Putting a Price Tag on Deforestation

The rainforest of Borneo–one of our planet’s oldest–is home to diverse species found nowhere else. These unique animals include the world’s smallest elephant, about as high as a human being, and the Bornean orangutan. In fact, Borneo is one of two remaining places in the entire world where orangutans may still be found.

Borneo is also one of the world’s most productive producers of palm oil: 85% of the world’s palm oil is produced by either Indonesia or Malaysia, two of the three nations that share Borneo. More than 5,400 mi2–an area roughly the size of Connecticut–of forest are cut down each year in Malaysian Borneo. Industrial oil palm plantations are responsible for nearly half of the deforestation.

Must the dueling interests of conservation and economy here be so oppositional?

Over the past five years, EcoHealth Alliance scientists have undertaken a major study of land-use change on the island of Borneo, mostly  in Sabah, Malaysia. We call it Infectious Disease Emergence and Economics of Altered Landscapes (IDEEAL) and we’ve just published a full report containing our findings.

Converting natural land for human use has consequences more far-reaching than just the loss of forest. Ecosystem services–things forests provide like water filtration and carbon sequestration or food sources and shelter–disappear and humans must fabricate systems in order to replace them.

Land-use change also has a strong link with disease emergence. When we tear down a forest that serves as the home to an entire ecosystem of animals to, for instance, build a new road, suddenly humans are coming into increasingly regular contact with those animals. And what about the viruses which we may be able to share back and forth? The emergence of diseases like HIV/AIDS, Zika virus, Ebola, and leptospirosis can be linked to land-use change, in fact, nearly one-in-three outbreaks of new and emerging diseases worldwide can be traced back to land-use change in this way.

All of these consequences have costs. Human cost, for sure, and literal monetary costs as well. But calculating that cost is not necessarily straightforward. While the economic benefit of expanded industry is obvious, how can we be certain it outweighs the unintended cost of the land alteration it requires?

The Cost of Deforestation

Through five years of study, EcoHealth Alliance’s scientists concluded that current rates of land conversion in Borneo far exceed the optimal rate for healthy growth, ultimately costing Malaysia $21 million each year.

Deforestation in Malaysia

Drone footage from Borneo shows the vastness of forest reclaimed for oil palm cultivation

So make our results readily visible, we built an app that allows a user to integrate several variables including total expenditure on disease prevention and control or crude palm oil yield per hectare to determine both the private and social optimal percentage of land converted for palm oil production.

Our scientists also produced more detailed models which show trends both in disease emergence and land-use change which local and regional decision-makers can use to determine what land is most valuable for conservation and preservation.

Local Ties

Throughout the five-year IDEEAL project, our scientists partnered with researchers from the Universiti of Malaysia Sabah. The exchange of ideas and local capacity building has been an invaluable part not only of our project’s success, but also of its ability to influence positive change in a sustainable way.

As a part of our partnership, EcoHealth Alliance helped found the Development and Health Research Unit (DHRU) at the Universiti of Malaysia Sabah which functions as a center for research and education on the connection between human health, land-use change, and economics.

The DHRU has become an integral part of conservation efforts locally, helping to rescue and rehabilitate animals like the Bornean orangutan, one of the most critically endangered species in the world.

At its current pace of deforestation, most of the lowland rainforest outside currently protected areas in Borneo could disappear by 2020. It’s a bleak picture. But at EcoHealth Alliance we believe that by providing decision-makers including government officials and industry heads with the context they need to make scientifically sound and sustainable decisions, we can avoid the worst outcome. By demonstrating a clear connection between forest loss and the risk of disease spread, we show that conservation is the healthy choice. By calculating the true cost of deforestation, we provide decision-makers with a strong economic tool to implement effective environmental and public health policies.

Should deforestation continue at its current rate, net present value loss between 2015 and 2030 throughout Southeast Asia will exceed $4.3 trillion. That’s hard to argue with.

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