Loss of forests increase risk of zoonotic diseases


Majority of new infectious diseases affecting humans, including COVID-19, are zoonotic and their emergence is linked to habitat loss due to forest area change and expansion of human populations into forest areas, which both increase human exposure to wildlife, according to UNEP and FAO.

The degradation and loss of forests is a contributing factor, disrupting nature’s balance and increasing the risk and exposure of people to zoonotic diseases, said the report “State of the World’s Forests 2020; Forests, biodiversity and people”.

FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu and UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said that the edition of State of the World’s Forests 2020 examines the contributions of forests, and of the people who use and manage them, to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. “It assesses progress to date in meeting global targets and goals relating to forest biodiversity and describes the effectiveness of policies, actions and approaches for conservation and sustainable development alike, illustrated by case studies of innovative practices and win-win solutions.” They said.

Dongyu and Andersen also mentioned that deforestation and forest degradation continued to take place at alarming rates, which contribute significantly to the ongoing loss of biodiversity. They said that agricultural expansion continued to be one of the main drivers, while the resilience of human food systems and their capacity to adapt to future change depends on that very biodiversity.

Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity

The report said that forests provide habitats for 80 percent of amphibian species, 75 percent of bird species and 68 percent of mammal species. Moreover, about 60 percent of all vascular plants are found in tropical forests. Forests cover 31 percent of the global land. It also said that more than half of the world’s forests are found in only five countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Russian Federation and United States of America). It said that about half of the forest area (49 percent) is relatively intact and nine percent is found in fragments with little or no connectivity. Deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place at alarming rates, which contributes significantly to the ongoing loss of biodiversity, the study said.

It is estimated that some 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses since 1990.  However, the report noted that the rate of deforestation has decreased over the past three decades. Between 2015 and 2020, the rate of deforestation was estimated at ten million hectares per year, down from 16 million hectares per year in the 1990s. The report said that agricultural expansion continued to be the main driver of deforestation and forest fragmentation and the associated loss of forest biodiversity.

Loss of forest area

The net loss of forest area is less than the rate of deforestation, the report said. It said that the net loss of forest area decreased from 7.8 million hectares per year in the 1990s to 4.7 million hectares per year during 2010–2020. This is because new forests are being established through natural expansion or deliberate efforts in others while deforestation is taking place in some areas.

Of more than 60,000 different tree species known now, more than 20,000 of have been included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. Of these, more than 8,000 of these are assessed as globally threatened (Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable) and more than 1,400 tree species are assessed as critically endangered and in urgent need of conservation action. About eight percent of forest plants, five percent of animals and five percent of fungi found in forests are listed as critically endangered.

Dependence upon forests

The report said that forests provide more than 86 million green jobs and support the livelihoods of many more people. However, the report points out that poverty rates in these areas tend to be high. Some 252 million people living in forests and savannahs have incomes of less than 1.25 dollar per day.

The study also notes; “it is estimated that 75 percent of the world’s leading food crops, representing 35 percent of global food production, benefit from animal pollination for fruit, vegetable or seed production. Worldwide, around 1 billion people depend to some extent on wild foods such as wild meat, edible insects, edible plant products, mushrooms and fish, which often contain high levels of key micronutrients. The value of forest foods as a nutritional resource is not limited to low- and middle-income countries; more than 100 million people in the European Union (EU) regularly consume wild food. Some 2.4 billion people – in both urban and rural settings – use wood-based energy for cooking.”

Human health

More than 28000 plant species are recorded as being of medicinal use and many of them are found in forest ecosystems.

Protected areas

Though several protected areas could seen across the globe, the report pointed out that such protected areas alone are not sufficient to conserve biodiversity. Nearly 18 percent of the world’s forest area (700 million hectares) falls within legally established protected areas such as national parks, conservation areas and game reserves

Ensuring positive outcomes for both biodiversity and people

The “State of the World’s Forests 2020 report has called for an urgent need to ensure that biodiversity conservation be mainstreamed into forest management practices in all forest types. It said that a realistic balance must be struck between conservation goals and local needs and demands for resources that support livelihoods, food security and human well-being. Effective governance; policy alignment between sectors and administrative levels, land-tenure security, respect for rights and knowledge of local communities and indigenous people and enhanced capacity for monitoring of biodiversity outcomes are needed for this, the report said. .

Transformation of food systems to halt deforestation

The report said that the world must move away from the present situation where the demand for food is resulting in inappropriate agricultural practices that drive large-scale conversion of forests to agricultural production and the loss of forest-related biodiversity. “Adopting agroforestry and sustainable production practices, restoring the productivity of degraded agricultural lands, embracing healthier diets and reducing food loss and waste are all actions that urgently need to be scaled up,” the report said.


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