A coalition of NGOs calls on the Sarawak and Malaysian governments to protect forests and native land to prevent the next pandemic outbreak. While the world struggles to deal with the impacts of the coronavirus, it is critically important to understand the overwhelming evidence that most modern pandemics are the direct result of environmental degradation. Experts from around the world say that destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity are creating the perfect conditions for diseases like the coronavirus. Here in Sarawak/Malaysia, it is time to face the facts and take action: we must protect forests — and therefore protect indigenous land rights — in order to keep everyone safe. All of our lives depend on it. 

As reported in the New York Times “AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature…Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic — they originate in animals. And more than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife.”

A coalition of NGOs calls on the Sarawak/Malaysian governments to protect forests and native land to prevent the next pandemic outbreak. While the world struggles to deal with the impacts of the coronavirus, it is critically important to understand the overwhelming evidence that most modern pandemics are the direct result of environmental degradation. Experts from around the world say that destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity are creating the perfect conditions for diseases like the coronavirus. Here in Sarawak/Malaysia, it is time to face the facts and take action: we must protect forests—and therefore protect indigenous land rights — in order to keep everyone safe. All of our lives depend on it.

     It is humanity’s destruction of biodiversity – such as the massive logging and oil palm expansion we are experiencing in Malaysia –  that creates the conditions for new diseases like the coronavirus to emerge. When we erode biodiversity, fragment forests, and convert them to agriculture, we harm and remove species that serve a protective role. David Quammen, author of Spillover:Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, describes “ we disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host.” In the case of the coronavirus and countless other diseases, humans become the new host.

     Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and president of Ecohealth, told reporters that “any emerging disease in the last 30 or 40 years has come about as a result of encroachment into wild lands”. Emerging diseases have quadrupled in the last 50 years as humans have disrupted ecosystems, especially in the tropics, which are outbreak “hot spots”. The devastating nipah outbreak that happened in Malaysia in the late 90s, for example, is a result of interactions between bats and human activity.

    Protecting indigenous land rights is increasingly acknowledged by global experts as the best way to protect forests. A working group with the World Resources Institute has confirmed what Indigenous Peoples across the world have said for generations: That protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples who occupy forested areas is the best way to protect the forests themselves, as well as reducing global warming and the loss of precious biodiversity. A coalition of NGOs is calling on the government of Sarawak/Malaysia to ensure forest protection and protect native customary rights, because the future of life depends on it. 

     If the government of Sarawak/Malaysia is truly committed to protecting its citizens’ health, it must take the crucial step of halting the conversion of forests including wetlands into monoculture plantations, helping fragmented forest to re-grow, and protecting indigenous land rights.

Land clearing and logging within the vicinity of the Mulu National Park in Baram Sarawak.

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