Why Healthy Forests Mean Fewer Pandemics

COVID-19, SARS, and Ebola were transmitted to humans
from wild animals living in tropical forests. Destroying
their habitats is killing us.

As scientists continue
to research the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, one fact
has become clear: Deforestation is linked to emerging
diseases. When humans destroy forests to create land for
human use, whether it’s for farming, mining, logging,
infrastructure development, or urban expansion, biodiversity
is diminished
. And as some species go extinct, the ones
that remain and even flourish in degraded forest
ecosystems—like bats, rats, and birds—are those that are
more likely to be hosts for deadly viruses that can jump to

COVID-19, SARS, and Ebola—three infectious
diseases that spread across national borders since
2002—share one thing in common: They were transmitted to
humans from wild animals living in tropical forests, which
are losing more
than 100 trees per second
due to rampant, unsustainable
deforestation. It is also important to note that cutting
down trees negatively impacts not only biodiversity and
human health but the climate: Deforestation is responsible
for 30
percent of global carbon emissions

Activity Creating Reservoirs of Zoonotic

Researchers in England examined over 6,800
ecological communities across six continents and found
trends connecting disease outbreaks to regions where
biodiversity has been diminished due to human activity.
Their study,
published in the journal Nature in August 2020, concluded
that “global changes in the mode and the intensity of land
use are creating expanding hazardous interfaces between
people, livestock and wildlife reservoirs of zoonotic

Some scientists had been sounding this
alarm for many years, but it had fallen on deaf ears.
“We’ve been warning about this for decades,” said Kate
Jones, an ecologist at University College
who was one of the study’s authors. “Nobody
paid any attention.”

Calls to Maintain Healthy

Now is the time for governments to pay
attention to the science: To prevent the next pandemic,
efforts must be made to rein in rampant deforestation. In an
published in the journal Science in July 2020, a group of
scientists made the case that reducing both deforestation
and the wildlife trade would result in a lower risk of
future pandemics. “The clear link between deforestation
and virus emergence suggests that a major effort to retain
intact forest cover would have a large return on investment
even if its only benefit was to reduce virus emergence
events,” they write.

Epidemiologist Ibrahima Socé
Fall, who heads emergency operations at the World Health Organization in
Geneva, Switzerland, echoes that call. “Sustainable
development is crucial,” he said.
“If we continue to have this level of deforestation,
disorganized mining, and unplanned development, we are going
to have more outbreaks.”

Sustainable Development
Means Sustainable Livelihoods

Investing in
sustainable solutions also means investing in sustainable
livelihoods. And so part of reducing deforestation is
understanding the needs of rural communities living in or
alongside forests, including providing economic incentives
to protect the natural ecosystems around them. Giving
Indigenous groups legal rights to their land is one way. In
2009 in India’s Narmada District, for example, villagers
were able to secure legal rights to their land and
resources, which led to more sustainable land

“Being secure in the knowledge that they
own their land has meant that these communities have an
incentive to protect and improve it for the future,” writes
Edward Davey, the international engagement director of the
Food and
Land Use Coalition
, an initiative to improve the
world’s food and land use systems. “Villagers can now
invest in actions like leveling, terracing, and irrigating
farmland for greater productivity. Some villages are also
taking steps to prevent illegal forest clearing and forest
fires, by patrolling the forest and brokering community
agreements to manage fire.”

In addition, research
indicates that improving rural healthcare can lead to a
reduction in illegal logging. In one study
conducted by researchers from the United States and
Indonesia, villagers in rural Borneo were given discounts on
health clinic visits, which offset the medical costs that
were often paid for by illegal logging. “The greatest
logging reductions were adjacent to the most highly engaged
villages,” write the study authors. “Results suggest
that this community-derived solution simultaneously improved
health care access for local and indigenous communities and
sustainably conserved carbon stocks in a protected tropical

Advocacy Groups Call for Action

early 2021, several environmental groups and advocacy
organizations co-sponsored a public
—signed by more than 87,000 people as of July
2023—urging the Biden administration and Congress to curb
deforestation in an effort to lower the risk of the next
pandemic. Specifically, the petition calls for $2.5 billion
in the next COVID relief bill to “support healthcare and
jobs training for indigenous people in every tropical
rainforest community, and support impoverished nations to
build the healthcare systems to stop outbreaks before they

The petition’s sponsors, which include
Brazilian Rainforest Trust, Endangered Species Coalition,
and Mighty Earth, argue that “[e]nding deforestation is
our best chance to conserve wildlife, one of the quickest
and most cost-effective ways to curb global warming, and
absolutely crucial to prevent the next deadly, global

“We are all interconnected,” famed
primatologist Jane Goodall told
PBS NewsHour. “And if we don’t get that lesson from this
pandemic, then maybe we never will.”

By Reynard

Author Bio: Reynard
is a co-founder of the
, where he is the environment
and animal
editor. He is also a writing fellow at the Independent
Media Institute
, where he serves as the editor and chief
correspondent for
Earth | Food | Life
. He previously served as the
environment, food, and animal rights editor at AlterNet and
as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering
sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was
named one of FilterBuy’s Top 50 Health and Environmental
Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published
by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, Asia
Times, Pressenza, and EcoWatch, among others. He volunteers
with New York City Pigeon Rescue

Source: Independent
Media Institute

This article was produced by Earth
| Food | Life
, a project of the Independent Media

© Scoop Media


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