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Impact of Deforestation for Public Health

Updated October 19, 2020
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There is no doubt that there was a rise in disease concern in the end of the year 2019 and the beginning of 2020. The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 has brought about the thoughts of what “how did this virus begin?”. As taught in the class ANP 360, the virus started in a “wet market” which will be described later within this paper, but will we ever really know what started it?

Probably not. Coronavirus is not the only virus/disease that has originated from a wild animal. Although outbreaks occurred many years ago, we seem to forget or just keep far back in our memories the Ebola virus, Lyme disease, yellow fever, Influenza, Malaria, and many more. Many of these diseases are due to the global impacts of deforestation and climate change. This paper will investigate background regarding the causes of deforestation and the effects it has on both human and animal populations and the natural habitats they live in. What we are investigating though, is how deforestation could lead to and has led to the development of emerging infectious diseases. This paper will also be investigating the possible solutions used and suggested to fix these issues by both myself and several cited journals/websites.

First things first, what is deforestation? According to the IUCN, “Deforestation occurs when forests are converted to non-forest uses, such as agriculture and road construction (“Deforestation and Forest Degradation.”, (2018). IUCN. www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/deforestation-and-forest-degradation.).” This then leads into the question, “what is climate change?” Climate change can be defined by “a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer (“Definition of Terms Used Within the DDC Pages.” IPCC DDC Glossary, www.ipcc-data.org/guidelines/pages/glossary/glossary_c.html.).” Deforestation can be dated all the way back to the 1600s to make room for agriculture, timber, urbanization, etc.

Wood was typically used to provide warmth and shelter, meanwhile the berries, flowers and nuts provided food for meals and medicinal remedies. “Burning, according to 19th- and early-20th-century accounts, also took place for other reasons, notably to flush out rebels, to kill or drive off wild animals and mosquitoes, and to clear up decaying matter considered the cause of illnesses. There was also much accidental burning of forests, in many cases because of failure to extinguish campfires, or in the process of smoking out bees for their honey (Pankhurst, R. (1995). The History of Deforestation and Afforestation in Ethiopia Prior to World War I. Northeast African Studies, 2(1), new series, 119-133.).” In more recent years, fragmentation has been the product of deforestation especially in areas like the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil.

“By 2003, Brazil was cutting down about 2.7 hectares of tropical forest per year…deforestation then accounted for roughly three-quarters of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions (Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies. Reducing Deforestation to Fight Climate Change. Council on Foreign Relations, 2015, www.jstor.org/stable/resrep16756.)”. We bring up greenhouse emissions because the high levels of carbon dioxide are warming our planet, causing the polar icecaps to melt, leading to higher sea levels as well. Getting back on track, deforestation has led to many disease outbreaks. By cutting down trees, we are taking away the homes of many indigenous animal populations and forcing them into human civilization. As stated in an article, published in 2005, “Approximately three fourths of human emerging infectious diseases are caused by zoonotic pathogens (1).

These include agents responsible for global mortality (e.g., HIV-1 and -2, influenza virus) and others that cause limited deaths but result in high case-fatality rates and for which no effective therapies or vaccines exist (Wolfe, N. D., Daszak, P., Kilpatrick, A. M., & Burke, D. S. (2005). Bushmeat Hunting, Deforestation, and Prediction of Zoonotic Disease. Emerging Infectious Diseases).” This journal article in particular was very informative on the front that it investigated and reported on deforestation’s impact on increasing the contact between humans and wildlife, bushmeat hunting/consuming, as well as, including a case study on the topics previously listed. Shown in the table below is the case study that is spoken about in the article. This case study investigated the emergence of infectious diseases within Cameroon

“Cameroon is representative of the region from which a range of notable emerging infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola and Marburg viruses, and monkeypox”: Wolfe, N. D., Daszak, P., Kilpatrick, A. M., & Burke, D. S. (2005). Bushmeat Hunting, Deforestation, and Prediction of Zoonotic Disease. Emerging Infectious Diseases where “Deforestation rates… are high, with a loss of 800–1,000 km2 forest cover per year and corresponding increase in road-building and expansion of settlements (Wolfe, N. D., Daszak, P., Kilpatrick, A. M., & Burke, D. S. (2005). Bushmeat Hunting, Deforestation, and Prediction of Zoonotic Disease. Emerging Infectious Diseases).”

One downside to this article was that it talked about bushmeat quite a lot within the case study, which is not the primary topic of this paper. On a more recent note, in 2016, Jim Robbins wrote an article called “How Forest Loss Is Leading To a Rise in Human Disease” which talks about the rise in deforestation in Borneo. Borneo is experiencing slash and burn agriculture to make room for palm oil plantations. With an increasing loss of forest, researchers are noticing “a steep rise in malaria cases (Robbins, J. (2016). How Forest Loss Is Leading To a Rise in Human Disease. Retrieved from https://e360.yale.edu/features/how_forest_loss_is_leading_to_a_rise_in_human_disease_malaria_zika_climate_change). Although it is not from a science journal, I really liked this article. It gave good insight into both malaria and the Zika virus that both stem from mosquitos, for example.

This article, written in 2016, said “Scientists are concerned that these outbreaks exacerbated by human alteration of landscapes could cause the next pandemic…Once a disease has left a forested region, it can travel in human beings, crossing the world in a matter of hours by airplane before the person even shows symptoms (Robbins, J. (2016). How Forest Loss Is Leading To a Rise in Human Disease).” I find this very ironic considering we are experiencing a pandemic currently in the year 2020, which was spread due travel and could have stemmed from deforestation as well. This article is like one by written by Katarina Zimmer for National Geographic in November of 2019 called “Deforestation is leading to more infectious diseases in humans”.

Something that really stood out to me within this article was “in Liberia forest clearings for palm oil plantations attract hordes of typically forest-dwelling mice, lured there by the abundance of palm fruit around plantations and settlements.” This is important to note because the Lassa virus (stemming from rodents), is transmitted through feces or urine infected food/objects or body bodily fluids of those who are infected. It was/ is thought by researchers that more virus-carrying rodents will be seen within the deforested areas in the Brazil, due to the fires in the Amazon Rainforest. These viruses usually “exist harmlessly with their host animals in forests because the animals have co-evolved with them. But humans can become unwitting hosts for pathogens when they venture into or change forest habitat.”

Zimmer goes more into detail saying that around sixty percent of new diseases originate from “forest-dwelling animals-are transmitted by a range of other animals, the vast majority of them wildlife…one in three outbreaks of new and emerging disease[s] are linked to land-use change like deforestation”(Zimmer, K. (2019) Deforestation is leading to more infectious diseases in humans. National Geographic.). So, most of these infectious diseases, pandemics ad epidemics are being linked to our increasing contact with animals that do not have a home due to deforestation to make room for human “needs” that go to waste most of the time. Then, our waste goes back into these areas we cut and burned down, the ocean, etc. Deforestation is killing our planet and not enough action is being done about it.

What I enjoyed about reading the sources for these papers, were the website articles because they seem to be more up to date on the current issues and are more accessible/ pleasurable to read to the public than a journal entry. I did however find one journal article from the Journal of Public Health, written by Sharon Chen called “Impacts of Deforestation on Vector-borne Disease Incidence”. This journal was written in 2015, discussing issues such as the different populations being affected by these infectious diseases (especially in Latin America). According to the entry, “Neglected tropical diseases affect more than 1 billion people, primarily poor populations living in tropical and subtropical climates. These populations are frequently geographically clustered, and individuals are often afflicted with more than one parasite or infection.

More than 70% of countries and territories that report the presence of neglected tropical diseases are low-income or lower middle-income economies.” It also states that Latin America lost 88 hectares of forest to make room for farmlands between 1990 and 2010 (Chen, S., (2020). Impacts Of Deforestation On Vector-Borne Disease Incidence. Ghjournal.org.). This can be related to the journal “Reducing Deforestation to Fight Climate Change” which was presented earlier in the paper.

The chart above shows the forest loss between Brazil, Indonesia and Democratic Republic of the Congo: Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies. Reducing Deforestation to Fight Climate Change. Council on Foreign Relations, 2015, www.jstor.org/stable/resrep16756.

Although issues are increasing in “Uganda, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Rwanda”, these two journal articles suggest solutions to deforestation and the emergence of infectious diseases focused in South and Central America.

One of the solutions suggested and has become and international policy is REDD+. REDD+ stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation Degradation. “The idea is to put a dollar sign on forests for the role they play as global carbon sinks, encouraging mainly developing countries to preserve, sustainably manage, or restore their forests (Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies. (2015). Reducing Deforestation to Fight Climate Change. www.jstor.org/stable/resrep16756).”

Other solutions or suggested steps in the right decision, explicitly for the Unite States, include: making it easier for businesses to help (publicize campaigns for companies who are in favor or not in favor of preserving the forest and sustainability), expanding carbon markets (“Certified avoided deforestation credits could be used to reduce tax liability in the former, or provide tradable credits in the latter.”), walking before we run (strengthen laws regarding deforestation, “set[ting] up verifiable offsets or other REDD initiatives”), “use trade agreements” (“policymakers can also look to incorporate forest and other environmental protections into trade agreements.”) (Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies. (2015).

Reducing Deforestation to Fight Climate Change. www.jstor.org/stable/resrep16756). The IUCN is also has about twenty-six countries applying to ROAM. ROAM stands for “Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology” which is “a framework that assesses the extent of degraded and deforested landscapes in a country or area, and identifies the best strategies for restoring them (“Deforestation and Forest Degradation.”, (2018). IUCN. www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/deforestation-and-forest-degradation.)” The IUCN also suggests forest landscape restoration, which sounds like a good idea, but I think it is easier said than done. In 2011, the IUCN and Germany launched the Bonn Challenge which is “a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030.”

A downside to the IUCN website it that there are no dates for the articles that I found/used. So, being in 2020, we do not know how many hectares of deforested land have been restored. The journal article from the Journal of Public Health, on the other hand, suggests enforcing policies, educating the public about the deforestation and climate issues as well as infectious disease prevention. Chen also recommends, “these policies can work to control the extent of deforestation by limiting the allowed amount of clear cutting each year, requiring replanting to reduce the impact of tree cover loss and implementing other disease control measures in those areas most affected by the increase in susceptibility to infectious disease.”

I really like this idea, especially the part about replanting the trees cut down. I think there is a flaw within this suggestion only because most of the time the trees and plants being cut down, could take years to grow back to what it once was. The Journal of Experimental Biology makes an interesting point in an article written by R.N.M Sehgal called “Deforestation and Avian Infectious Diseases”. Sehgal brings up genomics and “metagenomic analyses of whole forest ecosystems, to assess the effects of deforestation on the spread of EIDs [emerging infectious diseases] (Sehgal, R., 2010. Deforestation and avian infectious diseases. Journal of Experimental Biology, 213(6), pp.955-960.)

These metanalyses would help explain “the effects of habitat loss on immune health, and also will allow the detection of undescribed pathogens.” The article also suggests “computer and mathematical modeling of deforestation…where the empirical studies on deforestation prove unfeasible or unethical.” This article focused mostly on birds, so a final suggested solution included satellite tracking the migration of birds, which would ultimately help track down the migration of where an infectious disease might have spread (Sehgal, R., 2010. Deforestation and avian infectious diseases. Journal of Experimental Biology, 213(6), pp.955-960.)

Other solutions suggested include “green business: depending less on trees and natural resources by promoting re-use and recycling”, “community forestry: starting localized tree planting programs to boost environmental sustainability to keep forests viable”, “land-use planning: centers on environmentally friendly development techniques like urban agriculture and lessening urban and suburban sprawl can considerably cut back deforestation” (Earth Eclipse. 2020. 8 Fantastic Solutions To Deforestation | Earth Eclipse.)

I agree with most of the solutions suggested and attempted above. The only thing is that solutions are easier said than done. It is easy to say, “let’s re-plant the trees we cut down”, but we are keeping the same habits. I think what needs to happen is an evaluation of consumer needs and how we can sustainably do it. Is there really a need for so many palm oil plantations or the need for palm oil at all? Engineering is such a rapid growing field that I believe more sustainable products should be made. I also think we should be abolishing “wet markets” which are markets that basically sell “fresh meat” that was recently killed. If coronavirus were to be started by a bat from a wet market, how do we know it was not because of deforestation forcing the bat into contact with humans?

I really like REDD+. Trees should have a price tag considering the companies practicing slash and burn agriculture are using that land to profit from. I do not however agree that we need to track birds for their migration pattern to know how diseases are spreading. All in all, the rest of the suggested and practiced solutions to deforestation and the laws made are the best ways to go. Stricter laws need to be made and people absolutely need to follow them. It is no question.

This paper was very interesting to write, and I can say I learned a lot along the way. Deforestation impacts the whole world; we are not immune to it considering we are the biggest cause. Unintentional fires happen, storms happen, trees get burned and knocked down. It is when people are intentionally cutting down land and trees that does not belong to them that I have a problem with and will continue to fight for. If there is one thing, I will take away from writing this paper and ANP 360, it is that we are not alone in this world. We live amongst other species, wildlife and ecosystems. It is not our place nor right to take their homes away from them.

We are so quick to blame others, animals, anyone but ourselves for diseases, deforestation and climate change, but it is not their fault. Indigenous species did not cut down or set fire to their homes because they wanted to come infect the humans. Humans forced innocent animals and insects out and it is time we own up to that. It is time we start fixing things, changing our everyday lives…I know I am.

Works Cited:

  1. Wolfe, N. D., Daszak, P., Kilpatrick, A. M., & Burke, D. S. (2005). Bushmeat Hunting, Deforestation, and Prediction of Zoonotic Disease. Emerging Infectious Diseases
  2. Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies. Reducing Deforestation to Fight Climate Change. Council on Foreign
  3. Relations, 2015, www.jstor.org/stable/resrep16756.
  4. Chen, S., 2020. Impacts Of Deforestation On Vector-Borne Disease Incidence. Ghjournal.org.
  5. Sehgal, R., 2010. Deforestation and avian infectious diseases. Journal of Experimental Biology, 213(6), pp.955-960.
  6. Pankhurst, R. (1995). The History of Deforestation and Afforestation in Ethiopia Prior to World War I. Northeast African Studies, 2(1), new series, 119-133.).”
  7. Robbins, J. (2016). How Forest Loss Is Leading To a Rise in Human Disease. Retrieved from https://e360.yale.edu/features/how_forest_loss_is_leading_to_a_rise_in_human_disease_malaria_zika_climate_change)
  8. “Deforestation and Forest Degradation.” IUCN. (2018). www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/deforestation-and-forest-degradation.)
  9. “Definition of Terms Used Within the DDC Pages.” IPCC DDC Glossary, www.ipcc-data.org/guidelines/pages/glossary/glossary_c.html.)
  10. Zimmer, K. (2019) Deforestation is leading to more infectious diseases in humans. National Geographic.
    Earth Eclipse. 2020. 8 Fantastic Solutions To Deforestation | Earth Eclipse.
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