The Price of Palm Oil, Part 4

Erica’s face is pensive, lit by lines of blinking code. “One of the odd things (and it’s something we don’t often take into account) is how people in Malaysia perceive plantations. Do they seem new? If you grew up surrounded by palm plantations, their presence might seem perfectly normal. When we think of Wisconsin we think of corn fields and cows when the original landscape of Wisconsin was really very different.” Erica Johnson works for EcoHealth Alliance on a project called Deep Forest, a program which focuses less on economics, and more on the links between wildlife disease and deforestation.

Jimmy, Carlos, and Erica. Photo: Jonathan Goley.

Both EcoHealth Alliance programs in Malaysia involve extensive mapping. While this sounds like it would be a simple job for Google Maps, it isn’t. The data needed to construct these maps often don’t exist, and if it does, it is often hard to find. On a previous trip, Allison White had to travel to hospitals and clinics in the region, entering by hand health data from reams of paper records. Erica is doing something similar, albeit from outer space. She uses satelite images, and a healthy dose of creative thinking to analyze the light reflected by different types of foliage. “You look for different wavelengths of light depending on what you want to see. If you wanted to see bodies of water you wouldn’t use red because water absorbs red absolutely. You’d get nothing. New growing plants reflect more infrared and bare soil reflects a lot of green. Everything on earth that has a color occupies a very distinctive segment on the spectrum.” Organizing this information gives her an accurate picture of how recently and where forest has been cut down. Given what EcoHealth knows about the connection between disease and deforestation, it also provides an accurate account of where new diseases might come from. 

Borneo is home to 15,000 distinct species of flowering plants. Photo: Carlos Zambrana-Torrielo.

After looking at pixelated satellite maps for so long, Erica is now seeing these areas up close for the first time in their full, three-dimensional glory—slants of sunlight; the mingled smells of foliage, undergrowth, and fresh air; ants that drop from low hanging flowers beneath layer on layer of canopy interwoven. “I love it when I’ve only seen it from above and then finally get to see what these places really look like.” As Jimmy describes the history and animal sampling practices associated with each area, Erica and Carlos stop now and then as the occasional seed pod or fern grabs their attention. They run their fingers over thin green fronds or note the similarities between disparate flowers. They point out how prevalent eucalyptus trees are—a tree native to Australia now endemic to many areas around the world because of how quickly it can repopulate deforested areas. They too are found at the most ‘pristine’ site—not old growth forest per se, but woodland left undisturbed for thirty or forty odd years. Its new trees and tangled vines are a far cry from the more disturbed areas—fields of fern and scrub, the occasional whitened limb of a charred tree reaching up to an overcast sky.

Wildflowers in a plot of recently disturbed forest. Photo: Carlos Zambrana-Torrielo

At times it is hard to believe global problems of disease, so large in the mind, could have their origin in a quiet field of waving ferns. But it is in these deforested areas, especially the liminal spaces where fields meet forest, that malaria-carrying mosquitos proliferate.

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