Did Deforestation Help Unleash Ebola?

An interesting proposition from Grist

Perhaps you have heard about Ebola, otherwise known as The Most Terrifying Disease Of Our Modern Times (Sorry, MERs; panic is a fickle friend). But you might not have heard that Ebola’s origin story also features a favorite environmental arch-villain? And by “favorite,” I mean “actually the worst”: deforestation.

You see, the most recent outbreak of this extra-deadly strain of the Ebola virus began last December, in a town called Meliandou in the sleepy “Forest Region” of Guinea. That is, it used to be forested, as a recent article in Vanity Fair pointed out:

Trees were felled to make way for farms or burned down for charcoal. Endless truckloads of timber were shipped to construction companies. The forest suffered another trauma as mining interests — the Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto, the omnipresent Chinese — pushed aggressively to exploit the country’s natural resources (bauxite mostly). As the forests disappeared, so too did the buffer separating humans from animals — and from the pathogens that animals harbor.

That is an interesting explanation for the current outbreak, and I will be right there decrying deforestation. I think, though, it is important to view the entire paragraph from the Vanity Fair article

In Meliandou, bushmeat has long been a common source of food. As elsewhere in West Africa, hunters wade into the forest and come back with whatever they can find. Once, not so long ago, what they found was a rich and varied bounty: monkeys, antelope, squirrels. That has changed; the whole eco-system has re-arranged itself. After civil wars broke out in Liberia and Sierra Leone, refugees poured over the borders, and the population grew, even as a power struggle in Guinea took an economic toll. People started looking to the rich resource all around them: trees. Trees were felled to make way for farms or burned down for charcoal. Endless truckloads of timber were shipped to construction companies. The forest suffered another trauma as mining interests—the Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto, the omnipresent Chinese—pushed aggressively to exploit the country’s natural resources (bauxite mostly). As the forests disappeared, so too did the buffer separating humans from animals—and from the pathogens that animals harbor.

That changes the tone a bit, in that it was the citizens pouring in to those areas looking for money that started clear cutting, whereas the shorter excerpt attempts to paint a picture of evil Chinese and mining interests. And, for agricultural production. Food.

Anyhow, this did mean that the fruit bats, which are considered one of the prime suspects for Ebola, were in much closer contact with the people, who would then also catch and eat the bats.

This is not something new. The Washington Post, among others, discussed this back in July, but only in terms of outbreaks since 1994. That said, the first known outbreak was in Sudan and Zaire in 1976, both occurring in forested areas. Certainly, a link can be made to the deforestation, and having more people in the area. Changing nature can have dangerous consequences.

BTW, what do you do with contagious diseases? That’s right, isolation.

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One Response to “Did Deforestation Help Unleash Ebola?”

  1. Jeffery says:

    Read the article Teach linked:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/2014/10/ebola-virus-epidemic-containment

    It’s long, but explains how the outbreak in Western Africa developed.

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