Only one-third of the tropical rainforest remains, experts say deforestation increases risk of disease pandemics

Stopping deforestation and degradation of tropical forests is paramount in slowing climate change, according to report
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NGO Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) has released a report — first of its kind — entitled “State of the Tropical Forest” that reveals astounding data on the depletion of the “most important terrestrial ecosystem on the planet”: the rainforest.

From 2002 to 2019, 5,85,118 square kilometres of the rainforest were destroyed on a global scale. In 2019 alone, humans deforested 35,523 square kilometres, an area larger than the Netherlands, according to the report.

The rainforest stores the most carbon in live biomass than any other ecosystem on the planet, RFN found.

“Thus, stopping the deforestation and degradation of tropical rainforests is key to being able to slow the human-caused warming of Earth’s oceans and atmosphere,” the report stated.

The RFN also found that humans have damaged or depleted two-thirds of the original tropical forest, with one-third entirely destroyed and one-third degraded.

This leaves only one-third of the original rainforest intact.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Rainforest Foundation Norway

The total area of remaining tropical rainforests in the world is 9.54 million square kilometres, which is spread out between 73 countries. The Brazilian Amazon forest makes up 56% of the global total, according to the report.

“There are both positive and alarming angles to take from these simple facts,” the report stated.

“It’s positive that we have not cleared half of the world’s tropical rainforest, a common statement found on various credible websites. It’s alarming that only one-third is left intact given that degraded forests often struggle to sustain themselves.”

Much of the rainforest destruction can be attributed to human industries, including logging and land conversion for agriculture, which has wiped out 34% of the rainforest and degraded another 30%. This loss makes rainforests more susceptible to fires and even more damage in the future, Reuters reported, citing research from the RFN.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Reuters

Increased rainforest damage activates a vicious cycle: increasing the potential for more climate change which, in turn, reduces the ecosystem’s ability to survive, report author Anders Krogh told Reuters. “It’s a terrifying cycle,” he said.

In recent decades, the agricultural boom overexerted the Brazilian Amazon, with farmers torching plots of land to produce beef and cultivate crops. According to Reuters, this trend has worsened since 2019, when right-winged President Jair Bolsanro undermined environmental enforcement after taking office.

The Amazon, the Orinoco, and the Andean rainforests account for 73.5% of intact tropical forests. This reinforces the imperative role Brazil plays in maintaining and nourishing the forest.

“Brazil has the biggest chunk of tropical forest in the world and is also losing the most,” Ane Alencar, a geographer with the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, told Reuters.

The RFN said that this analysis was vital because misconceptions about tropical rainforests confuse public discourse at best and mislead policymakers at worst.

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“This report is the first complete overview of the state of the world’s tropical rainforest at present and in a historical perspective. It aims to fill a critical knowledge gap in the effort to preserve these invaluable forests for future generations,” the RFN stated.

The tropical rainforest is a unique ecosystem for its concentrated biodiversity: it covers only 6.5% of the planet’s terrestrial surface but contains more than half of the world’s biological diversity, the report stated.

It also acts as a “biotic pump” in that the rainforest collects rainfall thousands of kilometres inland from oceans, affecting precipitation patterns globally. The tropical rainforests also cool air and create evaporation more effectively than open water, according to the RFN.

Meanwhile, scientists have fortified research efforts to better understand the link between biodiversity and emerging diseases to prevent future outbreaks like the COVID-19 pandemic that has laid waste the physical, social, mental, and economic health of the world.

Experts argue that deforestation and extinction make the planet more vulnerable to disease pandemics like COVID-19. Kate Jones, an ecological modeller at University College London, contributed to a study published in Nature illustrating the connection between disease outbreaks and environmental degradation.

“We’ve been warning about this for decades,” Jones told Nature. “Nobody paid any attention.”

The principal question of Jones and her team’s research is whether human expansion to rural regions — and the resultant decline in biodiversity — increases the amount of pathogens that jump from animals to humans.

The researchers found that a loss of biodiversity often results in a few species replacing many. As a result, such species are usually ones that host pathogens that can transmit to humans.

“Sustainable development is crucial,” Ibrahima Socé Fall, an epidemiologist, told Nature. “If we continue to have this level of deforestation, disorganized mining and unplanned development, we are going to have more outbreaks.”

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