Rise in disease is linked to loss of our forests

This article by Amanda Bertana of the University of Maine and Jessica Eckhardt of Northland College was originally published on the Bangor Daily News opinion page on August 11, 2020.

In this Aug. 25, 2016 photo released by Ibama, the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, a forest fire burns in Xingu Indigenous Park in Mato Grosso in Brazil’s Amazon basin. Credit: Vinicius Mendonca / Ibama via AP

Up until now, the weather has been the quintessential small-talk topic. These days you cannot avoid a conversation without mentioning COVID-19. “Can you believe this pandemic?” Actually, yes we can. Zoonotic diseases — illnesses that spread from animals to people — are becoming more common. Six out of 10 infectious diseases found in people can be spread from animals and three out of four new diseases come from animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As zoonotic diseases are on the rise, they also spread further faster. Take for instance COVID-19, which managed to reach nearly every region of the world in only four months with the help of air travel, which has made the world smaller, for some.

As countries and individuals blame each other for the spread of COVID-19, we overlook how climate change and deforestation have created the perfect environment for diseases like COVID-19 and others to flourish. For instance, as global temperatures warm they push vectors such as mosquitos and ticks and the diseases they carry — malaria, Zika and Lyme — into new habitats. In areas like Maine, winters may become more mild, lengthening the seasonal patterns of disease transmission from vectors that remain active in warmer temperatures. For example, the winter of 2019 was warmer than average in Maine, which may have been one factor driving the state’s highest record of new Lyme disease cases last year.

In combating climate change and subsequently infectious disease, forests hold the secret. Like the oceans, forests act as a major carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide emitted from human activities. But between 1990 and 2016, the world has lost total forest coverage the size of South Africa due to climate change and deforestation.

In the past three years, we have witnessed some of the most damaging fires in human history because of warmer temperatures creating drought, drier forests and lengthening the fire season. In 2019 alone, we watched as the AmazonAustralia and California went up in flames, decimating forest coverage. Deforestation is exacerbating the loss of forests worldwide.

When wildfires rage and we cut down trees, we displace species that call these places home. Additionally, the world’s forests are home to about 80 percent of total land animal and plant biodiversity. As humans alter wooded habitats, our contact with wildlife and the diseases they carry increases. This is a dangerous double whammy because we jeopardize forests — the lungs of the earth — and at the same time we endanger our health.

What does this have to do with Maine? Maine is revered for its postcard-worthy coastline but it also has some of the most pristine forest in the nation with 89 percent of the state’s land being forest cover — most of which is privately owned. Surprisingly, while the rest of the world is losing forest at a rapid rate, Maine’s forests have remained relatively stable since pre-settlement times. We need to keep it this way.

When we keep our forests intact we are fighting climate change by offsetting Maine’s carbon emissions and protecting our health. At the same time we are conserving the habitat for the critters that call these forests home. So as Gov. Janet Mill’s Climate Council moves forward, it is important to consider how they are preserving Maine’s coastal economy, its forests and our future well-being.

Amanda Bertana is an assistant professor of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University. She is a member of the Maine Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Jessica Eckhardt is an assistant professor of sociology and social justice at Northland College. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of their universities. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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