Guest post by IAIA members Jo Treweek and Susie Brownlie
So it seems that COVID-19 may have been transferred to us from bats, via the poor persecuted and endlessly-trafficked pangolin. As well as delaying development by inconveniently occupying land proposed for development, wildlife can now be cast as the villain in the unfolding COVID-19 drama as well. 60% of Emerging Infectious Diseases (EIDs) that affect humans are zoonotic in origin and millions die from them each year. Some backlash seems inevitable, or at least further decline in the willingness of people to co-exist with some of our less charismatic wildlife. This is unfortunate all around, because land use change is the primary transmission pathway for EIDs and rates of land use change continue to accelerate, bringing wildlife, people and their livestock into ever closer proximity and increasing risks of disease spillover and spread.
Land use decisions are what Impact Assessment is all about, so what should IA professionals be doing to prevent future crises? In IAIA's survey on the effects of COVID-19 on IA practice, almost 95% of respondents said they would like IA to play a role in reducing risks of future disease outbreaks, particularly by improving interdisciplinary practice and focusing more on environment-social interactions. Some of these aspects were picked up in IAIA's recent virtual symposium "Our Interconnected World: IA, Health, and the Environment", which got us thinking about the role of biodiversity specialists in disease-avoidance.
In our professional lifetimes, we have often been asked to assess risks to wildlife populations from habitat destruction or even risks of human-wildlife conflict that might follow. We have conducted studies of illegal wildlife poaching and have lobbied hard to get biodiversity resilience recognised as a core objective of strategic planning and assessment, but so far neither of us has been asked to consider risks of EID emergence. This is despite the fact that the science community has been raising alarm bells about these risks for many years. We suspect that, even now, our clients would question the relevance of this to IA of most of their projects. Would we even be able to recognise red flag situations for EID risk in order to recommend its consideration in IA?
Many species have potential to transmit disease to humans, but the hazard is more likely to become a risk if stressed animals come into close contact with people or their livestock. We know that destroying and modifying natural habitats expands wildlife-human interfaces and heightens risk of disease spillover from wildlife to domestic animals and humans. When we modify ecosystems, we change the risks of spread of a wide range of diseases such as malaria, cholera, and bilharzia, to name but a few.
Land conversion for intensive farming doesn't generally require IA and has been linked with a high proportion of known zoonotic infectious diseases. On the other hand, IA is routinely used for urban and infrastructure development and expansion of transport networks. Where these intrude into intact natural habitat, risks of disease spillover are particularly high. Linear infrastructure constructed through intact tropical forest may create dangerous new interfaces as well as having highly significant adverse consequences for wildlife.
The horrendous conditions experienced by illegally trafficked wildlife animals during transport or in markets also amplify prevalence of coronaviruses, and species-mixing in crowded and unsanitary "wet markets" creates opportunities for coronavirus recombination events as well as spillover. Climate change further destabilises ecosystems and wildlife populations and can be expected to exacerbate EID risk. Many IAs for projects proposed in or near wildlife conservation areas predict increased levels of bushmeat hunting or trade and maybe more resources and effort should be invested in stringent control measures.
As a minimum, we should probably try to identify situations where land use change might destroy habitat of species like primates and the much- maligned bats that are known to carry zoonotic diseases and might pass them on if disturbed, bringing them into closer proximity with human habitation. We should also seek to collaborate with social and health professionals if we think there is a genuine risk.
Where key risk factors are present, e.g., we should follow the Mitigation Hierarchy by:
While IA can support enlightened decision making in theory, it is very evident that poor land use decisions have been made in practice. These poor decisions have created conditions in which infectious diseases have been able to jump more readily from wildlife to people.
So many of the drivers of biodiversity decline and damage fall into the "death by a thousand cuts" category: apparently insignificant when considered in isolation, but all contributing to the inexorable and apparently unstoppable decline in the health of global ecosystems, the biodiversity they support, and the wide range of benefits they provide to people -- including, ironically, the regulation of disease. These benefits sometimes seem intangible and difficult to defend. They often only become apparent when critical tipping points are reached. If we want to use IA as a tool to avoid emergence or spread of zoonoses, resilient ecosystems and biodiversity must be seen as part of the solution, not just as part of the problem. If we don't find a way to improve outcomes for biodiversity and ecosystems when we use IA to plan development, we will be scripting our own downfall, and will only have ourselves to blame if the COVID-19 crisis turns out to be just the first of many.