An aerial view shows a deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, Sept. 17, 2019.
FILE - An aerial view shows a deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, Sept. 17, 2019.

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - In marking the International Day of Forests, environmentalists are calling for the restoration of forests and their life-giving biodiversity systems which, they say, are under increasing threat from illegal exploitation. 

Forests are the lungs of the earth. They help provide the air we breathe and play a major role in providing clean water. The United Nations reports more than a billion people depend on forest foods and 2.4 billion people use fuel wood and charcoal to cook their daily meals.

Additionally, the health of the world is largely dependent on the forests’ so-called green pharmacies. The U.N. reports up to 25 percent of medicinal drugs in developed countries and 80 percent in developing countries are plant-based.

Unfortunately, the oxygen that sustains 80 percent of all known terrestrial plants and animal species on the planet is under threat. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s director of forestry, Mette Wilkie, said the forests and biodiversity they contain are at risk from actions to convert the land to agriculture and other exploitative usage.

“Each year, the world loses more than 10 million hectares of forest. That is an area of about twice the size of Costa Rica. This is having negative impacts on the climate, biodiversity and people. We know that deforestation and land degradation are affecting the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people across the world and costing more than 10 percent of annual global GDP in lost ecosystem services,” she said.

Wilkie said one in three outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases is directly linked to land use changes, such as deforestation and fragmentation of forests. She warns the risks of new pandemics will continue to increase if the world continues business as usual.

“The reason for that is that we are disturbing the habitat for some of the wildlife species that are carrying these zoonotic diseases, which means that we are increasing the risk of a spiral from wildlife to—either directly to people or to domestic animals and then to people. So, altering the nature of the forest and reducing their habitats, we are increasing the risk,” she said. 

Wilkie said this situation can be reversed by reducing the levels of deforestation and investing the money needed to restore the forests to health. She said such actions could contribute to economic recovery in the post COVID-19 stage and help nations mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.