March 21 is the International Day of Forests. This mid-March timeframe has also come to mark the second anniversary of when the Covid-19 pandemic began rapidly spreading across most of Europe and the United States. Taken together, the two events call attention to the relationship between forests and public health. This connection is one we have known about for some time, and still yet it has not led us to break the vicious cycle between deforestation and health crises. In this regard, we must challenge ourselves to think more creatively and innovatively.
Two years ago, some observers predicted–or optimistically hoped–that lockdown measures would benefit forests, at least in the short term. The reality: pressure on forests has since increased. In rural regions of the Global South, people found themselves forced to resort to forests for their livelihoods after losing alternative sources of income such as tourism or employment in the city. Researchers have also argued that the Covid-19 pandemic initially encouraged illegal and opportunistic forest clearance associated with agriculture and mining, particularly in the Brazilian and Colombian Amazon, because the crisis hampered law enforcement by forest protection agencies. In African countries such as Kenya, lockdown measures reduced income opportunities and food security for many households, fostering an increase in poaching and commercial trade in illegal wildlife products such as bushmeat or ivory. Furthermore, there is evidence that governments in many tropical forest countries have weakened policies and institutions protecting forests, forest-dependent communities, and indigenous peoples to counter the economic downturn. Economic recovery programs may have also diverted funds away from forest conservation.
The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have perpetuated the negative feedback loops between deforestation and public health. On one hand, the effects of health crises harm forests, while on the other the destruction of these forest ecosystems plays an important role in the emergence and spread of diseases. Deforestation of tropical forests, specifically, increases the risk of novel zoonotic diseases with pandemic potential. While we are all now familiar with Covid-19, other diseases whose origins are linked to forests include SARS, Ebola, Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever.
A growing body of scientific literature shows that deforestation favors the spread of life-threatening diseases; mosquitoes breed prolifically in deforested landscapes that typically have less and shorter vegetation, deeper, warmer and murkier water, and lower biodiversity. Wildlife living in deforested areas become potentially more stressed due to habitat loss, causing them to be more susceptible to pathogens. This causes the deforested areas to harbor more infectious agents. Deforestation also creates more forest edge areas where there are more close encounters between humans and wildlife; people exposed to more wildlife are exposed to more pathogens. In addition to all of this, wildlife hunting and bushmeat consumption, exacerbated by deforestation, encourage the transmission of disease from animals to humans. Past examples of the spread of diseases include the sharp rise in the number of malaria cases in Peru, Brazil, and Malaysia related to forest clearance for infrastructure development and agriculture.
Climate change, air pollution, and globalization are exacerbating this situation. Rising temperatures and more precipitation mean more mosquitoes; air pollution from climate change-related forest fires or fossil fuel burning aggravates the impact of any given virus on human health and public health systems; the mobility of people accelerates the spread of new diseases.
Breaking the cycle
What can be done now to break the vicious circle between deforestation and public health crises? To put it bluntly: Protecting our forests is essential, but it will not be enough. Forest conservation and restoration measures certainly help reduce the risk of future zoonotic disease outbreaks. Yet we still too often overlook the link between forests and public health, while solutions for public health and forest conservation are separately designed and implemented. For instance, the role of forests is rarely considered by public health experts and policymakers when discussing pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response. If we want to prevent pandemics from recurring, we need to integrate forest and public health concerns as a first step.
One potentially useful concept to facilitate this first step is One Health. One Health is based on the belief that human health is inextricably linked to the health of non-human beings, such as animals or plants, and our shared environment. It aims to achieve optimal health outcomes through holistic thinking and coordination, communication, and collaboration among stakeholders with diverse backgrounds. (Stakeholders include human and veterinary health experts, environmental scientists, policymakers, local communities, Indigenous peoples, law enforcement, and agricultural producers, among others.) One Health is advocated by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the G7.
To translate these more abstract endorsements into concrete action is the next step, with a number of options: We should recognize deforestation as a public health threat and explicitly factor forests in our thinking about public health policy. Forest conservation measures, such as forest finance schemes, should be mainstreamed into public health considerations—and vice versa. Governments, especially in the Global North, must provide appropriate funding, particularly for the conservation of tropical forests. Governments, especially in tropical forest countries, must secure and respect the land rights and territorial sovereignty of Indigenous peoples and local communities; Indigenous peoples and local communities are the best stewards of forest lands and in most cases already practice sustainable livelihoods or would do so if they had secure tenure. Countries need to develop and implement policies to address the demand-side drivers of deforestation. And on that note, we need to permanently change our consumption behavior, such as our food consumption, to halt deforestation.
Taking these steps can help us to ensure both the health of the planet and its people including human and nonhuman welfare.