More Than Cutting Trees: The Pandemic-inducing Effects of Deforestation

A picture of Rio de Janeiro depicting the proximity of forested lands and human residence
A picture of Rio de Janeiro depicting the proximity of forested lands and human residence

To many, deforestation is a word that can be defined rather easily. When asked, one would probably respond with something along the lines of, “It involves the destruction of trees and forests”. While they are certainly not misinformed about deforestation, there are many byproducts of deforestation and side effects of cutting down trees that more than meets the eye.

There is a worldwide pandemic going on in today’s world. All across the globe, albeit to different extents, the Covid-19 virus has made its name renown. To this day, there are more than 7.2 million cases of positive patients worldwide, and the number steadily grows in regions where medical resources and awareness is not as pertinent; furthermore, this number is often in question due to the inevitable fact that there is no way of keeping track of every single individual who has contracted the virus. Where did this virus originate, and what are some unknown causes for such a worldwide pandemic?

Emma Newburger from CNBC points out, “Scientists say the coronavirus pandemic is the most recent instance of how human degradation of wildlife habitats is linked to the spread of infectious diseases. Research has found that Covid-19 likely originated in a horseshoe bat and was then transmitted through another animal”. In other words, the origin of the coronavirus can be traced back to the original environmental degradation of natural habitats of organisms such as the horseshoe bat, forcing a convergence of habitats between humans and animals, leading to the spreading of viruses. She writes, “Habitat destruction like deforestation and agricultural development on wildland are increasingly forcing disease-carrying wild animals closer to humans, allowing new strains of infectious diseases to thrive”.

Roger Frutos, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Montpellier in France also adds in the article that with deforestation, we are creating a mosaic of [other organisms’] environment that is closer to that of humans, thus the presence of insects in houses and bats in sheds. Newburger takes this idea and emphasizes that bats are not likely to transmit viruses given their presence in wild habitats, but through increased human exposure caused by deforestation, there is an inevitable increase in virus transmission. She adds an alarming fact that there may be more than 3,000 strains of coronavirus that could already exist in bats and thus could be transmitted to humans. If left unchecked, deforestation could cause more human exposure to said strains and ultimately danger the state of mankind – which is clearly not an overstatement given current events.

Preserving habitats for wildlife is not just about animals; it is about human health. This is what many fail to realize; intact forests, which are so crucial in maintaining the respective region’s biodiversity, are down to 15% what it once was, according to the World Resources Institute. Yes, the logging and mining of vast rainforests like the Amazon aggravates wildfires and Covid-19 spread over expansive regions, but this can also be applied to local areas; deforestation at local levels can also increase the exposure of a small population to virus-carrying organisms. This extends to more than just Covid-19; this is a common trend that can be observed in many other diseases, such as the Nipha virus outbreak in Southeast Asia.

In 1997, massive regions of the rainforests in Indonesia were burned, trying to make room for agriculture. This forced resident organisms like fruit bats to find elsewhere for food, carrying deadly diseases with them. When these bats decided on the Malaysian orchards as their new habitats, the neighboring pigs began to fall sick – presumably after eating the fruit that the bats had nibbled on – and this spread to local pig farmers. In two years, hundreds of people had severe brain inflammation, and a little over a hundred people died; this became the first known outbreak of the Nipha virus, and there would be recurrent outbreaks in latter years.

All of this is to say that this is a specific example of how deforestation, like the widespread burning of Indonesian rainforests, forces the exposure of infectious diseases that would otherwise have been confined to wildlife. One of the most deadliest diseases in human history – malaria – has had strong ties to deforestation – there is a noticeable parallel between the number of cases and the increase in rapid forest clearing and expansion of agriculture.

Andy MacDonald, a disease ecologist at the Earth Research Institute of University of California, Santa Barbara and Stanford University’s Erin Mordecai have teamed up to report a significant impact of deforestation across the Amazon basin on malaria transmission through a complex analysis of satellite and health data. Between the years 2003 and 2015, they estimated a 10 percent yearly increase in forest loss led to a 3 percent increase in malaria cases. They point out that, “This effect was most pronounced in the interior of the forest, where some patches of forest are still intact, providing the moist edge habitat that the mosquitoes like”.

Deforestation in and of itself can lead to increased viral transmission, but sometimes it is what replaces the forest that attracts virus-carrying organisms. For example, in Liberia, palm oil plantations replace forests, which attract thousands of forest-dwelling mice who are lured to the new establishment by the abundance of palm fruit around these plantations. However, because humans regularly visit these plantations, when they come in contact with food or feces contaminated by virus-carrying rodents, they will end up contracting the Lapha virus, then undergoing hemorrhagic fever, a key respective symptom. Virus-carrying rodents have been spotted in deforested areas all over – in Panama, Bolivia, in Brazil, as well as Liberia.

Now then, what can we do? Stopping deforestation will not only reduce exposure to new disasters, but also inhibit the spreading of a long list of vicious diseases that originated from forest-dwelling organisms, which include those mentioned above.

As an article by Scientific American suggests, some key solutions include eating less meat, eating less processed foods, producing more food per hectare by developing crops that better resist drought (especially given climate change’s induction of long, deep droughts), and agroforestry techniques like planting trees in farm fields in order to increase crop yields. Lastly, if less food is wasted, there would be less of a strain of food production.

There are other ways to prevent pandemics. From a financial perspective, donations to local organizations are important and crucial to their sustenance and work. By supplying them with money, these reforestation programs and local organizations can equip themselves with resources in order to repair the damages of neighboring ecosystems, which can, as thoroughly emphasized, save thousands of lives from disease and suffering.

With that said, Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero is an organization that is focused on constructing a strategic corridor in Los Santos in order to connect the isolated ecosystems through a reforestation initiative; this connection is crucial for extending the wildlife habitat for respective organisms, which in turn, can spare the Azuero community from potential hazards. Viruses do not discriminate; they can impact the human population on any level – global or local.

The Azuero peninsula, which was once all tropical dry forest, is today only 7% forested. In fact, only 2% of tropical dry forests remain in the world today, making it one of the most endangered forest types. The expanding agricultural frontier in conjunction with ancestral practices (slash and burn, pesticide use, cattle grazing and riparian deforestation) causes the environment to lose its characteristic resiliency.

Reforestation in Azuero

This is where Fundacion Pro Eco Azuero steps in. Having to work against a hefty societal norm that seems to directly contradict their objectives is a tall task for any organization; however, they have gathered locals, collaborators, volunteers, and donors to repair the scattered ecosystems in the wake of destructive agricultural practices. With research, strategic mapping, educational community outreach, and closely monitored reforesting, FPEA has fleshed out their vision of an ecological corridor running across the province of Los Santos. This corridor is 80 kilometers long, with a 10 kilometer buffer zone on each side.

Providing the monetary means for FPEA to achieve this environmental cause is one of the most impactful ways to contribute, since it enables the organization to further enhance their cause, while also simultaneously improving the state of living for the nearby communities scattered along this 80 kilometer corridor in the Los Santos province. There are many prominent donors, including National Geographic, LATA Foundation and Fundación Natura. We cordially invite you to join the cause!

All in all, Andy Macdonald’s words resonate the most: “If we can conserve the environment, then perhaps we can also protect health…That I think is the silver lining that we should keep in mind”.


Works Cited

“Coronavirus (COVID-19).”

​Google News,​ Google,
news.google.com/covid19/map?hl=en-US.

Daniels, William. “Deforestation Is Leading to More Infectious Diseases in Humans.”

National Geographic​, 22 Nov. 2019,
www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/11/deforestation-leading-to-more-infectious-diseases-in-humans/.

Newburger, Emma. “Wildlife Habitat Destruction and Deforestation Will Cause More Deadly Pandemics like Coronavirus, Scientists Warn.”

​CNBC​, CNBC, 9 May 2020,
www.cnbc.com/2020/05/09/coronavirus-wildlife-habitat-destruction-will-cause-more-pandemics.html.

“Stopping Deforestation Can Prevent Pandemics.”

​Scientific American​, Scientific American,
www.scientificamerican.com/article/stopping-deforestation-can-prevent-pandemics1/.