Protecting Our Forests, Protecting OurselvesDiseases resulting from deforestation and animal contact rarely call to mind a place like Duchess County, New York. Yet the county is now home to the highest rates of Lyme disease among U.S. residents. Loss of natural predators in the region's increasingly fragmented forestland has sparked a population boom in white-footed mice, which spread the bacteria via ticks that have fed off them. The same suburban development that is dicing up Duchess County woodlands for strip malls and subdivisions has created a ripe breeding ground for infection.
Intact forests are more vital to our health than we may realize. In addition to hosting a healthy diversity of species, they act as natural water treatment plants, filtering out contaminants and keeping silt out of waterways. But in places undergoing deforestation and loss of clean drinking water, there are also disease outbreaks, notes William Karesh, a field veterinarian for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Disrupted waterways often create stagnant ponds, which serve as ideal breeding sites for mosquitoes that may carry malaria. (See "Malaria Linked to Deforestation," p. 11.)
Logging roads through forests present another means for contact between humans and infected wildlife. Bushmeat hunters probing deep into Africa's jungles are thought to have first carried HIV back to their communities, and many are now regularly exposed to a "simian foamy virus" (SFV) that could also affect humans. While SFV exposure hasn't yet led to human-to-human transmission, the more frequent the "viral chatter," the more chances such viruses have to mutate into human diseases. "That's what we see with Ebola," says Karesh. "The more people there are in the forest, and the more they hunt, there's more disease transmission."
Clearing forest habitat for large-scale farming operations creates yet another disease risk. The Malaysian pig farms where Nipah virus-a previously unknown infection that has killed hundreds of people in Asia-first emerged were located near pristine rain forest, a primary foraging habitat for fruit bats that carried the disease, explains Jonathan Epstein of the New York NGO Wildlife Trust. "In traditional [small-scale] farming, the virus would run out of susceptible pigs," he points out, but at a farm with 30,000 heads the population is "large enough and dense enough to sustain an outbreak."
Here are some ways you can help support the life-saving work of forests worldwide:
- "Adopt" a forest. Check out The Nature Conservancy's program in Brazil (www.nature.org/joinanddonate/adoptanacre/) or the Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org/programs/aar).
- Say no to bushmeat. Support the Bushmeat Crisis Taskforce (www.bushmeat.org), a consortium of conservationists dedicated to preserving wildlife threatened by commercial hunting.
- Buy sustainable wood. When building or remodeling, seek out products bearing the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label, certifying that the wood comes from well-managed sources. Or choose reclaimed items such as flooring, cutting boards, or furniture. (In the United States, see mountainlumber.com, endurawood.com, tamalpais.com, and terramai.com.)
- Choose wood substitutes. Look for bamboo flooring (plyboo.com), recycled plastic outdoor furniture (eco-furniture.com), or recycled decking and fencing (trex.com).
- Avoid "endangered" fragrances. Rosewood and pau rosa are both harvested from the endangered Brazilian Rosewood tree. Instead, choose organic essential oils from sustainable sources, such as organic lavender (dropwise.com).
- Choose certified food. Rainforest Alliance-certified food items help protect habitat and water quality and provide fair wages to workers. Try Cafe Sombra coffee (cafesombra.com), Plantations Arriba Chocolate (ecochocolates.com), and Chiquita Bananas.
- Buy natural latex items. Buying rubber made from the sap of the rubber tree can help preserve forests and sustain local communities. For your next mattress purchase, pick one with a natural latex core. (See lifekind.com or northstarbeds.com.)
- "Green" your paper choices. Ask your office to stock FSC-certified paper, with virgin fiber from well-managed forests and post-consumer recycled content (up to 100 percent). Choices include Domtar Earthchoice (domtar.com) and Mohawk Options (mohawkpaper.com).
Visit www.thegreenguide.com for product reports on chocolate and coffee, flooring, mattresses and furniture, and paper.
Paul W. McRandle is Senior Research Editor of The Green Guide, published by The Green Guide Institute, which provides the research for this department.