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Cutting our trees is cutting our neck - The negative impact of deforestation on people's health

Among the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) set forth during the 2015 United Nations General Assembly, we see “Good health and Well-being” at point 3. It is surprising how this target is linked to the preservation of forests and the fight against deforestation.

“Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them”

-François-René de Chateaubriand

The threats and dreads of fires

Deforestation can have frightful effects on the health of the people, especially for those who live around the areas where those woods used to be, but also to the rest of the world population in more indirect ways. When forests are burned to obtain land for cultivation or cattle breeding, heavy smoke is released in the combustion. When it reaches inhabited areas, the most common negative effects are the insurgence of the eye and respiratory tract irritations and more serious disorders, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbation of asthma and heart failure, and premature death. Children, pregnant women, and the elderly are especially vulnerable to health problems caused by smoke exposure. A tragic case occurred when in 1997 the island of Sumatra, peatland forests were cut down and turned into oil palm and fast-growing timber plantations.

Photo by Deep Rajwar from Pexels

Additionally, also a million hectares of peat swamp forests in Central Kalimantan were slated for conversion into rice paddies as part of wrongly-planned attempts to ensure Indonesia’s food self-sufficiency. They set fire to the forest, but soon the fires spread out of control: 9.7 million hectares of forest were engulfed in arguably the largest tropical forest fire in history. Some 15,600 child, infant, and fetal deaths were attributed to respiratory distress caused by the smoke, with impacts worse in poorer areas. The fire and smoke pollution were so severe that even people living in neighbouring countries (such as in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) experienced respiratory tract inflammations and damage due to this event, and the tourism sector faced severe loss as airplanes could not take off due to the haze in Malaysia and Singapore.

Haze in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, photographed by servus via Wikimedia Commons

Deforestation as a condition for the spread of new disease

Deforestation threatens people’s health and survival in more indirect but nonetheless deadly ways as well. One of them is by increasing the probability of infection by certain microorganisms which prosper in conditions created by a cleared forest. Researchers from the University of Alabama at Huntsville and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found the correlation in Haiti between the

rivers and streams increasingly silting up due to deforestation and the outbreak of hookworm-caused infection: these organisms found for the first time favorable environmental conditions for thriving, so the affected population was not ready to deal with the problem. Within six years, the prevalence of hookworm among children in the town of Leogane rose from zero to more than 15 percent of the total.

Another case is malaria in Africa and South America. Indeed, deforestation generally causes an increase in the average temperature in cleared areas due to the unprotected soil being more exposed to the heat during the daytime. This condition is ideal for mosquitoes’ larvae to grow faster. Moreover, insectivore organisms that usually control the population of mosquitoes would have been driven away, as their habitats are destroyed by deforestation. Thus these insects found themselves in ideal conditions to thrive and infect more people with the disease - with perfect breeding temperatures and free from predators. Last but not least, zoonoses. These are the diseases that through mutations “jump” from animals to humans: between 60 and 80 percent of the emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in origin. Deforestation and subsequent irresponsible contact with forest animals, their trade and consumption by humans, are responsible for the diffusion of HIV/AIDS, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Ebola, Nipah virus, avian influenza, and even the one we all know only too well: the novel Coronavirus / Covid-19.

Photo by Aleksey Kuprikov from Pexels

Medicines and medical resources from forests

Although climate change, loss of biodiversity, and such are generally considered the major threats to humans in case forests would disappear, most of the time we overlook the central importance that forests and their plants have to provide us with natural medicines, but most of all an astonishing array of resources and possibilities to progress with our medical research. About natural-traditional medicine, as we know, it has been used for centuries, yet its strictly scientific and comparative study conducted in laboratories is still something relatively recent, and as many of its assumptions and practices still need to be thoroughly researched, this medicine is still not legally recognized -both in developed and developing world6. The global market for traditional medicines was nevertheless estimated at US$ 83 billion annually in 2008, with a rate of increase that has been exponential. Also, even though most of us may not be familiar with these products, still the World Health Organization estimates that as a matter of fact, 70 to 95 percent of people in developing countries -that is between 3 and a half to 4 billion- rely mainly on traditional medicines for their primary health care needs7. Globally, fifty-three thousand plant species are used medicinally, and a quite remarkable example is one of the relatively small rainforest watersheds in Madagascar, Makira, where 241 plants are used locally as medicines.

Photo by Bere von Awstburg from Pixabay

The reason why we should protect forests in this regard, though, does not simply entail traditional medicine. Instead, plants found in the wild are a continuous source of active substances to bolster modern research. We generally think of laboratory research as something exquisitely dealing with chemicals, but actually many modern medicines are derived, either directly or indirectly, from medicinal plants8. The importance of forests as sanctuaries for plant biodiversity is clear if we think that one-quarter of all pharmaceuticals are created from wild plants, and with regard to antitumoral and antimicrobial medicines, this percentage skyrockets to almost 60%: vinblastine and vincristine, obtained from Madagascar rosy periwinkle, are daily used to treat many types of cancer. Another representative case is the one in 1971, when laboratory experiments proved that active substances extracted from Artemisia annua are highly effective against Plasmodium berghei, a mouse model of malaria, and through this research, the development of treatments against the disease made giant steps9. Cultivations of Artemisia annua are quite rare and not easy to manage, so most of its plants are to be found in the wild10.

I am sure there are many other reasons -both direct and indirect- why deforestation puts our health and wellbeing at the stake; here I simply selected and exposed some of the most outstanding ones. The main theme is to understand how our survival and prosperity are unequivocally intertwined with the natural ecosystems that surround us.

The solution is PROTECT AND RESTORE!


Health Effects Attributed to Wildfire Smoke, from EPA

F. Seymour, J. Busch, 2016, Why Forests? Why Now? The Science, Economics, and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change, Center for Global Development

M. M. Robinson, X Zhang, 2011, THE WORLD MEDICINES SITUATION 2011, WHO, Geneva

Artemisia - Artemisia annua L., from

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