Wildscreen Exchange

Webinar recap: Deforestation, Pandemics, and Planetary Health by Rainforest Alliance

Each Wednesday, One Earth will be featuring a webinar recap from organizations and scientists around the world that focus on important topics such as biodiversity, conservation, food justice, and the intersections of environmental and human health.

Rainforest Alliance hosted a discussion between Dr. Mary C. Pearl, Director of the International Biodiversity Network, and tropical forest ecologist Nigel Sizer, Chief Program Officer of the Rainforest Alliance as they walked listeners through the links between deforestation and pandemics and what we can do to continue working towards a shared vision of planetary health.

Sizer asks Dr. Pearl if she was surprised by the spread of COVID-19 and she responds that although the pandemic was seen as a surprise to some it was actually predictable if you examine the way we’ve been treating our environment. She notes that similar to the destruction pests have on monocultures, by destroying forests and reducing biodiversity these once healthy ecosystems now have an open invitation to the invasion of pathogens. Sizer asks what role wildlife trade has with the coronavirus and how deforestation plays a role in the risks of future pandemics. Dr. Pearl explains that by taking animals out of forests and into markets alongside other species those pathogens will move with them. Moving into forests can cause disease spread as well, take for instance Lyme disease. Lyme disease spread is due to us encroaching on large forested areas and we tolerate it as a society instead of making our landscape less conducive to its spread. 

But she says not to panic as there are nearly 2 million viruses that haven’t been described, most do no harm to us, and it is rare for viruses to spillover to humans. She describes a virus’s strategy akin to a war and that we have to understand viruses do not want to kill their host, and thankfully as they constantly mutate, they become less fatal over time. 

Dr. Pearl highlights that planetary health means that our health is linked to the health of all other beings as well as ecosystem health. Ecosystems are healthy if they are diverse and resilient. As people are clearing forests and decreasing biodiversity, they come into contact with more wildlife. With those interactions, it only takes one person for that pathogen to spill over into our species. It’s explained that when you think of it in a cost–benefit analysis scenario, to save the health of the most people you must focus on forest conservation and environmental conservation. Forests are also the most cost-effective public health benefit as well, Dr. Pearl points out that forests are good for mental wellbeing but physiologically people in forests have better immune systems and are less depressed. 

We are all connected and COVID-19 has shown us that we are a part of nature. This pandemic, as Sizer mentions, exposed how broken our relationship was been with the rest of nature. The discussion ends by reminding viewers that human health is equal to the health of the planet, species, and ecosystems.