How Deforestation Drives the Outbreak of Diseases
Wed, April 14, 2021

How Deforestation Drives the Outbreak of Diseases

The world is slowly losing its coverage of forest land from deforestation. These once unreachable lands are now easily accessed and repurposed for agriculture and grazing / Photo by: Marten_House via Shutterstock

 

The world is slowly losing its coverage of forest land from deforestation. These once unreachable lands are now easily accessed and repurposed for agriculture and grazing. Developing these lands help push for the progress of the said industries, but they also come at a significant cost.

The growing occurrence of deforestation in these areas is displacing the various wildlife found in these forested lands—and as these forms of wildlife come close to humans, so do the diseases they carry.


Losing Coverage

Forests provide people with food, medicine, and fuel as well as direct jobs for 13.4 million people and another 41 million for forested-related jobs. However, the said resources are inaccessible due to the condensed and undeveloped swaths of land. This changed with the construction of new roads through dense forests.

Harvesting forest resources come with deforestation, most of which are happening in the tropics today. According to science news site Live Science, a report from the University of Maryland showed that tropical countries have lost about 61,000 square miles of forest in 2017. It may not seem big, but that's the equivalent of the entire land area of Bangladesh.

Estimates from the World Bank show that the world has lost about 3.9 million square miles of forest since the start of the 20th century. The last 25 years also saw the loss of another 502,000 square miles of forested areas—that's an area bigger than South Africa.

A forest area the size of a soccer field is lost to deforestation every second, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimates that it escalates to 14,800 square miles (the size of Switzerland) every year. The UCS says tropical forests are cleared to accommodate just four commodities: beef, soy, palm oil, and wood products.

Deforestation begins with harvesting timber and ends with burning away remaining vegetation to make space for crops or cattle grazing. Fires burned in the Amazon have increased by nearly 80% since last year—with over 80,000 fires—while human-lit flames also surged in Brazil this year.

Increasing deforestation may provide humans with the resources they need, but this comes with tipping the natural balance of nature. Losing forest areas doesn't just mean decreasing the number of trees in the world; it also means pushing disease-carrying species closer to human habitats and increasing the risks of spreading deadly diseases. 

A Numbers Game

In 1997, Malaysia was struck by a then-unknown disease that originated from a virus known as Nipah. The Nipah virus was later identified to have been carried by fruit bats from Indonesia, which flew to the neighboring country in search of food.

Now, the bats wouldn't have to migrate to find food only if the trees in Indonesia continued to bore fruit. And the cause for the lack of this resource? The burning of a rainforest area to make way for agriculture that left remaining trees smothered in haze and preventing them from bearing fruit.

The spread of the Nipah virus and conditions linked to it is just one of the many infectious diseases, usually confined to wildlife, that made their way to people living in or near areas undergoing deforestation. The National Geographic reports that deforestation creates conditions for an array of deadly viruses to emerge and spread to people—and a growing body of evidence backs it up.

For example, instances of malaria in Brazil are rising as rapid forest clearing and expansion of agriculture continue. Scientists estimate that between 2003 and 2015, an estimated average of 10% yearly increase in forest loss contributed to a 3% increase in malaria cases.

The National Geographic says this outcome was greatly observed inside the forest where some patches are still intact, thus providing the most edge habitat that mosquitoes prefer.

"It’s pretty well established that deforestation can be a strong driver of infectious disease transmission," said Andy MacDonald, a disease ecologist at the Earth Research Institute of the University of California.

"It’s a numbers game: The more we degrade and clear forest habitats, the more likely it is that we’re going to find ourselves in these situations where epidemics of infectious diseases occur."

In 1997, Malaysia was struck by a then-unknown disease that originated from a virus known as Nipah. The Nipah virus was later identified to have been carried by fruit bats from Indonesia, which flew to the neighboring country in search of food / Photo by:


Ending Deforestation

Many infectious diseases originating from wild species would've been prevented if their hosts were not displaced from their natural habitat. Ending deforestation will not only help in addressing this issue but it is also "our best chance to conserve wildlife and defend the rights of forest communities," and curb global warming, says environmental organization Greenpeace.

There are simple ways people can end the increasing loss of the world's forests. One of which is demanding companies to implement "zero deforestation" policies to clean up their supply chains.

"That means holding their suppliers accountable for producing commodities like timber, beef, soy, palm oil and paper in a way that does not fuel deforestation and has a minimal impact on our climate," Greenpeace explains.

Ending deforestation will not only help in addressing this issue but it is also "our best chance to conserve wildlife and defend the rights of forest communities," and curb global warming, says environmental organization Greenpeace / Photo by: Tarcisio Schnaider via Shutterstock

 

Another way is to stand with Indigenous Peoples, whose homes are found in the forests. Fighting with them for their rights to traditional lands against companies who overlook these rights will help maintain the integrity of forest lands.

Making informed choices every day can go a long way. Greenpeace says avoiding single-use packaging, eating sustainable food, or opting to buy less stuff can make one "be part of the movement to protect forests."

Governments should also be held responsible for protecting nature and respecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples. World leaders should embrace research-based conservation policies that will allow their citizens to have a world void of any severe climate disruption.