How does the work of BNF contribute in the context of Covid-19 and future potential disease pandemics?

Research Blog

The Borneo Nature Foundation’s (BNF) mission is to protect, maintain and enhance Kalimantan’s rainforest ecosystems, the biodiversity found within and the benefits that these provide to people. We are not a medical charity and we are not at the forefront of the medical battle to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic, though we have helped where we can, for example by donating masks to local hospital staff (see here). In common with the rest of the world, our team, their families and our work have however been affected by the pandemic (see here).

But – mask donations aside – is BNF’s conservation and research work actually meaningful in relation to Covid-19 and potential similar future pandemics?

The available evidence suggests that the answer to that question is a clear “yes”.

BNF is working to protect wildlife and the Borneo rainforest through research, capacity building, education and locally-led conservation projects
Photo by Dr. Fan | Chris Owen | BNF | UPT LLG CIMTROP

BNF International Research Director, Dr Mark Harrison, explains: “In common with the majority of emerging infectious disease (EID) events, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 is suspected to have originated in wildlife populations, before eventually becoming infectious to humans. Evidence from across the tropics suggests that increased human-wildlife contact, and increased wildlife movements resulting from habitat encroachment and fragmentation, increase the risk of wildlife diseases making that jump to and infecting humans.”

Habitat and wildlife conservation efforts, such as those conducted by BNF, are therefore essential in reducing the risk of future similar EIDs arising, as recognised by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES; see here).

With regards to the current pandemic, emerging evidence from multiple countries suggests that air pollution increases Covid-19 mortality rates (see e.g. here). This is a major cause of concern for Central Kalimantan, given the very high levels of atmospheric pollution that can occur for prolonged periods as a result of the haze produced during fire seasons.

“The work of BNF, its partners and other organisations in conserving forest, preventing fire by restoring damaged peatlands, and fighting fire is therefore important for reducing this additional potential risk factor for Covid-19, particularly during this dry season that Kalimantan is now beginning to enter”, suggests Dr Harrison. “This is on top of all the other wildlife conservation and public health benefits associated with fire prevention”.

BNF is restoring damaged peatlands and work together with local communities to fight the fires
Photo by Duncan Murrell | Abi Gwynn | BNF | UPT LLG CIMTROP

Finally, the deep global recession that is expected to arise because of the Covid-19 pandemic also highlights the importance of work by organisations such as BNF in supporting local communities to co-develop and secure alternative sustainable livelihoods, which help safeguard the health of the local environment and local people, and increase communities’ resilience to economic shocks.

The Covid-19 pandemic – and risk of future similar pandemics arising – therefore provides an additional, vital justification for successful forest and peatland conservation, and community development initiatives in Central Kalimantan, and reaffirms BNF’s firm commitment towards achieving these crucial goals.