Pandemics tied to fragmented forests, biodiversity loss? What science says, and India's response

Experts warn loss of ecology will lead to more pandemics, India uses lockdown to dilute environmental laws.

Karthikeyan Hemalatha November 18, 2020 18:15:57 IST
Pandemics tied to fragmented forests, biodiversity loss? What science says, and India's response

Fragmented forests lead to zoonotic disease spread. Image: Joshua Levin/Unsplash

With more than 50 million people infected and 1.32 million dead, the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 is now personal for most people across the world. With lives changed forever as doctors and scientists race against time to treat critical patients and find vaccines, experts say one crucial aspect has been, almost wilfully, looked over – the destruction of the world’s biodiversity. Loss of ecology is a key reason for this pandemic, and scientists warn that pandemics will not only get more frequent but also become more fatal in the future.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is zoonotic – which means it originated from an animal, most likely a bat. The virus originated from a wet market in Wuhan in China. Like the Covid-19, there are at least 1.7 million unidentified viruses that can infect people in mammals and water birds. Of this, up to 8,50,000 can infect humans.

"Anyone of these could be the next ‘Disease X’ – potentially even more disruptive and lethal than COVID-19," warned four experts in a guest article for IPBES. The experts are Josef Settele, Sandra Díaz, and Eduardo Brondizio, and Dr Peter Daszak.

But neither bats nor other wildlife is the villain, the destruction of their habitats is, experts say. India and some Asian countries have neither acknowledged the connection between loss of biodiversity and pandemics nor taken policy measures to slow down damages to the planet’s ecosystem.

When biodiversity is lost, locked up viruses emerge out of forests and find their way to humans – either directly or through domestic animals. More than 70 percent of emerging diseases have originated from wildlife and domesticated animals, causing about seven lakh deaths each year. This is just the beginning. "Future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases," read a new report on biodiversity and pandemics wrote by 22 leading experts from around the world. Titled Escaping the ‘Era of Pandemics’, the report as released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Amid a raging pandemic, India diluted environment protection laws, gave approvals to clear thousands of acres of forest land, and even gave a massive push for the coal sector by bringing forests under auction.

On 12 March, India’s Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) published a draft notification, which conservationists and activists believe, will give way to an era of easier environmental clearances. Some 40 types of projects – including large solar parks – have been exempted from environmental impact assessments (EIA). Public hearings, which are part of EIAs, have also been removed. This means communities living around these projects will have no say.

Environment clearances, for projects that do require one, can be obtained even after the infrastructure or the project is completed. “The proposed changes make our country more vulnerable to unprecedented environmental disasters by decreasing public participation and giving free rein to polluting industries,” said the National Alliance for People’s Movement in a statement.

Earlier this year, the central government also decided to open up 41 coal blocks for private players to mine for the first time since the sector was nationalised in the early 1970s. New coal blocks put thousands of acres of forests at risk. States like Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, and Maharashtra have already objected to the Centre’s decision to open forests in their states for mining.

Apart from broad policy decisions, several projects that require significant forest clearances were also approved. A proposed 164 km-long railway line, that requires felling of 2.2 lakh trees in the Western Ghats, was cleared on 20 March. The project would need some 995 ha of land, of which forest lands make 595ha and 184ha of wetlands.

Pandemics tied to fragmented forests biodiversity loss What science says and Indias response

More than 70% of emerging diseases have originated from wildlife and domesticated animals, causing about seven lakh deaths each year. Image credit: Felipe Werneck/Ibama via AP

The Wildlife Institute of India recommended clearance for a 3,097-MW hydroelectric project in the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. Their study was funded by the developer of the project, according to news reports. "The Modi government has been diluting environmental regulations steadily. This lockdown has made it easier as the power has become more centralised,” said Himanshu Thakur from South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People (SANDRP).

The story is similar across several Asian countries. After much apprehension and hesitation, China banned trade in wildlife in February this year. Conservationists push for a wildlife ban as a ‘double victory’, as it protects both human and wildlife health. However, this wouldn’t be enough. Not only are there are loopholes in the ban, overselling the effectiveness of the ban will do more harm than good when it comes to containing future pandemics, a recent article from Lancet said. While welcoming the ban on wildlife trade Wildlife Conservation Society, in a statement said: “In addition, this creates a potential loophole for traffickers who may exploit the non-food exemptions to sell or trade live wildlife, creating additional challenges to law enforcement officers."

The Himalayas, often considered the ‘Third Pole’, is a globally-significant region, a vulnerable ecosystem and a hotspot for biodiversity. However, the Nepal government has not learnt anything new, say experts. Reports suggest that the smuggling of trees for trading in wood has increased during the lockdown. The Nepal Army was also accused of fast-tracking clearances during the lockdown and violating the country’s procurement rules. Government officials from the Public Procurement Monitoring Office said the negotiation processes which usually take 15 days were completed in a few hours, adding that this was unusual and unnatural, according to media reports.

"To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think the politicians are thinking about anything beyond the current in-fighting amongst parties," said former water resource minister of Nepal, Dipak Gyawali. "I don’t think there are any changes in the government’s perception towards protecting nature to prevent pandemics," he added.

Other experts say that the land-locked regions of south-east Asian countries like Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China have a culture of indiscriminate use of wildlife for personal consumption as well as illegal trading. "A complete ban on wildlife trading is the single biggest action that governments can take to prevent future pandemics. The world has seen five outbreaks in the last decade, and we must learn," said the former chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority, an autonomous body with India’s federal ministry of environment and forests Dr. Balakrishna Pisupati.

Pandemics tied to fragmented forests biodiversity loss What science says and Indias response

The Himalayas, often considered the ‘Third Pole’ is both vulnerable and a global hotspot for biodiversity. But the Nepal government appears not to have learnt anything new towards conserving the ecosystems, experts say. Image: NASA

South Asian countries are a hotspot for biodiversity. “For example, India has roughly about double the species of birds compared to Great Britain. Of the 36 biodiversity hotspots across the world, four are in SouthEast Asia,” said Nibedita Mukherjee, a lead author of the UNEP's flagship report the Global Environment Outlook- 6th Assessment on the biodiversity policy chapter.

A region with rich biodiversity that is vulnerable to damage makes it easier for viruses to jump from animals to humans, sometimes directly through both wild and domesticated animals. The science behind the transmission is pretty simple, says Pisupati. “The shorter the genome, the shorter it takes for mutation. Viruses, having the shortest, also mutate the quickest,” he said. When forests, wetlands, and waterbodies are destroyed, pathogens find vectors, like mosquitoes, bats, or pigs, to travel outside their eco-systems and infect new hosts. “Any new pathogen is always looking for new hosts to infect as the hosts wouldn’t have the immunity to fight them,” said Pisupati.

Recent examples of zoonotic diseases include Ebola – which is linked to loss of forest in West Africa, Nipah virus to pig farming in Malaysia, and avian influenza due to poultry farming. Other diseases that emerged from wildlife or domesticated animals are the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, Zika virus disease. On average, one new infectious disease emerges in humans every four months with 75 percent of these infections come from animals, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

A 2008 study found out that a little more than 60 percent of emerging infectious diseases (EID) are caused by zoonotic pathogens. More than 70% of these are caused by a pathogen with a wildlife origin, listing out examples like the emergence of Nipah virus in Perak, Malaysia, and SARS in Guangdong Province, China.

The reasons for the high percentage of EIDs coming from animals, the authors listed, include rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, mining, and exploitation of wild animals are key reasons. Human actions have impacted more than 75 percent of the Earth's land area, destroyed 85 percent of wetlands, and converted 75 percent of available freshwater to crops and livestock production. "Zoonotic transmission from wildlife hosts directly to human hosts is uncommon: domestic animals can bridge the gap. Increasing demand for milk and meat, driven mainly by fast-growing populations of urban consumers in developing countries, is projected to double by 2050,” read a 2016 UN report titled 'Zoonoses: Blurred Lines of Emergent Disease and Ecosystem Health’.

With cute pandas and stranded polar bears reduced to mascots of environmental destruction, climate change was seemingly distant for politicians to take immediate action. However, there might be some hope. “The current pandemic has hit home the hard reality and the importance of protecting the earth’s diversity. We have to wait to see if it is going to change the way we view the planet,” said Pisupati.

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