One of the most alarming environmental problems stemming from the coronavirus pandemic is the unchecked destruction of tropical rainforests happening in Brazil and Indonesia.
Human-caused fires are posing a major threat to the ecology of these regions. In addition, the fires’ smoke is adding to the problems of the pandemic by placing more stress on people’s lungs.
With governments distracted with the pandemic — both Indonesia and Brazil have seen major increases in infections — both countries may face another spike in forest fires as enforcement of environmental laws lapses and pressure mounts to exploit their riches. This year, blazes have already been detected in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, months ahead of the typical fire season.
It will take coordinated action to fight the pandemic and forest fires at the same time. Tropical forest fires are caused by humans and must be stopped by humans. Otherwise, an ecological disaster and a health crisis could converge in the tropics, sending shockwaves around the world.
How the Covid-19 pandemic is threatening rainforests
The world watched with alarm in 2019 as record fires burned in Brazil and Indonesia. These counties are home to the two largest tropical rainforests in the world and are the nations with the highest rates of deforestation. The fires caused international outrage as activists argued these blazes were ignited with tacit or overt approval from governments. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro campaigned for office on lifting environmental regulations around the rainforest and said that international alarm about the Amazon threatens Brazil’s sovereignty. In Indonesia, slash-and-burn tactics are common for clearing forests to grow crops, particularly palm oil plantations.
Though tropical rainforests have a dry season, these areas have so much moisture that they almost never burn without human intervention.
However, fires are just the most visible signal of a wider pattern of destruction, spurred by the huge economic pressure to exploit the rainforest. The blazes in 2019 were ignited by people in degraded parts of the forest to clear land for mining and agriculture, and in some cases to drive out indigenous people who live in the area.
Now that pressure is only growing amid the Covid-19 pandemic, with many people forced out of work. And governments are having a harder time enforcing rules against illegal deforestation and burning as they cope with the virus.
Tropical forest fires can make the damage from the pandemic worse
The consequences of these fires may be even more severe this year. Beyond the ecological destruction, the blazes stand to exacerbate illnesses.
“In this year, it’s especially concerning because the small particulate matter — the smoke, the soot — that is emanating from these fires, exacerbates respiratory infection,” said Harvey Fineberg, dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, during a press briefing from Columbia’s Earth Institute on June 17. “That respiratory susceptibility means that Covid infections are more likely to be more serious among the populations who are directly affected by the fires. In many tropical areas, those who are especially vulnerable are the indigenous peoples on whose lands these fires may be set.”
The smoke from these fires can harm people even if they don’t have an infection, adding to the strain on the health system. In the tropics, there is also the risk that Covid-19 can infect people alongside other endemic diseases like malaria and dengue, with unknown effects. And indigenous people have been struck especially hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s also important to keep in mind that what happens in the Amazon does not stay in the Amazon,” said Marcia Castro, chair of the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, during the press conference.
In both Indonesia and Brazil, rainforest fires in past years have sent smoke hundreds of miles away, worsening air quality over major cities. And as people flee the fires, they can spread infection to other regions.
“We have an environmental crisis on top of a sanitary crisis,” said Ane Alencar, director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), during the press conference.
Tropical forests benefit the whole world, and humans can protect them
It’s hard to overstate the value of tropical rainforests to the planet. They are home to the largest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. Their trees channel water into the sky and create vital rainfall for farms and cities. This evaporation is also a vital mechanism for keeping temperatures cool in the surrounding regions.
Rainforests also play a critical role in the global climate system and can influence rainfall patterns in far-off countries that are critical for farming and other economic activities. They also soak up and store a gargantuan volume of carbon, cushioning the blows of climate change.
Losing tropical rainforests puts all of these mechanisms in jeopardy. And for rainforests, there is likely a tipping point where if enough of the forest is lost, it won’t be able to circulate enough moisture to sustain itself, leading to an irreversible cycle of collapse. For the Amazon rainforest, researchers estimate that this will occur at 25 percent deforestation. To date, about 17 percent of the rainforest has been lost.
Yet despite these global stakes, the bulk of tropical rainforests are situated in a handful of countries, some of which are less inclined to protect them. That’s created a thorny political challenge.
A big step toward protecting rainforests is to enforce rules against destroying and burning them. “We need to have the government really onboard to fight illegal activities and to give the signal that it is going to fight illegal activities,” Alencar said.
There also needs to be diplomatic pressure to encourage countries to protect forests as well as financing mechanisms to create incentives to preserve valuable ecosystems.
However, with new infections rising in Brazil and Indonesia, stopping fires may become a lower priority.