The accelerated spread of the COVID-19 virus has paralyzed the international agenda. While in China, there have been several days without new cases being registered, in the rest of the world energy is set to stop the advance of the coronavirus. Although it is still too early to talk about the causes that have led to the appearance of this new virus, zoologists and disease experts say that this will not be the only pandemic to break out, if we continue to ignore the links between infectious diseases and the destruction of natural habitats.
"I am absolutely sure that there will be more diseases like this in the future if we continue with our practices of destruction of the natural world, deforestation and the capture of wild animals as pets or for food and medicine", says Dr. Enric Sala, explorer of National Geographic, in an interview to the medium The Independent. But Sala is not the only expert who warns of the link between deforestation and the emergence of new epidemics. Sonia Shah, a science journalist, explains that forest clearing forces wild species to cling to smaller fragments of the remaining habitat, which in turn brings the animals into direct contact with humans. According to Shah, it is this intimate contact that enables the transfer of benign animal microbes that live in their bodies to ours. Microbes that, by adapting to the human body, become deadly human pathogens.
Andy MacDonald, a disease ecologist at the University of California Earth Research Institute, takes up this idea and explains that as forest habitats continue to be cleared, the chances of finding ourselves facing new epidemics of infectious diseases will increase. This is extremely worrying, considering the high rates of deforestation in forests, reached during 2019, which in turn have led to the spread of forest fires around the world, from the Brazilian Amazon to Indonesia. The danger behind all this is that those responsible for the destruction of forests continue to use logging as a business tool, regardless of the risks that this entails.
As Mónica Parrilla, head of Greenpeace's fire campaign, explains, "climate change exacerbates these fires, but so do policies that do not combat deforestation and do not pursue environmental crimes." When it comes to deforestation and environmental crime, it is generally referring to two industries: palm oil and pulp and paper. These being the main responsible for the indiscriminate felling of trees and the illegal deforestation of forests. Which, in turn, according to scientific evidence that has been collected in recent times, creates optimal conditions for the spread of new diseases. Specifically, deforestation drives animals out of their habitats and closer to human populations, thus facilitating the spread of zoonotic diseases that are transferred from animals to humans.
An example of this is what happened on the island of Borneo. Researchers from the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases documented an increase in malaria cases in a region of the island of Borneo particularly affected by deforestation. The curious thing is that the culprit of the cases was not the parasite transmitted by mosquitoes, but that the cases corresponded to the so-called “monkey malaria”. In summary, the researchers considered that the destruction of the monkey habitat led to contact between people and primates, increasing the possibility that the infection would jump to people.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) classification, Borneo's forests are among the most biologically diverse habitats in the world and are home to a population of diverse species such as orangutans and pygmy elephants. However, as in other parts of the world, Borneo's forests suffer from deforestation caused to obtain wood, palm oil, pulp, rubber and minerals, among others.
The deforestation rate is 1.3 million hectares per year. Those responsible for this are the large groups that operate in the area, such as the Sinar Mas conglomerate, which brings together different companies in the industry such as Asia Pulp and Paper, the largest pulp and paper company in Indonesia, accused of destroy forests to obtain pulp. Another of the group's companies, Paper Excellence (PE) has also been involved in a controversy recently, after the government of Nova Scotia, Canada, forced the company to cease operations when it was proven that the company was responsible for the pollution of the Boat Harbor lagoon. Like its satellite companies, this Sino-Indonesian group, chaired by the Widjaja family, is internationally recognized for promoting forest degradation. In 2017, Greenpeace discovered that pulp giant Sinar Mas and his company Asia Pulp & Paper had cleared approximately 8,000 hectares of forest and peatlands in Borneo, failing to deliver on their promise of forest conservation.
In recent days, it has become clear that the only way to stop the advance of the coronavirus is by acting together and leaving individuality aside. Take care of ourselves, to take care of the other. For years, they have explained to us that this is what we should do to take care of the planet we live on. Deforestation, the extinction of species, the destruction of biodiversity, global warming, show that we have not fulfilled this request. Some have even been skeptical about the true impact of our activities, denying the overwhelming evidence that shows the damage we are doing to the planet. As with the coronavirus, it is time to put ideologies aside and start working together to take care of the space we have. Holding those responsible to account and putting an end to their destructive activities.
By Martina Giménez