Deforestation in the Amazon: world at risk of new pandemics

Humanity has already gone through several moments when the population experienced the spread of diseases, which took over the global scenario. Several parts of the world have witnessed epidemics that have turned into pandemics, challenging the survival of human beings.

Microorganisms such as viruses, fungi, parasites and bacteria are in different parts of the planet – in animals, contaminated water, waste and the environment as a whole – and can at some point reach a specific human population.

The pandemic arises exactly when these organisms transit between different types of living beings and are able to produce quickly so that transmission becomes uncontrolled even among human beings.

What is a pandemic?

Pandemic is when there is a worldwide spread of a new disease. The terms epidemic and outbreak cease to be used and give rise to a pandemic to characterize the sustained transmission of a disease, which passes rapidly across continents.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are three prerequisites for the occurrence of a pandemic. The first is the appearance of a new virus, to which the human population has little or almost no immunity as a defense. The second is the possibility that the virus will replicate in humanity and cause severe disease. The third refers to easy transmission from person to person.

The historical context of pandemics

Factors that influence the emergence of new pandemics and their relationship with nature and deforestation in the Amazon

Satellite monitoring carried out by the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) has registered a 34% increase in deforestation alerts in the Amazon in the last 12 months.

During the pandemic of the new coronavirus, the biome showed a 25% increase in deforestation alerts, released by Inpe’s Deforestation Detection System in Real Time (Deter). This year alone, 6,756.73 km² of the Amazon have already been deforested.

According to data from the Institute of Man and the Environment of the Amazon (Imazon), deforestation alerts increased by 68% in August, compared to last year.

Scientists and NGOs have been warning for several years about the damage that deforestation and the exploitation of the Amazon can cause to the world population. One of the main risks is the emergence of diseases and zoonoses, which can trigger pandemics like that of the new coronavirus.

Greenpeace is an environmental organization created over 40 years ago to build a greener and more peaceful world; acts on issues related to the preservation of the environment and sustainable development, working to protect the environment, promote peace and engage people to transform their realities. The NGO operates in 55 countries in an activist, global and independent way and has been present in Brazil since 1992, without receiving donations from governments, companies or political parties, only from individuals.

The environmental manager and spokesperson for Greenpeace Brazil’s Amazon campaign, Cristiane Mazzetti, comments on the main problems that deforestation can bring to the emergence of a new pandemic.

“A message already reinforced by scientists is that, if we want to prevent future pandemics, we need to stop the destruction of the environment. When deforesting we come into contact with pathogens (viruses and bacteria that can cause us diseases). For example, since 1940, 31% of zoonotic diseases (which pass from animals to humans) were caused by changes in land use, that is, deforestation. The risk is greater in tropical forests that have greater biodiversity. This is the case with HIV, Ebola and Zika ”, says Cristiane.

The doctor, researcher and research coordinator in Ecology at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA), Adalberto Luis Val, explains the possibility of migration of viruses to humans.

“We are always concerned with what is called ‘jumping virus’ in English, that is, it is the virus jumping from the forest reservoir to human society. It is also necessary to understand that there is a very large amount of these same viruses jumping for organisms that are inside the forest itself or else for organisms that have an economic potential, and the fish themselves are an example of that ”, says Val.

Animals can be sources of infectious diseases caused by viruses, bacteria and parasites and, when there is close contact with a human being, they can transport these microorganisms to the human organism. Val points out that “our tendency is to domesticate some of these organisms that live in the forest, so they are also very vulnerable to these viruses, which are loose in the forest”.

The forest is one of the main places in the world that holds hundreds of thousands of species of organisms of all types that can serve as a “habitat” for new viruses.

“The Evandro Chagas Institute, which is located in Belém (PA), is currently working on precisely this issue of viruses. In a conversation, a professor who works at that institute said that there are already several thousand viruses in organisms in the forest – from small forest mammals to plants that have viruses. And we know that some of these are capable of infecting humans and producing local endemic diseases ”, says Val.

The Amazon rainforest passes through northwestern Brazil and goes to Colombia, Peru and other South American countries. The rainforest is the largest in the world in terms of biodiversity and is home to thousands of rivers throughout its length: a total of 5,500.00 km² of area, the highest point being Pico da Neblina, with 2,993 meters.

Doctor and researcher who worked for almost 38 years at Inpe, Carlos Nobre confirms that the Amazon is the place with the greatest biodiversity of microorganisms and that it can present a new pandemic at any time.

“The cities grew a lot on top of the forest, right on this border of the forest. So a virus, a bacterium or a protozoan can migrate, yes. The likelihood of zoonoses increases a lot, which is why it is said that if we continue to deforest the Amazon at this rate globally, it is ‘lucky’ that a major world pandemic has not yet originated in the Amazon, the place with the most species of microorganisms in the world ”, warns Nobre.

One of the main factors that can influence the emergence of a pandemic straight from the forest is the possibility of a virus “jumping” to a new host. This process is called zoonosis and can become even more severe in the new host.

Researcher Adalberto Val adds that, “once a virus ends up reaching man, if it is a virus with characteristics of rapid spread and that causes problems, what we have experienced with covid-19 occurs”. Val recalls that there have been several cases in humanity of viruses that “jumped” to the human species.

“We have already had some episodes of viruses jumping to humans and causing epidemics, but the potential for that to happen is very high. Some authors say it is not whether it will happen, but a question of when it will happen. ”

The scientist points out that the main way to avoid this type of event is to work on preserving the environment that the forest makes up. “We need to stop‘ poking the forest with a short stick ’as this could put us at risk in the near future. He hasn’t put it up until now because the amount of interventions we did in the forest was relatively small; the scenario changes as we expand this with new areas of mining and city expansion – not only in Brazil, but also in other Amazonian countries. All of this ends up dramatically increasing the risk of some of these people acting in these interventions as carriers of a virus from the middle of the forest for societies living in cities ”, claims Val.

Researcher Carlos Nobre also warns that attacks on the forest increase the chances of a virus with a high degree of dissemination to the population, like others already known to mankind.

“It is ‘lucky’ that no pandemic to date of the degree of lethality and severity of covid-19, SARS 1, ebola, HIV and zika has originated in the Amazon, but this is not impossible, because all the elements are there: disturbance of wildlife and humans that go into the forests and can be the vectors to bring viruses, bacteria, parasites, protozoa or pathogens here. ”

Distribution of deforestation area over time

Graph 01

Source: TerraBrasilis / Inpe

Environmental manager Cristiane Mazzetti explains that “we have been working for many years to contain and stop deforestation in the Amazon, as it contributes negatively to the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity. When deforestation occurs, the carbon present in the forest is released and we also end up with the habitat of species of biodiversity ”.

Inpe data from August 1 collected by the satellite shows 6,800 regions within the Amazon that were overtaken by fires in July, with an increase of 28% over the same period in 2019. The beginning of August registered an increase 17% over the same month last year and demonstrates that the fire seasons started early in 2020.

Master and federal criminal expert in the area of ​​environment, Gustavo Geiser explains how the police work in the face of deforestation alerts in the Amazon.

“The judicial police work provoked; this means that there is a complaint, a deforestation alert, in short, something that provokes the State to act. If this complaint is made, a hypothesis appears to be verified. We seek authorship, to verify who committed that crime and the materiality, exactly what that crime is. My role is to describe this materiality ”, says Geiser.

The expert also highlights the difficulties faced by the process. “Unfortunately, we have no legs to open inquiries for each of the deforestations, so we have the administrative sphere, Ibama, ICMBio, among others, that act first and, when it comes to the criminal sphere, we instruct the process.”

Scientist Carlos Nobre predicted in 1997 that, if the deforestation process is maintained, part of the Amazon will become a savannah in a period that can vary from 50 to 100 years. This process can directly influence the process of spreading new zoonoses and infectious diseases of high risk to the human population.

“This transformation is as if you were releasing hundreds of thousands of species of microorganisms that are in that balance. Suddenly, the forest no longer exists, and they spread – in English, known as ‘spillover’, which is scattering. The big concern about zoonoses is precisely the spread, ”confirms Nobre.

“The microorganisms are in an environment with a typical climate inside the forest, with little temperature variation, and suddenly they are in a savanna climate, very dry during part of the year, with a much higher temperature. They will die, seek adaptation and go to other animals ”, describes Nobre.

The risks of zoonoses migration for the population in the face of forest savanization is great, due to the disturbance of the environment where thousands of virus species currently live. “There are different species of ants living in each area of ​​the Amazon; the entire UK does not have 300 species of ants, nor does Scandinavia. So, this comparison is just to show that it is a place with several species, microorganisms, plants, animals – and everything is in balance, interacting and evolving ”, adds Nobre.

“The disturbance of tropical forests poses a risk of becoming a phenomenon and, each week, having a new zoonosis. We need to combat climate change, the climate crisis, the loss of biodiversity and maintain the climate of the forests to avoid this huge risk of pandemics ”.

States with the largest area of ​​deforestation

Graph 02

Source: TerraBrasilis / Inpe

According to INPE’s deforestation alerts data, several states had peaks. Cristiane Mazzetti points out that “while many were in the home office, this was not the case for those who destroy the Amazon, and deforestation has increased significantly”.

Scientist Carlos Nobre also highlights the importance of investing in preservation in the forest to avoid greater losses such as that of covid-19. “A recent study showed that the cost of preserving tropical forests is a ‘tiny fraction’ of the damage that covid-19 is doing to the world economy.”

Municipalities with greater deforestation area

Graph 03

Source: TerraBrasilis / Inpe

The 5 municipalities with the highest deforestation alerts are: Altamira (633.28 km²), São Félix do Xingu (468.87 km²), Porto Velho (414.07 km²), Lábrea (379.47 km²) and Novo Progresso (286 , 91 km²). According to Cristiane Mazzetti, this has been happening mainly “because, unfortunately, we have a government that acts against the environment. Since taking office, the current government has weakened the bodies that exercise environmental protection and has weakened operations to control deforestation. As a result, deforesters, garimpeiros, grileiros (those who steal public land) and large landowners take advantage of the situation and advance on the forest. The truth is only one: deforestation is out of control in the Amazon ”.

The expert Gustavo Geiser presents the main problems and impasses of the police action in the deforestation alerts, which occur in the forest during the pandemic of the new coronavirus.

“The coronavirus ends up making it difficult for the State to act. Several people at the police station had coronavirus – I myself was away for 3 weeks in bed. Then, the available team decreased; the plan was to bring together 40 people, but we take the risk into account now. And there is also the question of indigenous lands: should we have contact with them at this time? These are delicate decisions, because we run the risk of taking the coronavirus to the village. However, if I don’t get the prospectors out there, they will take the coronavirus to the indigenous peoples ”, reports Geiser.

Researcher Adalberto Val separates this process of exploitation into three groups linked to the possibility of new pandemics such as that of covid-19. “The first is the large group called‘ land use ’, which involves shallow deforestation for raising cattle, planting cane, soybeans etc. The world has already woken up to this reality and is fully aware that we need to stop it; there are also the issues of mining, opening roads and things like that. ”

The second group brings the context of climate change and the uncontrolled emission of carbon dioxide. “We may not be the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, but we share with the world the problems that this increase in carbon dioxide emissions causes across the planet,” adds Val.

“The third point is information, which is central to all of these processes. First, the vast information about the Amazon is not the domain of the Amazon countries. For the Amazon region, which represents about 60% of the Brazilian territory, Brazil today receives 2 and no more than 2.5% of investments in the area of ​​science and technology. In other words, if we want to put the Amazon on our science and technology agenda, we need to leave these historic investments and move on to massive investment in the region and, in such a way, set up qualified people there to produce the information we want.

The scientist expands the context of the Amazon and the possibility of the emergence of diseases that can affect humanity to reiterate the importance of science as a means of knowing and preventing society from events such as the covid-19 pandemic. “If we don’t know our home – and the Amazon is part of our home – we will not have sovereignty over that part. This issue cannot be dissociated from social and cultural issues. Always remembering that science is a social activity for social purposes. We do science for the society in which we operate ”, concludes Val.

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