How protecting forests and their communities can prevent the next outbreak

The Covid-19 pandemic highlights how human health is intimately connected to animal and ecosystem wellbeing. As we reassess our relationship with nature, researchers say we must empower those best positioned to protect forests – local communities

Carolyn Cowan
May 14, 2020
How protecting forests and their communities can prevent the next outbreak
Forest restoration, Ban Mae Khi, northern Thailand in June 2019. Photo: FORRU-CMU

Clear-cutting forests may provide short-term monetary gains, but the true costs of mass deforestation could be steep. 

The novel coronavirus that has caused the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is believed to be zoonotic, meaning it first spread from animals to humans. Not only is that a common route of transmission, but researchers and environmentalists are now cautioning that the constant push of humanity into formerly wild areas could accelerate the process of new disease introduction. 

But one potential way suggested to ease this is already being field-tested in Southeast Asia. Community forestry is a method of local, communal management of natural resources by the people who already live with and depend on them and, if its advocates are proven right, it could dramatically change how people value nature.

“Protecting forests and the people who live in them or near them can simultaneously address climate change and reduce the risks of viral pandemics,” David Ganz told the Globe. He is the executive director of RECOFTC, an international non-profit organisation that has worked for decades with forest communities in Southeast Asia. 

Community forestry works primarily by strengthening land rights for local people to manage forest resources as a group. In some community forest initiatives already in place across the region, governments work with these communities in a bid to incentivise land management that makes economic use of forests in a sustainable manner.

But that’s often not how forestry works in much of the region.

Mounting evidence highlights how human exploitation of wildlife and destruction of ecosystems, while also drivers of biodiversity loss and climate change, also enable the transmission of animal viruses to humans. 

Almost two-thirds of emerging infectious diseases impacting humans are animal-borne – or zoonotic – with over 70% of these originating in wildlife. Recent examples include Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), that was likely transmitted from civet cats in China in 2003, and the 2014 ebola virus outbreak in West Africa.

“Diseases passed from animals to humans are on the rise, as the world continues to see unprecedented destruction of wild habitats by human activity,” Doreen Robinson, chief of wildlife at the United Nations Environment Programme told Reuters in March.

While the bushmeat trade has been cited by many as the likely driver for the emergence of Covid-19, researchers have implicated land-use change as the single most significant factor behind many zoonotic disease outbreaks over the last century.

Commercial wildlife trafficking, logging, deforestation and the expansion of agriculture into previously undisturbed areas all bring people and livestock into closer contact with wildlife. This closer contact can enable animal-borne viruses, bacteria and other pathogens to jump from animal hosts to humans.

This profound loss of habitat disturbs the ecological balance of nature and can affect how animals and their pathogens behave. Researchers have observed that disappearance of animals at the top of the food chain leaves a gap that is filled by animals such as rodents and bats, which tend to carry more pathogens.

The 1997 forest fires in Indonesia, exacerbated by man-made changes to the landscape and among the largest recorded for two centuries, offer a telling example of this relationship between humans, environmental destruction and the emergence of disease.

As smoke smothered fruit-bearing trees in haze, the fruiting season failed and resident fruit bats were forced to fly elsewhere in search of food. Not long after the bats settled on trees in Malaysian orchards, pigs farmed in pens below the trees started to fall sick after eating fallen fruit contaminated with bat saliva. The pigs subsequently infected local farm workers.

The bats were carrying Nipah virus. Harmless to bats, this virus causes brain inflammation in humans and is associated with a 70-80% fatality rate. The outbreak led to more than 100 deaths and Malaysian authorities had to slaughter millions of pigs to stop the disease’s spread.

Pathogens that spread disease tend to emerge in “disease hotspots”, or regions of the world where high wildlife biodiversity overlaps with high human density due to deforestation, according to Ganz of the RECOFTC. These hotspots include parts of Southeast Asia, especially those with high rates of deforestation mainly driven by large-scale production of commercial commodities such as palm oil, pulp, paper, beef, soy, cocoa and timber. 

Southeast Asia lost about 80 million hectares of forest between 2005 and 2015, according to recent research. It is feared that such rapid deforestation could lead to over 40% of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity vanishing by the year 2100.

“Forests play an important role in watersheds as trees enable the soil to hold more water, reducing flooding during the rainy season and releasing water during the dry season,” said Stephen Elliott, research director of Chiang Mai University’s Forest Restoration Research Unit in Thailand. “Forests are also vital reservoirs of biodiversity and forest products that people can collect, sell and eat.”

People can see what we’re trying to do, that we don’t destroy the forests … We plant the trees not only for ourselves, but also for the world, to give something for future generations

Ban Mae Sa Mai villager Naeng Siwapattarapong

More than 450 million people in the Asia-Pacific region depend on forests for their direct livelihoods or for associated benefits. Many of them live in extreme poverty and have little control over decisions on how forest resources are used and managed. 

But governments in Southeast Asia are increasingly recognising that local communities are important stewards of the forest. The momentum behind community forestry in the region is growing – there could be 30 million hectares of land under community forestry management by 2030. 

This is good news for forest biodiversity, Chiang Mai University researchers have found, as community-led forest management can support restoration of degraded land to functioning forest and sustainable use of forest resources. 

“Diversity in the forest is ecological and [provides] economic stability,” Elliott said.

Elliott has worked alongside the Hmong hill tribe communities of Ban Mae Sa Mai, Northern Thailand, for several decades as part of his research to refine forest restoration methods. 

Drawing from that experience, he notes that commitment and perseverance are key to forest restoration success, along with “a sound scientific basis for forest restoration, long-term institutional support and appropriate funding mechanisms”. 

Forest restoration, Ban Mae Khi, northern Thailand in June 2019. Photo: FORRU-CMU

Ban Mae Sa Mai’s villagers have noticed improved water and land security as side effects of forest restoration. Community-led forest restoration efforts can also improve relations between members of the village, local authorities and the public.

Elder Naeng Siwapattarapong, a founding member of the village conservation group, said the community approach to reforestation could have long-lasting benefits.

“[People] can see what we’re trying to do, that we don’t destroy the forests,” Naeng told staff from Chiang Mai University. “We plant the trees not only for ourselves, but also for the world, to give something for future generations.”

Elliott reports increased forest biodiversity and ecological functionality, along with vastly improved carbon storage.

The emergence of a more formalised carbon credit market could make reforestation projects even more lucrative for their community stewards. Preliminary investigations suggest that if carbon storage is monetised through an effective market it would vastly outcompete profits from maize cultivation, a major driver of deforestation in northern Thailand.

Patterns of disease emergence emphasise the symbiosis between the health of ecosystems, animals and humans.

This has led researchers to the ‘One Health’ approach, which is based on the idea that the wellbeing of humans is inextricably linked to the health of other living things and entire ecosystems.

“Health is not just the responsibility of the health sector. It works across all of society, we all have to participate, as we’re seeing now with Covid-19,” said William Karesh, executive vice president at New York-based non-profit organisation EcoHealth Alliance, at a media seminar last month.

Their approach has encouraged policymakers to take the economic costs of disease outbreaks into account when planning new developments. Their researchers found that outbreaks of malaria in Malaysian Borneo frequently occurred in tandem with bursts of forest clearing for palm oil and other plantations.

“The revenue from clearing new forest is extremely high – briefly,” Karesh said. “But the cost to the public-health system also goes up because you get very common diseases like malaria.”

To date, Covid-19 has resulted in over 250,000 deaths, and the cost to the global economy is projected at $1 trillion this year, according to the World Economic Forum. During the Covid-19 crisis, rural forest people have been disproportionately vulnerable as the situation intensifies poverty, exposes lack of access to healthcare systems and heightens environmental vulnerabilities.

More than ever, Ganz says, the pandemic highlights the importance of working alongside forest communities towards inclusive and equitable management of natural resources.

“Fundamental to community forestry is security and land tenure,” said Ganz. “If these rights don’t exist then local people might look for short-term gains from the forest, for example by setting fire to areas in order to cultivate mushrooms or for other non-timber products.”

He also cautioned of a risk that a post-Covid ramp-up in development could exclude, or worse, undermine the land rights of rural people, further deepening persistent inequalities.

Beyond land, Ganz cautions that unilateral decisions taken in the midst of the crisis could impinge the livelihoods of indigenous and local communities.

In early April more than 240 environmental and animal welfare organisations formally urged the World Health Organization to recommend governments establish permanent bans on wildlife markets and assume a highly precautionary approach to the wildlife trade. 

Blanket enforcement measures that restrict wet markets or forest activities would impact poor rural communities across Asia, Africa and Latin America, where livelihoods depend on interaction with forests and consumption of wild species where people don’t have access to alternatives.

Ganz suggests governments should focus on supportive policies that centre around the One Health approach and reach out to the most vulnerable and marginalised people who live in forest areas. 

“We need to incentivise good governance and sustainability of forest landscapes,” he said. 

Otherwise, the next pandemic might be just down the road.

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