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Could keeping forests standing help keep viruses at bay?

19 mars 2020

Written by: Hannah Mowat

Could keeping forests standing help keep viruses at bay?

For most people – an obvious exception being those who lived through the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014 – the coronavirus pandemic marks a sudden, disorienting lurch into the unknown.

Lives, businesses and whole economies are being upended at a startling speed. 

In the midst of this global shutdown, however, links are being made to the longer-term challenges: the destruction of our natural world, and the climate emergency. “The crises echo each other in some unshakeable ways,” says David Wallace-Wells, author of the Uninhabitable Earth. 

It would be rash to draw definitive conclusions or make potentially spurious links in such a rapidly changing situation. But for those seeking to protect the world’s forests, there is, among the saturation coronavirus coverage, plenty of authoritative, thought provoking material worth diving into, as we recalibrate ourselves towards whatever new reality emerges in the pandemic’s wake.

This week, Nature published genetic data, analysed with astonishing speed, that strongly suggests that the virus originated from pangolins, rather than bats, as originally thought. 

Writing in The Nation, science journalist and author Sonia Shah, noted though: “The virus’s animal origin is a critical mystery to solve. But speculation about which wild creature originally harboured the virus obscures a more fundamental source of our growing vulnerability to pandemics: the accelerating pace of habitat loss.” 

She went on: “Since 1940, hundreds of microbial pathogens have either emerged or re-emerged into new territory where they’ve never been seen before. They include HIV, Ebola in West Africa, Zika in the Americas, and a bevy of novel coronaviruses. The majority of them—60 percent—originate in the bodies of animals. Some come from pets and livestock. Most of them—more than two-thirds—originate in wildlife. But that’s not the fault of wild animals The problem is the way that cutting down forests and expanding towns, cities, and industrial activities creates pathways for animal microbes to adapt to the human body.” 

These ideas were echoed by Dr Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director of The Centre for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard, who in a fascinating interview with Inside Climate News, was careful not to draw direct links between environmental destruction and the coronavirus, but observed: “If you look at climate change, we have transformed the nature of the earth… We have, as a species, grown up in partnership with the planet and life we live with. So when we change the rules of the game, we shouldn’t expect that it won’t affect our health, for better or worse. That’s true of the climate. And the same principle holds for the emergence of infections.” 

“Wildfires, which destroy forests and habitat, can lead to human-animal interfaces that wouldn't have happened,” Dr Bernstein added. “Because when animals lose their homes they're going to go somewhere else. Climate change is a destabilizing force when it comes to the spread of infection through several potential pathways.” A few days after this interview was published, humans’ enduring capacity for destruction, was underlined in a shocking Mongabay report. The article revealed how, just as the coronavirus is spreading more widely in Brazil, an evangelical Christian missionary group was planning to contact and convert isolated Amazon Indigenous groups. 

The missionary group, Ethnos360, were previously known as the New Tribes Mission and are notorious for spreading disease among the isolated Indigenous Zo’é people, who subsequently lost a third of their population to malaria and influenza. 

The French media have also run pieces exploring the links between epidemics and our destruction of the natural world. 

The weekly Paris magazine, Marianne, carried an interview with Serge Morand, research director at the CNRS (Institut des sciences de l'évolution de Montpellier), in which he outlined that the greater the amount of biodiversity, the more infectious diseases there are - though there is little risk of them transferring to humans and becoming epidemics. Once biodiversity is endangered, however, the risks increase. 

TV5 Monde picked up on these themes, although Le Figaro has struck a cautionary note on whether the coronavirus itself is linked to deforestation. 

The unmistakeable conclusion to draw from all these reports, however, is a message that many working to protect forests and human rights have been saying for years: we must protect and restore our natural world, and allow nature to run wild in our forests as opposed to in our cities. Protecting forests will help safeguard our future. 

What’s more, in these trying present times, they can offer us sanctuary and respite. 

As one of our partners, the US NGO, Dogwood Alliance, eloquently put it: “This crisis has reminded us why forests are so important and why we must remain diligent in protecting them. Getting out in forests and nature can be one of the best forms of social distancing. Forests help calm our spirits, help relieve anxiety and stress.” 

In these troubled times, Fern will be working as hard as ever to ensure the EU is aware of the new evidence for why protecting – and restoring – forests is crucial to healthy life on earth. 

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