The Ever-Clearer Link Between Deforestation and Public Health

Efforts to decolonize forest protection have been stalling for years. COVID-19 might give the movement the urgency it needs.

Cerrado deforestation by Soybean Plantation

Reported Health Public Health

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In November 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was heading toward a deadly third wave in the U.S., the environmental organization Mighty Earth launched a new campaign against major soy- and cattle-traders in the Amazon, calling for them to halt deforestation and protect tropical forests. But this campaign didn’t use the usual picture the world has come to associate with deforestation: a pristine tropical forest canopy on one side and patch of denuded land or smoldering trees on the other. Instead, the campaign contrasted the image of a burning forest with another the world has since become intimately familiar with: a man wearing a protective gown and blue surgical mask. Their message? Protect forests to prevent pandemics.

COVID-19 has brought the potential risks associated with rampant deforestation quite literally to our doorsteps. Although scientists are still figuring out exactly how COVID-19 emerged, an abundance of evidence shows that land-use change, especially deforestation in tropical regions, is the key driver increasing the transmission of deadly pathogens from animals to humans. More and more environmental organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund, are framing the need to halt deforestation through the lens of public health. It’s a shift that risk psychologists say could make the risks associated with rampant deforestation much more personal, and in the long run, could potentially help pass policies to limit deforestation globally.

“People need to feel like this affects their own lives to care about it,” says Colin Carlson, a global change biologist who studies emerging diseases at the Center for Global Health Science & Security at Georgetown University. Humans have experienced a host of zoonotic outbreaks connected to deforestation and habitat loss, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and Zika virus, but, Carlson says, “nothing has brought the connections between environmental and human health to the front of mind like COVID-19 has.”

Forests for Health

Forests serve many purposes: They store carbon, regulate weather, hold more biodiversity than any other land-based ecosystem, and provide shelter and food to hundreds of millions of people. But they are being chopped down at an alarming rate—a soccer field worth of primary rainforest every 6 seconds. Demand for forest products, especially from places like China, the EU, and North America, is turning forests into everything from toilet paper to energy, including wood pellets to meet “renewable energy” requirements in Europe and charcoal for cooking in sub-Saharan Africa. But the biggest threat to forests comes from food production, either directly, by cutting down trees to make room for cattle, or indirectly, by clearing land to grow soy to feed livestock. 

For decades, environmentalists have been trying to conserve forests in a few ways: by touting their importance as “the lungs of the world;” by trying to quantify the carbon in them to monetize their preservation; and by showing us pictures of orangutans losing their homes because of our desire for Nutella. And while the past decade has seen slightly less forest loss, deforestation is still rapidly expanding around the world, and very few of the commitments corporations and governments have made to halt deforestation are on target.

One reason so many of these campaigns may not have succeeded is that they don’t fulfill any characteristics that make people generally feel like an activity is risky, according to Wändi Bruine de Bruin, provost professor of public policy, psychology, and behavioral science at the University of Southern California, who studies how people perceive risk.

People’s sense of risk is heightened when something is happening to them individually, “here, now, and without uncertainty,” she says. This has historically been one reason it has been hard to convey the risk of other threats like climate change to the public. “In the past, climate change was often perceived by non-experts as something that would happen in the future, with uncertainty, and to other people,” Bruine de Bruin says. “Those three things are associated with just not being very worried about it. But it’s changing because a majority of people in most countries are now seeing that climate change is affecting them now, and where they live.”

Decolonizing Forest Management

Once associated with melting ice sheets and polar bears, today’s iconic images of climate change are more likely to be photos of people rowing boats in Houston after Hurricane Harvey and people’s homes in California burned to the ground by wildfires. That shift in public perception has also been mirrored by another shift; whereas decades ago climate policy was relegated to the sidelines, it has now become a central policy point.

But “deforestation is a couple of decades behind, in terms of actually being perceived as a risk to my well-being here,” says Rachael Garrett, an environmental systems scientist who studies tropical deforestation and conservation policy at ETH Zürich in Switzerland. Instead, the risks of deforestation are talked about in even more abstract ways, such as the loss of carbon or biodiversity.

Ignoring the connection between humans and forests is part of the legacy of colonialism that depicted forests as wild expanses of terra incognita, devoid of people and imagined as empty landscapes. For example, when 16th century European cartographers sent maps of the Amazon back to Europe, they failed to mark any human settlements on the maps, despite noting in their own travel diaries the abundance of communities and peoples they encountered there.

The continued erasure of Indigenous and traditional peoples from such landscapes has led to some “very alarming narratives around tree planting, which is very popular right now,” Garrett says. “I mean, talk about colonial. It’s like, ‘Here’s some money in the Global North. Let’s plant some trees in the Global South. Who cares how people are using the land right now?’ ”

Garrett is one of a growing number of scientists calling for greater inclusion and attention to the Indigenous and local communities who live in and manage forests, in no small part because they do it much better job of it than anybody else, as study after study shows. 

Now COVID-19 has brought to the forefront the potential risks associated with unchecked deforestation. About three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And as one of the world’s biggest reservoirs of biodiversity, tropical forests are major potential hotspots for such pathogens. One in every three outbreaks of new and emerging diseases, such as the Nipah virus, Zika, and Ebola, are linked to deforestation.

For policy aimed at halting deforestation, the COVID-19 pandemic could give policy-in-the-making the urgency it needs.

“It could be very relevant for the ongoing discussions on what import countries do,” Garrett says, referring to the current EU and UK attempts to pass policies regulating “imported” deforestation, which is defined as products linked to deforestation and destruction of natural habitats in other countries. In 2021, a British supermarket chain announced it will stock the first mass market soy-free chicken as part of the supermarket’s plans to eliminate deforestation from its supply chains. (Soy is one of the biggest drivers of tropical deforestation). In the U.S., both New York and California have introduced legislation that would close loopholes on imported deforestation. 

Governance Failures

The movement could get an even bigger boost if governments start to connect pandemics, deforestation, and national security.

“It was pretty pivotal when the U.S. military acknowledged the national security risks of climate change,” Garrett says. “I think COVID-19 gives that sort of opportunity as well—deforestation in a distant region can still be a national security risk independently, not just through climate change, but directly through disease transmission and pandemics. I think that is a very potentially powerful message.”

But some scientists are also wary of overemphasizing the role of deforestation in creating pandemics without also recognizing the colossal failures of the global and national health systems that allowed for a disease spillover to become a global pandemic in the first place. “Deforestation definitely means more pandemics,” Carlson says. “Also, governance failures mean more pandemics. And in this case, they caused COVID-19 much more tangibly than deforestation or climate change or anything else did.” 

Instead, Carlson hopes that COVID-19 might shift our view of deforestation not just by making us aware of the connection between deforestation and emerging diseases, but also by shoring up the connection among forest health, human health, and equity. The idea is being taken up by emerging paradigms such as planetary health. “If we don’t get better at stopping outbreaks, if we don’t build better governance systems and better health care systems, yes, there will be more pandemics as we continue to destroy natural lands and destroy forests,” he says. “But all of that assumes that we continue to live in a world that is vulnerable to that, and we could easily not.”

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