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Deforestation and Monoculture Farming Spread COVID-19 and Other Diseases

Scientists say the current pandemic is part of a larger pattern linking infectious diseases to habitat loss.

Rangers extinguish a fire in Seulawah, Indonesia, after the fire scorched hectares of pine trees on October 10, 2016. Pine forests are deliberately burned annually to clear land for palm oil and pulpwood plantations.

Over a year before COVID-19 was first detected, biologists at the University of Warsaw published “Bats, Coronaviruses, and Deforestation,” a paper that links the rapid destruction of the natural habitats of bats to the spread of coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.

Published in April 2018, the article describes how the homes of bats in the rainforests of Southeast Asia have been reduced by 50 percent over the last 70 years, putting the disease-carrying animals in closer contact with humans than ever before. It then details that 31 percent of the viruses that bats are capable of carrying are different forms of coronaviruses. Finally, it ends with a prophetic warning: “The risk of newly emerging CoVs-associated diseases in the future should be considered seriously.”

The total amount of infectious disease outbreaks around the world has been steadily increasing over the last four decades, according to a 2014 study by Brown University scientists. During that time, the world’s forest coverage has been reduced to half its size. The majority (60 percent) of these new outbreaks were animal-borne (zoonotic) diseases, including the Ebola virus, SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, H1N1 “swine flu,” Nipah virus and many others. The Brown University scientists therefore attributed this recent global rise in infectious disease primarily to an increase in “pathogens spilling over to humans from wildlife.”

Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio, the associated vice president for conservation and health at the EcoHealth Alliance, analyzed over 704 different infectious disease outbreaks between the years 1940 and 2008, and found that measuring the rate of deforestation in a given area was the number one predictor of where the next pandemic will occur. “Scientists have been sending out warnings about this for years now,” Zambrana-Torrelio told Truthout. “We can’t keep encroaching upon the natural habitats of wildlife without taking into consideration what deadly diseases might spill over from that wildlife into the neighboring humans.”

Regions of the Amazon with increased rates of deforestation have concurrently experienced increased rates of malaria in humans. As climate change withers away the canopy of trees that act as the “ceiling” of the rainforest, puddles of stagnant water are becoming increasingly common on the ground. Mosquitos, particularly the kind that carry malaria, love to breed in this murky standing water. This increase in mosquito population in deforested areas is going largely unchecked due to their natural predators, mainly frogs and dragonflies, dying off in the destroyed habitat.

“Normally, trees can absorb stagnant water through their roots,” Andy MacDonald, a disease ecologist and environmental scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Truthout. “But if there’s not enough trees around, the stagnant water remains, creating a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes.” The areas of the rainforest where there’s the most standing water, MacDonald said, corresponds to the same areas where humans are encroaching upon and destroying the trees. “This creates deadly potential for interaction between people and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.”

A similar phenomenon happens in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, where El Niño droughts are becoming increasingly intense due to rising global temperatures. The 1998 El Niño drought, for example, occurred at the exact same time as the 1998 Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia. “The drought caused mass forest fires that swept the region. These fires created a huge smog that prevented the plants from growing fruit,” said Amy Vittor, an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute told Truthout. “This forced the flying fox bats of the rainforest to migrate to the towns of Malaysia.”

Some of these bats flocked to Malaysian pig farms, where the first cases of Nipah virus were reported. Bats would bite into fruit that the pigs ate, causing the virus to spread to the pigs. Humans caught the virus when they came in contact with the pigs.

The majority of global deforestation today is driven by multinational corporations, including Cargill, JBS and Mafrig, as well as their creditors BlackRock, JPMorgan Chase and HSBC. These corporations clear acres of land for the mass production of a single cash crop. The Amazon, for example, is primarily being destroyed for products that people in Western countries buy but do not necessarily needpalm oil, sugar cane or various biofuels like ethanol.

Monocrop farming, in which large swathes of land are dedicated for the repeated production of a single crop, is a relatively new phenomenon that depletes soil (such as in the case of the 1930s Dust Bowl), leaves crops vulnerable to pests (as in the case of the Irish potato famine) and leaves humans vulnerable to disease by reducing the biodiversity of animals in the surrounding region (as in the case of global bee populations).

“Farms that produce a variety of crops will attract a variety of wildlife that come to feed on the crops,” biologist John Swaddle of the College of William & Mary told Truthout. On the flip side, when a farm is only producing a single type of crop, it will only attract a limited variety of animals. If one type of animal from that limited variety catches a disease, the entire ecosystem is threatened. This dynamic creates what is commonly known as the dilution effect: The more types of species there are in a given ecosystem, the more resistant the overall ecosystem will be to the spread of disease.

West Nile virus, for example, infects some species of birds more easily than others. Ducks and geese are naturally more resistant to contracting and spreading the virus, so they act as a kind of “buffer” against the species that are more vulnerable to the virus, like crows and finches. If a mosquito carrying West Nile virus bites into a duck or goose, it is likely that the virus will simply die off in their system. To investigate this phenomenon, Swaddle compared every county in the eastern U.S. that reported a case of West Nile virus in 2002 (the first year of the outbreak) to a neighboring county that did not. The result? On average, the counties that reported cases of West Nile virus had a significantly lower diversity of bird species than the counties that had no cases. And what factors affect the biodiversity of bird species in a given area? Deforestation, climate change and monoculture farming.

Likewise, the rise of monocrop palm plantations in the forests of West Africa have been a significant driver of the spread of the Ebola virus. The first known cases of the 2013 Ebola outbreak occurred in the Guinean villages of Guéckédou and Meliandou, which are both surrounded by areas that had been heavily deforested for monocrop palm plantations. Much of the Upper Guinean forests have been reduced to 16 percent of the size that they were in 1975. This is largely due to the industrial monocrop farming of western-backed corporations like the Guinean Oil Palm and Rubber Company, which is financed by the European Investment Bank. As Ebola-carrying bats are pushed out of their natural habitat, they flock to places like palm oil plantations, where they can find ample food and shelter.

Another one of the largest corporations driving deforestation, and thereby the spread of Ebola in West Africa, is the London-based Farm Lands of Africa, Ltd. Between 2010 and 2012, the three years leading up to the 2013 Ebola outbreak, Farm Lands of Africa acquired over 1,608,215 hectares of forest in the Congo Basin. This massive land grab forcibly displaced thousands of families, turning land that was previously used primarily for vegetable farming by Indigenous people into monoculture plantations for the export of cash crops like palm oil. It also displaced thousands of Ebola-carrying fruit bats — many of which are attracted to the rich vegetation and shelter of the palm plantations.

The world’s rainforests are not being destroyed to feed people. “Many options exist to meet the global food supply in 2050 without deforestation,” wrote University of Klagenfurt ecologist Karl-Heinz Erb in the journal Nature. Forests are primarily being cleared for the plunder of cash crops that mostly benefit the wealthy heads of multinational corporations.

Such is the case with the PT. Hardaya Inti Plantations company, owned by billionaire Siti Hartati Murdaya, which has seized over 22,000 hectares of land in Indonesia for monoculture palm oil plantations. The acquisition displaced over 6,500 families by destroying the subsistence farms and forests that they relied on to live. Half of those families ended up working on the palm plantations, where they were cruelly exploited for meager wages. So it is questionable whether this deforestation is benefiting the majority of Indonesians, beyond its billionaire kleptocrats. On top of that, the resulting environmental destruction is causing a mass displacement of wildlife in the region, leading to the proliferation of malaria and dengue.

As University of Ferrara scientists state in their April 2020 paper, “The novel zoonotic COVID-19 pandemic: An expected global health concern,” the current COVID-19 pandemic was highly predictable. Based on the patterns of deforestation associated with the two most recent outbreaks of other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, as well as countless other animal-borne diseases, including Ebola, malaria and dengue fever, there is much evidence to suggest that this current pandemic is part of a larger global trend.

“If we want to do everything we can to prevent the next pandemic from occurring,” Zambrana-Torrelio said, “we must stop deforestation.”

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