Forests, pandemics, and money
The warning signs are everywhere. In the pursuit of “development,” humans have radically modified the natural world. Among the worst affected are the planet’s forest ecosystems. The world has lost about 40 percent of its forests since the dawn of the industrial age. In the Philippines, we have lost half of our forest cover in the last century.
How is this connected to the current pandemic? Scientists have warned that, as humans encroach into hitherto undisturbed forests, close human proximity to disease-carrying wild animals leads to a higher risk of infection. Indeed, an increasing body of evidence shows a direct relationship between shrinking forests and the rise of epidemics.
In a recently published paper in the journal Nature, Gibb and coauthors (2020) analyzed almost 7,000 ecological communities worldwide and 376 host species of human diseases to find out if there is a link between ecosystem destruction and epidemics. Their findings showed that wildlife hosts of human pathogens and parasites are much greater in human-disturbed ecosystems, in some cases two times higher, compared to nearby pristine habitats. This trend is especially true for rodents, bats, and perching birds. As we know by now, COVID-19 likely came from bats originally through an intermediary animal. These findings suggest the need to temper the rampant conversion of natural systems to other land uses. Failure to do so will increasingly expose people to new forms of diseases.
But is it financially viable to protect and conserve the world’s remaining forests, especially tropical forests, which are significant sources of novel human diseases? In their paper in the journal Science, Dobson and coauthors (2020) estimated that reducing deforestation by half globally and stopping and monitoring wildlife trade will require about $31 billion. That may appear large, but they also calculated that the benefits of reducing deforestation to climate change mitigation alone are worth as much as $27 billion.
More significantly, these numbers are dwarfed by the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the authors conservatively estimated to be as high as $16 trillion. The present value of the prevention costs for 10 years is just 2 percent of the total cost of the pandemic.
For the Philippines, this human-nature interconnection provides additional incentives to pursue a relentless program to protect and conserve our remaining forests. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ national greening program is a step in the right direction, and it provides a platform for addressing deeply ingrained systemic issues. For example, there is a need to widen stakeholders’ participation in restoring and managing forest lands. At the individual level, the wise use of forest products like wood, paper, and yes, even ornamental plants, will translate to lesser pressure on forests.
The pandemic reminds us that taking care of our forests is literally a matter of life and death.
Dr. Rodel D. Lasco is a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), Philippines. He is the executive director of The OML Center, a foundation devoted to discovering climate change adaptation solutions (http://www.omlopezcenter.org/).
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