Climate Curious speaks to disease detective, Neil Vora, to explain why protecting rainforests might also lead to fewer pandemics.

Transcript: Climate Quickie: Why protecting rainforests might lead to less climate change and fewer pandemics

TEDxLondon Climate Curious

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Climate solution alert! Rainforests are a medical, health and climate treasure trove. Over 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed to reach our climate goals come from nature, such as keeping rainforests standing. So why is it that those nature-based solutions get less than 5 percent of overall climate funding? Climate Curious speaks to disease detective, Neil Vora, to explore this question and explain why protecting rainforests might also lead to fewer pandemics down the road.

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Ben Hurst 0:06
Welcome to climate quickies, bite sized nuggets of climate goodness from our TEDx London experts in under five minutes.

Maryam Pasha 0:18
A guest this evening is a physician with Conservation International. He is a disease detective working in pandemic prevention. He’s worked around the world responding to Ebola outbreaks and leaving New York City’s COVID-19 contact tracing programme.

Neil Vora 0:33
But I’m a doctor who specialises in rainforest conservation. You know, for as long as I can remember, I wanted to do public health. My dad was born in India, and he actually he had smallpox as a child. And so over 70 years later, you can still see the legacy that the disease left on him in the form of scars on his face.

Maryam Pasha 0:52
You mentioned rainforest that you worked specifically on rain forests. And I know that you cover this in your TED talk, but can you give us like a bird’s eye view of the relationship specifically with rainforests and health and, and why these two have these interactions?

Neil Vora 1:08
So rain forests have many health benefits, right? medicines, food biodiversity, right. And that’s like the big picture mental health. I focused specifically on the infectious disease side, right. So just take a step back. Since at least the 1940s, we have seen infectious diseases increasingly emerge around the world. And most of those are emerging infectious diseases originate in animals, and then jump into people we call that spillover. And so when we’re when we’re when we’re trying to understand why spillovers are increasing around the world, it’s important to recognise that is because of human activities, human activities such as deforestation, wildlife trade, the way we raise farmed animals, and human activities that lead to climate change, right? And we can look, we can dive deeper into the deforestation there’s at least three different reasons why deforestation, so clearing and degrading tropical forests leads to more infectious disease emergence. Reason number one is that when you clear forests, you create this edge, where people then whether intentionally or not start interacting more with the forest. Right. So they build roads, they build towns, farms, whatever it is. And so there’s more opportunities for people to interact with wildlife, and then for those wildlife pirates to jump viruses to jump into people. Reason number two, is that just like us, when we lose our home, we get stressed, we’re more likely to get sick, you know, with weather a cold or something more severe. Same thing goes for animals, when you’re clear cutting the forests, we are stressing out animals, leading them to be more likely to get sick and then pass on are not necessarily sick, but more likely to get infected with with pathogens, and then pass those pathogens on to us. And finally, when we clear forests, we lead to loss of biodiversity. So the variety of life in that area. Biodiversity is a good thing for our health. But when we what research has shown is that when you leave when you clear those forests and have less biodiversity, the animals that tend to disappear, are ones that can only live in the forest, but the ones that survive are ones that can live alongside people. Those ones that surviving can live alongside people are also the same types of species that can harbour pathogens that can then go on to infect us. And examples of where deforestation has led to outbreaks include Ebola, and probably Nipah virus Nipah virus was discovered in the 90s. In Malaysia, when it caused a major outbreak with with where people experienced a brain infection Nipah virus kills in some outbreaks more than 50% of people that it infects very severe infection. And again, because of that clear cutting of forests in Malaysia was one leading hypothesis is that bats got displaced. So they started living in the pig farms that were put in place were put in those areas where forests used to exist, then pigs got infected with that virus, and they then pass it on to people. Is this what people were saying about COVID as well? Is that the same? Am I making this up? Is that a bad link? No. They were saying that it came from that threat. Yeah, you’re entirely right. There’s many Corona viruses that are related to the virus that causes COVID that have been found in bats. And the the science fairly well, the science very strongly shows that wildlife like wildlife markets were the origin of the COVID pandemic. And I know there’s, there are other theories about a lab leak. But again, if you look at the peer reviewed science, it looks very strongly like it was wildlife markets. But even if you disregard that, I mean, we know that wildlife markets like the commercial wildlife trade, I’m not sure

Maryam Pasha 4:47
about what is a wildlife market? People haven’t heard of it. Yeah. And

Neil Vora 4:51
I’m really I’m referring here to places where wildlife is sold in an urban setting. I’m not talking about For people in rural settings, who hunt wildlife for cultural reasons or for their sustenance, people should have people have a right to access wildlife. But what I’m talking about in a place like London, or a major city in China or New York City, we don’t need to have wildlife markets. We’re live wildlife are sold, particularly birds and mammals. And again, if you disregard the COVID example, even though most scientists in the field think that COVID originated because of that wildlife trade, even if you look at you can look at other outbreaks, the original SARS in 2003, or the first outbreak of M pox outside of Africa happened in 2003. That was because of the trade of African rodents into the United States for the exotic pet industry. Right, that led to the first outbreak of M pox outside of, of Africa. Right. So my point is that there are certain activities that we engage in as humans that are actually increasing our risk for viral outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics. But the reality is, is that we need nature to survive. Without nature, we’re not going to thrive as a species. Everything is interdependent. And that’s what we seem to have forgotten we, we seem to have gone down this track of human exceptionalism that somehow humans are different. And again, I’m just quoting someone else. Human humans, we are not a part. Apart from nature, we are a part of nature.

Neil Vora 6:34
I seen the examples of where people have successfully save rainforest, right? Because again, that’s what I focus on, because Rand for just taking a step back, over 30% of the emissions reductions needed to reach our climate goals come from nature, such as keeping for a standing, yet those nature based solutions get less than 5% of overall climate funding. So we have this disconnect, where we overlook nature. On the climate side, we’re also overlooking nature on the pandemic side. Because again, we don’t talk much about how saving for rainforests might lead to fewer pandemics down the road. Yeah, but the first time I’ve ever heard it to be right, yeah. But like if we invested in forests, for example, we have every dollar spent and saving forests is $1. That goes a far away, because not only are you mitigating climate change, you’re saving biodiversity. And you’re also potentially preventing the next pandemic, right. And people have done this before, they’ve shown how to save rainforests. One example that comes to mind, I will let me give you two examples. The one is health and harmony, which is this amazing nonprofit that originally started working in Indonesia, that’s focused on listening to indigenous peoples and local communities, and then supporting those indigenous peoples and local communities in implementing solutions. And this NGO showed that, at least, when it when it comes to a local level, when when local communities are engaged in deforestation, in many instances is because they don’t have means to otherwise survive, they need to clear forests, so that they can generate income to pay for basic health or other basic services. This is a matter of survival for that. So this NGO invested in health care in the area, and it invested in training people in alternative jobs rather than logging to engage in in other types of jobs such as organic farming. And they showed that after a decade of this type of work, that there was a 90% reduction in the number of households engaging in logging. And at the same time, infant mortality dropped by around two thirds. That’s a win win for people and planet. These, these solutions exist. But for for too long, even in my own prior life. We’ve We’ve kept them as people on planet as an opposition, but we need to find those win wins. The other example I’ll give is from the Brazilian Amazon, from 2004 to 2012, the Brazilian government implemented this very expansive effort to return territories to indigenous peoples to crack down on illegal deforestation. And basically they do the course of that effort. They found that deforestation on an annual basis dropped by 70%. At the same time, agricultural output increased. Right. So there are ways to save rainforest. It’s just the question is whether we have the political will to do so. To

Maryam Pasha 9:31
wrap up, Neil, thank you for joining us on this.

Ben Hurst 9:36
Thanks for listening to this quickie.

Maryam Pasha 9:38
This episode was created by our superstar podcast team at TEDx London. Until next time, stay

Ben Hurst 9:43



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