Deforestation and Palm Oil Plantations Could Trigger the Next Pandemic

Forest management aimed at preserving the Earth's existing forests could be crucial for preventing future epidemics.
Derya Ozdemir
Illegal deforestationDZMYTRI PALUBIATKA/iStock

A new research that offers the first global look at how deforestation could be associated with outbreaks of disease has revealed a dangerous link: Building palm oil plantations, cutting up forests, and converting grassy areas into new forests are associated with outbreaks of disease, particularly those carried by mosquitoes and other vector animals, as well as zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.

Particularly, the expansion of palm oil plantations corresponded to significant rises in vector-borne infections, according to the study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Researchers looked at different sources of data including information on the building of plantations, increases and decreases of forest land, and reported disease outbreaks throughout the world from 1990 to 2016. Afterward, a model was created to determine if these events affected one another.

The findings 

It was found that both deforestation and afforestation, the practice of converting land into forests, correlated strongly with disease outbreaks, reaffirming previous research. Epidemics such as malaria and Ebola in tropical countries such as Brazil, Peru Myanmar, Indonesia, and Malaysia had strong associations with deforestation. Afforestation activities and vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease and scrub typhus correlated in countries like the USA, China, and Europe. 

"We don't yet know the precise ecological mechanisms at play, but we hypothesize that plantations, such as oil palm, develop at the expense of natural wooded areas, and reforestation is mainly monospecific forest made at the expense of grasslands," said lead author Dr. Serge Morandin in a statement released by EurekAlert. "Both land-use changes are characterized by loss of biodiversity and these simplified habitats favor animal reservoirs and vectors of diseases."

Researchers say that these findings suggest careful forest management aimed at preserving the Earth's existing forests is especially crucial for preventing future epidemics. 

"We hope that these results will help policymakers recognize that forests contribute to a healthy planet and people, and that governing bodies need to avoid afforestation and agricultural conversion of grasslands," said Morand. "We'd also like to encourage research into how healthy forests regulate diseases, which may help better manage forested and planted areas by considering their multidimensional values for local communities, conservation, and mitigation of climate change."

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