COVID-19 emerged due to forest destruction: indigenous leaders

Protecting indigenous and forest rights could also help to find treatments for such diseases, they said

By DTE Staff
Published: Monday 16 March 2020

The destruction of forests that encourages climate change also encourages the emergence of diseases like the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), indigenous leaders, who recently met in New York, said.

Loss of habitat has brought wild animals into closer contact with humans and domesticated animals, research has found, enabling diseases such as the coronavirus to jump the animal-human barrier and spread through human-to-human contact.  

“The coronavirus is now telling the world what we have been saying for thousands of years — that if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, we will face this and worse future threats,” Levi Sucre Romero, a BriBri indigenous person from Costa Rica and the coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, was quoted as saying in a statement.

“It is likely that an animal (is responsible for a virus that) has infected tens of thousands of people worldwide with coronavirus and placed a strain on the global economy,” Mina Setra, a Dayak Pompakng indigenous person from Indonesia and the deputy secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of the Archipelago or AMAN, said. 

“If only the world (had) worked to strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples —who have learned to live in nature with biodiversity and protect animal and plant species — we would see fewer epidemics such as the one that we are currently facing,” Setra added.

The leaders also criticised Cargill Corp and other multinational companies for replacing forests with soy, palm and cattle plantations.

“One of the main companies that has been financing genocide and destruction of indigenous lands is Cargill,” Dinamam Tuxá, the coordinator and legal advisor to the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, said.

“What we are asking from the multinationals is that they not buy commodities that cause deforestation and conflict and that are produced on indigenous lands.  We are also demanding that bilateral trade agreements … demand respect for Indigenous rights and ensure there are no products linked to deforestation coming into their countries,” Tuxá added.

According to recent research, protecting the land and human rights of indigenous peoples who occupy much of the earth’s forested areas was the best way to keep forests standing, which in turn reduced global warming and biodiversity loss. 

In 2019, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called protection of land and human rights for Indigenous Peoples “vital” to tackling the climate crisis. 

Indigenous lands experience a rate of tree cover loss less than half of what other lands experience, according to the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch monitoring programme; where indigenous rights are recognised, the difference is even greater.

The leaders also stressed that protecting indigenous rights and forests could help the world find medicines to treat the coronavirus and potential future pandemics. 

But too often, global companies enter indigenous lands and take their products and traditional knowledge without compensation.

“We know that 25 per cent of the medicines (the world) uses come out of the forests and that by losing the forests we put in danger future solutions,” said Sucre Romero.

“The cure for the next pandemic might be in our lands, and what’s important is that our traditional knowledge is adequately recognized,” said Tuxá.  Instead, he added, “these large pharmaceutical companies come into our communities, extract our traditional knowledge and plants without recognising our rights … and take them to the cities and say they’re their own discoveries.”

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