“Deforestation could spark new diseases, experts say” is the subhed the National Post put on a Reuters story about how the Amazon rainforest is a reservoir of one after another hideous new “virulent virus, bacteria or fungus” just waiting to leap on us and punish us for our sins. “As farms expand into the Amazon rainforest, felled trees and expanding pastures may open the way for new Brazilian exports beyond beef and soybeans, researchers say: pandemic diseases.” Boo rainforests. And of course “Climate change, which is driving temperature and rainfall changes, adds to the risks”. Why? Why wouldn’t temperature and rainfall changes also take down some revolting fungus or another? Well, because all effects of climate change are bad and all bad things are effects of climate change. Duh.
The article cites two institutes (the Evandro Chagas Institute in Belém and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation) and a scientist, Adalberto Luís Val of the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) in Manaus, all in Brazil, as it lays on the threats thickly: “220 different types of viruses in the Amazon, 37 of which can cause diseases in humans and 15 of which have the potential to cause epidemics” from “different encephalitis varieties” to “West Nile fever and rocio, a Brazilian virus from the same family that produces yellow fever and West Nile”. Plus “a Brazilian hemorrhagic fever, rodent-carried hantaviruses, and a mosquito-transmitted arbovirus called oropouche” and also “malaria, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease”. So we are all going to die.
Or possibly not, because this model of disease transmission is a bit suspicious. The reason humans have been getting diseases from animals for millennia is not that they have fled past us out of a clearing. It’s primarily that we spent a lot of quality time with them, domesticating them and then wading endlessly in their dung with cuts on our feet. Moreover, humans have intruded so deeply into just about every ecosystem that it’s hard to believe there’s much still lurking there. It’s far more probable, evolution being what it is, that the next plague will breed where there’s a ready supply of food, and since we’re the food, that would be in cities. As indeed it seems almost certain that COVID-19 did.
None of which is to say that trashing ecosystems is fine. On the contrary, it’s a major problem for all kinds of reasons. Which is one of the main reasons governments should not be pouring so much time, effort and money into climate change instead of more pressing problems. Especially as none of the horrors above have any connection with climate change unless it is climate change that is causing the deforestation and raging fires the article confidently asserts are happening (and which we doubt). Which in turn presumably requires that it’s the alleged “temperature and rainfall changes” that are chasing Brazilians into the forest in search of land that isn’t yet desertified, a cool green valley, shelter from the rain or some unspecified thing.
Of course this statement relies on a particular model of logic and knowledge that not everyone shares. According to Reuters, the solution to this alarming mess is “for indigenous knowledge systems to be taken seriously”, and perhaps such systems have insights into the relationship between climate change and land use patterns in Brazil that elude those of us born somewhere else. For instance, Reuters interviews “João Paulo Lima Barreto, a member of the Tukano indigenous people… who is doing doctoral research on shamanistic knowledge and healing at the Federal University of Amazonas” and learns that “Without adequate preservation of forests, rivers and animals, imbalance and disease are generated, he said, as humans fail to respect nature entities known to shamans as ‘wai-mahsã’”.
So there you have it.