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‘Forests can be our antivirus’

While the world continues to grapple with the devastating consequences of Covid-19, WWF is calling for urgent action to address the key drivers of future zoonotic disease outbreaks.

In a new report, Covid-19: urgent call to protect people and nature, WWF identifies a number of environmental factors that drive the emergence of zoonotic diseases.

The most notable drivers identified are the trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife, land-use change including deforestation and the conversion of natural ecosystems into another use such as intensive agriculture and animal production.

Pandemic warning

Numerous scientists and thought leaders, such as the World Economic Forum (WEF), have warned about the risk of a global pandemic.

WEF ranked pandemics and infectious diseases as one of the top global risks over a decade ago, posing ‘an acute threat to human life’. While questions remain about the exact origins of Covid-19, all available evidence suggests that it is a zoonotic disease, meaning it jumped from wildlife to humans.

‘We must urgently recognise the links between the destruction of nature and human health, or we will soon see the next pandemic. We must curb the high risk trade and consumption of wildlife, halt deforestation and land conversion as well as manage food production sustainably. There is no debate, and the science is clear; we must work with nature, not against it. Unsustainable exploitation of nature has become an enormous risk to us all.’

Director general of WWF International

Forest protection

Around 80% of global deforestation is driven by agricultural expansion, a phenomenon which has roots in the global demand for products such as palm oil, soya and beef.

The galloping loss of forests and other natural ecosystems in regions around the world exacerbates the risk of pandemics and accelerates climate change and the loss of nature.

The European Commission has announced new legislation to minimise the EU’s contribution to deforestation and forest degradation worldwide and promote the consumption of products from deforestation-free supply chains in the EU.

‘Deforestation and ecosystem conversion are squeezing wildlife – and with it viruses – out of their natural habitats and closer to humans. Forests can be our ‘antivirus’, they protect us from pandemics and we need to protect them.

‘We welcome the European Commission’s pledge to introduce a new law to tackle deforestation, but we need to ensure the law will be strong enough to stop deforestation and the destruction of grasslands, wetlands and other pristine habitats. New legislation should also protect human rights, especially those of indigenous peoples and local communities.’

Senior Forest policy officer at WWF EU

Conversion to agriculture

Since 1990, 178 million hectares of forest have been cleared, which is equivalent to more than a quarter of the EU’s surface area.

Around 10 million hectares of forest are still being lost each year through the conversion of natural ecosystems to arable land and other uses.

Our unsustainable global food system is driving large-scale conversion of natural spaces for agriculture, thereby fragmenting natural ecosystems and increasing interactions between wildlife, livestock and humans.

A current tragedy is also unfolding in Brazil with a surge in deforestation due to cuts in enforcement by the federal government, following a 64% increase in deforestation already seen in April compared with last year.

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