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EXCLUSIVE: Zoonotic and vector-borne disease outbreaks linked to deforestation


India currently faces criticism for amending environmental laws to fast track environmental clearances with clear mandate for big time companies and industrialists having good relationship with government functionaries.

By Salam Rajesh

As the world grapples with the pandemic that has crippled life through the years 2020 and 2021, and perhaps beyond, emerging scientific reports indicate the close nexus between mass scale deforestation mostly in tropical countries, and with reforestation mostly in temperate countries, with the outbreaks of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases.

An academic paper featured in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science (24 March, 2021) has linked outbreaks of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases with deforestation. Science writer K.E.D. Coan, referring to the study carried out by Serge Morand and Claire Lajaunie as ‘a new first-of-its-kind study’, dissects how global deforestation, with reforestation in some cases, and expanding palm oil plantations correlate to outbreaks of infectious vector-borne and zoonotic diseases. The interesting aspect of the study is the statement on expansion of palm oil plantations in particular as corresponding to the significant rise in vector-borne disease infections in recent times.

Serge Morand, faculty of Veterinary Technology at Kasetsart University, Thailand, and also faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University, Thailand, is associated with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD). Lajaunie is associated with Inserm-Laboratoire Population Environnement Développement (Aix-Marseille Université, IRD), Marseille, France. Morand and Lajaunie carried out the study during the period range of 1990 and 2016.

Morand specifies his finding on the core focus that, “Plantations, such as oil palm, develop at the expense of natural wooded areas, and reforestation is mainly monospecific forest made at the expense of grasslands. Both land use changes are characterized by loss of biodiversity and these simplified habitats favor animal reservoirs and vectors of diseases”.

The finding redefines the growing concerns on large scale depletion of vital tropical rainforests in Latin America and in South East Asia, viewed from the perspective of massive biodiversity loss and endangering threatened wildlife species, while inducing displacements of indigenous peoples from their traditional territories and impacting loss of livelihoods. Massive protests globally are gaining ground on stopping tropical rainforest devastation, particularly by large scale mono cropping of the highly commercialized oil palm plantations.

The authors observed that both deforestation and afforestation had significant correlations to disease outbreaks. They found a strong association between deforestation and epidemics (such as malaria and Ebola) in tropical countries like Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Indonesia, Myanmar and Malaysia. In contrast, temperate regions like the USA, China and Europe showed clear links between afforestation activities and vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease.

Elaborating on the finding of their study, Morand specifies that the ‘results of the present analysis are in agreement with previous claims that linked emergence of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases with deforestation. Our results also show a positive association between the number of vector-borne disease outbreaks and the increase in land areas converted to oil palm plantations’.

Morand and Lajaunie’s study assumes significance in the context of the growing dissidence over commercial farming of oil palms which has been linked to violation of human rights in regions where currently plantations exist in large scale. Indonesia’s oil palm plantations have been linked to murder, rape and torture of indigenous peoples by the military backing the powerful companies. Similar is the case with indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin where extensive stories of excessive human rights violation are being reported linked to commercial oil palm plantations. This is in addition to the outrage on environmental and ecological crises accentuated by this single crop plantation on large scale commercial basis.

Indonesia and Malaysia has been at the centre of international outcry on extensive depletion of significant tropical rainforests that harbour diverse biological life, some of which are highly threatened and endangered. The large scale deforestation of Indonesia’s rainforests that are home to the endangered Orangutans for oil palm plantations have evoked widespread condemnation all over the world. In Peru and Ecuador, there are emerging stories of indigenous peoples winning litigations against extractive companies.

Re-emphasizing the finding of their study, Morand and Lajaunie hold the view that “Altogether, deforestation and biodiversity regulation loss favor reservoir and/or vector populations, affect disease transmission dynamics and ultimately lead to increasing human contacts with vectors or reservoirs. Several studies have emphasized the role of forest deforestation in the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as Ebola in Africa”.

In the light of their discussion, the world view is drawn to the argument as to whether the recent coronavirus outbreak is linked to extensive deforestation and wildlife exploitation as such. At the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 in March last year, with focus on its probable origin from the wet market at Wuhan in China, the connection of release of pathogens from the wild with extensive deforestation and consumption of wild meat was widely reported. Morand’s study reinforces this hypothesis to a level highly probable.

Referring to the negative impact of oil palm expansion on biodiversity, especially in Southeast Asia and South America, the authors stresses that, “Our results clearly show an association between the increasing number of outbreaks of vector-borne diseases and the increase of oil palm plantations. A meta-analysis quantified the exposure to infectious diseases in relation to land uses in Southeast Asia showing a strong effect for oil palm monoculture on the risks of infectious diseases, either zoonotic or vector-borne”.

The study’s finding has more to reveal. Evidences of emergence of zoonotic diseases were discussed, wherein, “Strong effects of oil palm monoculture were observed for rickettsial diseases (scrub typhus, spotted fever group) and malaria. Studies have also documented increase of mosquito-borne viruses, such as Aedes albopictus and Aedes aegypti, in oil palm and rubber plantations favoring the spread of dengue, zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever. In the same manner, the populations of generalist vectors of Trypanozoma cruzi, the agent of Chagas disease, better developed in oil palm plantations in Columbia”.

It then comes down to the level of discussion at the grassroots, to be reinforced by decisions taken at global platforms such as the United Nations, on the long term negative impacts of forest depletion for short term commercial benefits. The call to halt rainforests depletion for oil palm plantations assumes renewed significance on the basis of scientific findings such as which Morand and Lajaunie have discussed in their paper. The emerging evidences can no longer be ignored nor be sidelined to benefit a handful of the rich at the cost of millions of people across the globe.

In the midst of this bleak scenario, the Indian government is known to have moved processes wherein environmental laws are sought to be diluted to facilitate business communities. India currently faces criticism for amending environmental laws to fast track environmental clearances with clear mandate for big time companies and industrialists having good relationship with government functionaries. This is at the cost of the nature reserves, pristine landscapes and scores of indigenous peoples who depend directly on forest resources for their livelihoods and sustenance.

(The writer is associated with IUCN Green Criminology Specialist Group. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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