the destruction of natural habitats for their construction. These projects range from Central and Southeast Asia to Africa and parts of Europe. The issue here is not simply that the destruction of habitats increases human interaction with wildlife, and consequently possible exposure to zoonotic diseases like Covid-19; but it is also that China disregards international norms and regulations, including those that would potentially decrease the impact of these projects on the environment. For example, in the case of planned dam construction in Sumatra, Indonesia, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank both stated that the project was too ecologically harmful to carry out—in spite of which China may still end up funding this project. China’s disregard for international norms in this area is harming natural resource management, as well as setting a dangerous precedent in disregarding international norms. This makes the issue part of a larger security concern, which includes China’s ramping up of infrastructure development.



One of the hardest-hit industries in the region is also one of its most essential: fishing. Covid-19 has presented unparalleled challenges to Indo-Pacific fisheries. Supplying about 34 percent of the world’s tuna catch, the Pacific Islands’ tuna fisheries are conditional on the security and openness of the seas and the major global ports. With the extensive precautionary port closures, the region’s export fisheries have faced a devastating shock. Rising health risks on vessels remains a key issue, as many face outbreaks at sea, unhygienic crowded conditions, malnourishment, and a lack of medical supplies. Fishing already being a poorly-policed industry with connections to corruption and organized crime, many concerns are growing about the widening space for illicit fishing, as offshore law enforcement looks to domestic threats rather than to threats at sea (such as piracy, poaching, and smuggling). Covid-19 exacerbates these threats, particularly as more people are impacted and desperation grows.

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has overtaken piracy as the greatest maritime threat in the Indo-Pacific and around the world. IUU is a broad term, representing activities that can occur both on the high seas and in shallower waters, and in both international and national waters. It undercuts domestic and regional attempts to protect fishing supplies and endangered species. However, as a result of the great demand Covid-19 has put on governments, resources and attention have shifted towards domestic priorities and away from enforcing laws of the sea. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard have had to decrease or put on hold the number of military exercises and patrols they conduct, due to infections of personnel (the U.S. Navy alone has seen 12,546 Covid-19 cases, which has forced it to decrease patrolling). As a result, there are increased opportunities for IUU fishing. IUU fishing jeopardizes access to food, fisherman’s livelihoods, and the sustainability of the industry. Additionally, it erodes the sovereignty that nations have over their waters, undermining national security by setting a dangerous precedent and threatening resources.

Natural Terrestrial Habitats

Wildlife Trade

Despite the clear link between the illegal wildlife trade and public health—which is being further illuminated by Covid-19—illegal wildlife hunting is on the rise. Efforts have been made to curb wildlife trade and consumption in response to the pandemic outbreak, including China’s ban on the consumption of wild meat; however, these efforts have not been enough. Fueled by the economic desperation, food shortages, and reallocation of wildlife protection law enforcement resulting from the Covid-19 crisis, the Indo-Pacific has seen a drastic surge of poaching and hunting. While travel and trade restrictions hinder trade, extensive stockpiling has been reported on poached goods—such as large quantities of pangolin scales in Vietnam; large quantities of raw ivory in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; and other wildlife being hunted throughout, including tigers, palm civetsrhinoceros, and ibises.

Illegal Logging

Evidence has shown how loggers in the Indo-Pacific have taken advantage of the Covid-19 crisis, thanks to the extensive reduction of regulatory capacity as enforcement authorities have decreased monitoring and governments have deregulated businesses. Higher global rates of illegal logging have been widely reported since the lockdown, with particular increases in the Indo-Pacific region. The highest rates of illegal logging are in Cambodia, Nepal, Myanmar, and most drastically Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, which saw a loss of 1,300 square kilometers in March alone. In another example, there were almost as many instances of illegal extraction of timber and forest products in Nepal in the month following the lockdown as there were in the entire year prior. The economic impacts of Covid-19 have left populations unemployed and desperate, with urban-rural migration patterns sharply increasing along with the short-term exploitation of natural resources. These trends pose tremendous risks to ongoing protection and restoration efforts, thus increasing long-term threats to environmental security in the Indo-Pacific region.

Infrastructure and Spatial Planning Impact on Natural Resource Management

Poorly-designed infrastructure is a key factor in habitat destruction and poses one of the greatest threats to the environment. While infrastructure projects can certainly promote development, if not properly planned they can also lead to a sharp increase in land conversion for agriculture as well as illegal logging and wildlife trade. Beyond doing direct damage to local ecosystems, these unintended consequences of poor infrastructure design also bring human beings into even greater contact with wildlife, thus increasing the likelihood of future zoonotic disease transmission. Promoting growth while also safeguarding the environment requires proper planning of ports and infrastructure projects, designing them so that they provide economic benefits to local communities while limiting the likelihood of unintended secondary activities taking place around them. With its vast experience supporting these types of projects, USAID could and should take the lead in promoting sustainable spatial planning in the Indo-Pacific going forward.

De-urbanization/Reverse Migration Impacts on Natural Resources due to Covid-19

The impact of Covid-19 will pause—and may reverse—recent urbanization trends in the Indo-Pacific. Prior to Covid-19, the region had seen rapid urbanization, as developing countries worked to shift their traditional agricultural economies towards either manufacturing-based or service and tourism-based economies. However, due to the tremendous health concerns of crowded urban areas, not to mention the challenges and shortcomings of the manufacturing and tourism-based economies, Covid-19 has led to an increase in urban-to-rural migration. Workers in urban centers have been affected by massive supply chain shocks and manufacturing shutdowns, and many have been fired and forced to return to traditional, rural communities and economies. In Bangladesh alone, an estimated 5.5 to 10 million migrants working in Dhaka have returned to their rural homes. Given that the region’s transition from rural to urban economies is recent—and in some cases still ongoing—de-urbanization and the retreat to traditional economies will come naturally to people in the Indo-Pacific region. The World Bank reports that “the majority [of migrant workers] risks falling back into rural poverty,” and the International Labor Organization (ILO) predicts that as many as 400 million Indians working in the informal economy may fall into poverty because of Covid-19. Many of these informal laborers are migrants, who, if they lose their jobs in cities, may have no alternative but to return to their homes and pursue rural livelihoods such as farming and fishing.  

Not only has this migration posed a great health risk for the uninfected destination rural areas, but it could also lead to a repetition of the patterns that precipitated the Covid-19 outbreak in the first place. As the region sees an influx of urban-to-rural migration, rural areas and the natural capital that underpins those populations will be under unprecedented stress. With growing desperation and little opportunity in both urban and rural areas, many people in the Indo-Pacific will be forced to rely on the environment in ways that threaten the security of both humans and the environment. The Indo-Pacific will see an increase of unsustainable and illicit environmental activities, such as illegal fishing, poaching, wildlife trade, and illegal logging. Greater environmental protections and safeguards will need to be implemented and strengthened, and natural resource management and protection will become a primary security interest.

Opportunities for USAID Involvement in the Post-pandemic Recovery

In a time where unemployment is on the rise and many people in the Indo-Pacific have been forced to return to more agricultural-based economies, Covid-19 has pushed individuals increasingly towards illicit activities such as illegal logging. This threatens not only the sustainability of the environment and the economies that rely on these resources, but also increases human interactions with the environment, augmenting the chances that they will come in contact with another zoonotic disease. With the rest of the world distracted by Covid-19, China has created administrative districts in the South China Sea and expanded its soft-power influence through its Health Silk Roads initiative. Both the illicit activities and China’s growing influence in the region are not new problems, but they have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. USAID’s adjustments to their Indo-Pacific Strategy security pillar should therefore focus on mitigating the impact of increased human interaction with the environment and of China’s increased disregard for environmental norms in the region through its continued development of its Belt and Road Initiative.

As stated above, most of the threats posed by Covid-19 are not new, but rather amplified by the crisis. This means that USAID already has tools available to address them, which may just require a few adjustments. These alterations should be made through a data-driven approach in order to predict how Covid-19 will affect the priorities of each program.

Most of the threats posed by Covid-19 are not new, but rather amplified by the crisis.

Existing USAID Programs

USAID Fish Right (Philippines)

USAID Fish Right is a partnership between the Government of the Philippines and USAID. The partnership has the overall objective of increasing fish biomass by 10 percent. To do this, it seeks to improve fishery management and climate resilience in the marine key biodiversity areas of the Calamianes, Southern Negros, and Visayan Seas, USAID Fish Right also works to address and deter IUU fishing, which threatens the livelihoods of the approximately 60 percent of the Filipino population which lives in coastal zones and depends on coastal resources. The partnership involves close coordination with multiple actors—including coastal communities, multiple tiers of government, and the private sector—to limit harmful and unsustainable fishing practices, which the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources estimates loses the Philippines nearly 68.5 billion pesos a year. The goal of this program is to enhance the livelihoods and climate resilience of local communities. The project is supported by a team of implementation partners, including PATH Foundation Philippines, the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center, and others.


USAID works with INTERPOL’s Environmental Security Sub-Directorate to protect endangered animals threatened by the illegal wildlife trade, including tigers, snow leopards, rhinos, elephants, pangolins, turtles, birds, and more. Illegal wildlife trade networks span countries and continents, so USAID collaborates with INTERPOL to support its enforcement response efforts globally through advanced intelligence-led methods of investigation, regional investigative and analytical case meetings, workshops, and trainings. Officers from Asia to Africa come together to share knowledge, discuss cases, and disrupt criminal networks once they are identified. USAID’s collaboration with INTERPOL has successfully enabled implementation in five areas: capacity building, operation planning, intelligence, international fora, and strengthening the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN). INTERPOL also works as a connector, facilitating meetings where different member countries can come together to improve their wildlife enforcement measures, their case analysis and target prioritization, and their understanding of the supply chains that illegal networks rely upon. 

USAID Mekong Safeguards 

USAID Mekong Safeguards provide development actors with the tools and guidance they need to adhere to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards as they pursue infrastructure development projects in the Lower Mekong Region, whether as policy makers, government regulators, financiers, or contractors. By promoting local solutions, transparent decision-making, and the private sector as a catalyst for development, the Safeguards support the U.S. Government’s Indo-Pacific Vision in the region. An estimated 70 million people rely on the Mekong River Basin for their livelihoods and for its biodiversity. As major donors and lenders—like China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism, and the AyeyawadyChao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy Infrastructure Fund—accelerate their infrastructure investments in the region, sound environmental and social safeguards are paramount to ensuring that development does not have a negative impact on local environments and communities. Implemented by The Asia Foundation in collaboration with the Global Environment Institute and the Stimson Center, USAID Mekong Safeguards help ensure that countries adhere to ESG standards so that new infrastructure development has optimal environmental and social outcomes for the region’s communities.

Expand or Alter Existing Programs

USAID should adjust the programs listed above based on an assessment of how Covid-19 will impact each program’s area of focus. For example, with the Fish Right program, USAID, with the help of its partners, could carry out a study on how the change in fishing habits due to Covid-19 will alter the average biomass of fish. Based on this study, USAID can determine if and how it should adjust its program. The same holds true for USAID’s collaboration with INTERPOL, where the partners should work together to assess how illegal wildlife trading has changed because of Covid-19 and how the program should adjust accordingly. Programs focusing on the environment can have a great impact, such as continuing to provide clean water and reducing flooding. In many cases, the infrastructure in response to Covid-19 already exists, but USAID should employ a data-driven approach to adapt its applicable programs.

Outside of these existing programs, USAID also has a strong history of both disaster relief operations and development assistance, which could be instrumental in responding to the Covid-19 crisis. Going forward, the agency could expand past its existing programs to deepen its coordination with local communities, leveraging their knowledge of the landscape to better implement natural solutions, such as sustainable agricultural practices that restore watersheds and reduce the incidence of future flooding.

Create a New “One Health” Program

A “One Health” approach to public health encourages the collaboration and coordination of human, animal, and environmental health sectors. One Health recognizes that these different sectors are closely intertwined, and that sustained improvements in one domain cannot be made without simultaneously working to improve the others. For example, Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, which is likely to have emerged from close contact between animals and humans in a highly urbanized environment. Despite the uncertainty of Covid-19’s origins, the pandemic and the economic disruption that it has caused have forced human beings into even more unsustainable interactions with animals and natural environments. Improving any one of the fallout areas from Covid-19 requires tackling multiple components of public health—not only the wellbeing of humans, but also that of the animals and environments that humans interact with.

It is important to develop various environmental, social, and governmental standards to create infrastructure regulations, environmental protections, and public health requirements as part of a new One Health approach. Implementing environmental standards is essential to limiting the environmental damage of future unsustainable development projects. Social standards would safeguard livelihoods and ensure that projects have a positive impact on the communities they interact with. Governance standards would ensure the transparency of project funding and management. USAID is well positioned to advocate for widespread standards: through its Mekong Safeguards, the agency is already providing its partners in the public and private sectors with formal guidance on standards, intended to safeguard human and environmental health as they pursue new infrastructure development in the Mekong River Basin region. Implementing the ESG standards of the Mekong Safeguards program across the entire Indo-Pacific would be an enormous step towards ensuring the overall security of the region. It would protect the human, animal, and environmental health of the region as it pursues infrastructure development and economic growth going forward. This could be an integral part of the One Health approach that is necessary to limiting the possibility of future health crises.

Interagency Collaboration: Indo-Pacific Forum on the Impact of Covid-19 on Natural Resource Management

A way for the U.S. government to align priorities in response to the current pandemic would be to hold a forum on Interagency Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific on the Impact of Covid-19 on Natural Resource Management.

It is important to note that USAID does not stand alone within the U.S. government in its commitment to natural resource management in the Indo-Pacific region. Other U.S. agencies have stepped up their natural resource management activities—especially around the growing issue of IUU fishing—and each agency brings different strengths to the table based on its mission.

Other U.S. Government Indo-Pacific Natural Resource Management Programs

The U.S. State Department’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, first launched in 2017, has expanded the capacity of U.S. agencies to collaborate with partners in the region to combat practices that damage coastal environments. Additionally, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) sees the protection of marine wildlife as a core part of its mission to sustain fisheries, ensure fishermen’s livelihoods, and maintain long-term sustainability.

The Coast Guard has the unique ability to promote targeted intelligence-driven enforcement opportunities, counter predatory state behavior, and expand multilateral cooperation. For the past three years, the USCG has increased its operations in the Indo-Pacific, and it projects a $8.1 million increase in its operational missions budget for 2021. In addition to expanded patrolling capabilities, initiatives include personnel training and intelligence-sharing programs designed to build the capacity of local authorities to deter IUU fishing and uphold their maritime sovereignty. “Ship-rider” agreements also allow local officials to ride along USCG vessels in order to execute searches of vessels suspected to be engaged in illicit maritime activities.

A top priority for IPS is “enhancing resilience to environmental challenges,” and as part of this strategy it was determined that the State Department would take the lead in working with interagency partners to protect water quality. It was also agreed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would protect coral reefs, and that USAID, the Defense Department, and the Coast Guard would all be tasked with responding to disasters together. A forum can offer U.S. agencies the opportunity to discuss future capacity-building partnerships designed to reduce natural resource exploitation in the region. It would be useful for a (likely virtual) forum to be held on how the U.S. government should respond to Covid-19’s impact on natural resource management in the Indo-Pacific, as it could lead to determining the various roles and areas of coordination for multiple agencies in the face of the pandemic and its consequences.

Finally, as part of a whole-of-government approach, USAID should push to reinstate natural resource management or general environmental security as a top priority in the National Security Strategy for the Indo-Pacific region. This is a non-partisan issue, with every administration since Reagan including it in its strategy: without proper resource management, people and companies are forced to resort to illicit activities that harm the sustainability of industries and ecosystems in the long run. The United States should therefore signal its commitment to the issue and put in the necessary resources to address natural resource management as a national security priority.

Continue to Work with Allies

Just as the U.S. government is stronger when it works together, the United States will also be more successful if it cooperates with its allies across the region. With China continuing to expand its influence, it is more important than ever that USAID remain committed to working with its allies to maintain and promote environmental security in the Indo-Pacific. USAID should play to its own strengths and work with its partners on areas that are not within its mandate. USAID has a particular advantage when it comes to natural resource management, with its strong presence on the ground and experience with governance issues. USAID has the opportunity to focus on training conventional and district authorities to execute proper spatial planning, create sustainable infrastructure, and institute environmental protections. Through this, USAID must promote transparency and the rule of law.

Natural resource management, climate change, biodiversity, and environmental safeguards are common elements within the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific conceptIndia’s Act East PolicyAustralia’s Indo-Pacific conceptthe Republic of Korea’s New Southern Policy, and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP). Under the third pillar of commitment for peace and stability, Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept also focuses deeply on disaster risk reduction, marine resource protection, and forest conservation. The United States and its allies are already committed to these environmental protections and regulations in the Indo-Pacific region and should therefore work together on responding to environmental security concerns arising from Covid-19.

Multiple U.S. agencies like USAID and the USCG have a history of strong and mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation with the different countries of the Indo-Pacific region. Going forward, these agencies—and the United States in general—can broaden their ongoing collaboration by strengthening multilateral alliances to enforce maritime security in the region. Specifically, illicit actors in the region and IUU fishing operations are adept at exploiting variations in regulations across countries in order to sustain their operations, even when one or multiple affected countries ramp up enforcement. Limiting such evasion depends on getting all U.S. allies in the region on the same page—a challenging task that can only be accomplished by using multilateral frameworks. These frameworks already exist. For example, the USCG, State Department, and NOAA are already active in the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), whose goal is to strengthen the regional solidarity of its 17 members. Investing in multilateral organizations like the FFA would make enforcement not only more effective, but also more efficient, as it would ensure that resources devoted to scaling up activities in one jurisdiction do not simply redirect challenges to other jurisdictions.

Additionally, several of the USAID programs listed above, such as USAID Fish Right, already involve USAID working with allies. As USAID adjusts some of those programs, the relationships and coordination with allies will be vital to success. USAID should also continue to find existing initiatives, agreements, and programs that can be adapted to address challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, through the Blue Dot Network, the U.S. and its allies can promote sustainable infrastructure around the region. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement can also form a template for the implementation of natural resource governance in the region, even if natural resource management was not put into the final agreement.

USAID and other U.S. agencies should also encourage multilateral institutions to be more effective enforcers of environmental protection standards in the region. The United States should lean on its regional allies to lodge complaints against China and other countries who violate environmental regulations. U.S. agencies like USAID would be key in this endeavor because of their history of close partnership and cooperation with individual states in the region. Agencies could also liaise with local governments on specific issues in preparation for coordinated action in multilateral fora. Regional bodies like ASEAN may be useful for this endeavor, but the United States should also target more politically charged bodies, such as the United Nations. A multilateral approach should not be ignored, as it can provide a useful platform for capacity-building and more effective strengthening and implementation of existing agreements.

Multilateral efforts are already being made to combat the effects of Covid-19 in the Indo-Pacific region and to ensure environmental security. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has developed a green recovery approach to Covid-19 in the Indo-Pacific. This approach addresses key environmental issues and proposes green, sustainable solutions in the following areas: air quality and hygiene, wildlife protection and ecosystem restoration, urban agriculture and food security, green livelihood investment, climate and disaster resilience, and environmental sustainability financing. In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, the World Bank’s environmental efforts in East Asia and the Pacific have partly shifted to curbing illegal wildlife trade and habitat degradation that pose regional health and security risks. USAID should learn from the successes and challenges of these programs, as well as find ways to coordinate with these multilateral organizations.

Increase Involvement with the Private Sector

USAID has long recognized the private sector’s potential to enhance livelihoods in the developing world. In the words of former USAID administrator Mark Green, “Private enterprise is the single most powerful force for lifting lives, strengthening communities, and accelerating self-reliance.” Nevertheless, it is also true that unregulated and irresponsible private interests can harm communities and the natural environments in which they live. This is especially relevant to the Indo-Pacific, where widespread IUU fishing and wildlife destruction has had enormous environmental and economic costs.

Going forward, USAID can play a key role in supporting private sector activity that safeguards human and environmental health. The market responds to incentives, and when incentives do not align with sustainability, harmful business practices emerge. USAID is well positioned to alter the incentive structure of developing markets with the aim of making environmentally and socially sustainable practices more viable, even outside of the projects it directly contributes to. One possible approach would be for USAID to create its own clear and comprehensive system of ESG standards so that private enterprises could consistently be rated on their commitment to sustainability. Not only would this improve the quality and resilience of projects taking place in the region, but it would also provide an opportunity for USAID and other agencies to leverage branding in order to nudge producers and consumers towards more environmentally friendly activities. Example model initiatives could include the Forest Stewardship Council certification or a voluntary set of principles like the Kimberley Process, which seeks to remove conflict diamonds from global supply chains. For instance, if lumber from the region were produced sustainably, socially responsibly, and transparently, forestry activities would be determined to meet an ESG rating threshold set by USAID. Enterprises working in this way could then receive a certification and be branded differently than lumber that is produced less sustainably, thus helping consumers differentiate between products. Branding and publicizing the enterprises that meet these standards would also be important for signaling their sustainability commitment to partners, stakeholders, and communities. The long-term objective would be to create a market environment where meeting ESG standards would be a priority for all private sector actors. As sustainable-marketed goods continue to grow over non-sustainable goods, the ultimate goal would be to incentivize sustainable production in key industries that are currently unsustainable.Moreover, ESG standards could build off the work of the DFC and the “Blue Dot Network,” which seeks to bring better standards to global infrastructure development. USAID could further accomplish this by working with industry or industry groups to help establish additional standards, as there is also room for private companies to develop their own climate solutions and evidence to suggest that sustainable energy alternatives have high potential for job creation. Given USAID’s history of close partnership with the private sector, as well as the growing recognition that safeguarding the environment supports long-term business growth, this objective is very much within reach.


The Covid-19 crisis started when humans came in contact with the SARS-CoV-2 virus; however, the crisis has caused many people to interact with the environment more, increasing the chance of another outbreak and damaging ecosystems. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic has forced people—especially in the Indo-Pacific region—to return to more traditional economies that rely on natural terrestrial habitats and oceans. With many governments focused domestically, other actors are increasing illicit activities such as IUU fishing and illegal logging are having detrimental impacts on the environment. Finally, China is offering health assistance while simultaneously building administrative districts in the contested South China Sea and ignoring international environmental standards in its infrastructure projects. All of these issues existed before the pandemic began, but Covid-19 has exacerbated them. For this reason, USAID already has a lot of the tools necessary to respond to the crises, and in many cases only needs to alter its programs accordingly. USAID also should not and cannot do everything on its own; it should work with other agencies through a forum to ensure strong coordination on the issue. USAID should partner with its allies to show commitment to international environmental standards, and it should work with the private sector to promote effective natural resource management in the Indo-Pacific.

Originally published on on October 9, 2020.

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