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Deforestation is a global problem. If it increases the risk of disease, which we now know it does, then the prognosis is more economic catastrophe.
Words by Matthew Chalmers
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there was a lot of fluffy, New Age stuff going around, implying that COVID-19 was nature’s attempt at a vacation; that siccing a deadly virus on humanity was a way for Mother Earth to catch her breath. Seeing the dingy waters of Venice transformed into crystal clear water was beautiful—and rather stirring.
Now the dust has settled, it would appear that COVID-19 has not let nature catch a break, and the opposite has happened. Emissions did fall during the opening salvoes of the pandemic, it is true, but the wilting effect the virus has had on economies, particularly in the developing world, is incentivizing disastrous behaviors.
The most obvious case study here is Brazil, which has suffered a terrible pandemic. In terms of sheer deaths, with 243,000 global deaths at the time of writing this article, Brazil is only exceeded by the United States. It has not helped that Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, has been a notorious skeptic of COVID-19 and has adopted erratic policies towards stymying its spread. For more than a year now, the virus has worsened economic conditions, forcing people out of their service jobs and back to their rural homes, jobless and facing poverty.
The Amazon region historically suffers from high rates of poverty. During the pandemic, unprecedented unemployment has led to an aggressive upswing in deforestation. For many of these unemployed workers, clearing forests is one of the few ways to make money. Between August 2019 and May 2020, the rate of deforestation soared by 72 percent in Brazil, and deforestation rates across 2019 and 2020 were worse than in 2008.
Cattle ranching, crop farming, and urban work are some of the few ways for many people to find work in the region. Animal agriculture is the largest driver of ecological destruction in the Amazon, with 80 percent of deforestation caused by cattle farming and 96 percent of Amazon soy fed to cows, pigs, and chickens. As the opportunities for urban work have retreated, agricultural demand has skyrocketed, and deforestation has increased. This phenomenon falls into a global trend in which economic downturn forces developing nations to increase their dependency on exporting animal feed to meet the growing consumer demand for meat. These demands are part of what is prompting the worrying levels of deforestation in Brazil to spike.
Brazil was already facing frightening reversals of its conservation efforts. Before the pandemic, the Bolsonaro administration showed its hostility towards climate regulations, which they believed were stifling the developing economy. As a result, the Amazon Rainforest was left with little to no substantive environmental protections.
The human inhabitants of the Amazon, who made the forest their home long before colonizers arrived, are also under attack. Although deforestation rates have fallen in indigenous lands, the Brazilian government has undermined their sovereignty. According to the National Academy of Sciences, by refusing to recognize any new indigenous—and therefore protected—land, the Bolsanaro administration has encouraged an additional 1.5 million hectares of deforestation per year.
While the pandemic has forced many to resort to deforestation, it could prove even deadlier for the people living in and around deforested land. Although loggers and farmers may benefit economically in the short term, deforestation is killing them as well. Around the world, the leading cause of premature death in tropical regions is the inhalation of particulate matter from burning biomass, which loggers set ablaze during land clearings. The smoke from these fires often crosses international borders; fires in the Brazilian Amazon can cause health problems for people in lowland Bolivia.
Cattle farming poses another health concern. Deforestation encourages the growth of antibiotic-resistant germs in the soil, and the antibiotics used in animal agriculture create more drug-resistant bacteria. This bacteria can be carried far from the farm or grazing land by pests, water, wind, or workers and cause severe illnesses that can be harder to treat. There are additional issues of pollution adjacent to animal agriculture, which may also impact human health.
Of course, the larger problem of global warming, facilitated in part by deforestation, affects everyone. At the current rate, it will be impossible for Brazil to meet its international obligation to the Paris Climate Agreement. Deforestation in the Amazon is accelerating the process of atmospheric heating, which may lead to the mass death of countless species, not the least of which is our own. As it stands, the Amazon sequesters about 5 percent of global carbon dioxide, and its continued presence is invaluable to the health of global ecosystems.
Yet the most disturbing and twistedly ironic fact is that by increasing the already staggering rates of deforestation during COVID-19, farmers and loggers are inflaming the risk of future pandemics like dousing petrol on a stack of tumbleweeds. Deforestation increases the likelihood of disease outbreaks across many dimensions. As loggers cut down more forests, certain species survive at the expense of others. For example, bats, rodents, and primates are all impacted by deforestation, and all three of these animal species are known to spread zoonotic disease.
Researchers recently linked COVID-19 to bats, and bats are also the source of the Ebola virus. Scientists believe the Ebola may have been passed to humans indirectly through eating infected bushmeat, which is also how HIV emerged in humans. As more forests are exploited, humans encounter wild animals more often, and more people tend to rely on bushmeat as a source of food. During the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more bushmeat is being eaten because of the strain on the economy, putting even more people at risk of contracting a zoonotic disease. Furthermore, diseases develop in wild animals at a much greater rate when they become stressed because of habitat loss.
The more we investigate the connection between deforestation and the burgeoning diseases, the more alarming the link becomes: Nipah virus spreading from bats on palm plantations in Indonesia, explosions of malaria and Zika virus, and even the spread of Lyme disease in the Northeastern United States.
Deforestation is a global problem. If it increases the risk of disease, which we now know it does, then the prognosis is more economic catastrophe. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated this fear, and the World Bank predicts that COVID-19 could force as many as 150 million people into the mire of extreme poverty in 2021. This prediction suggests an even deadlier feedback loop, one that is already in motion. Increasing deforestation will result in more pandemics and more poverty, leading to higher rates of environmental exploitation and still more pandemics. This pandemic-poverty feedback loop is a vicious cycle that will prove fatal for the communities that fuel it—and potentially for us all.
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