Worried About Biodiversity? End Industrial Activity in the Rainforest
By Lamfu Fabrice Yengong and Sylvie Djacbou Deugoue
Biodiversity loss is a global crisis. In May last year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned that over 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction worldwide. On May 22, the International Day of Biodiversity, it is important to recall the silent victims of our country's obsession for industrial growth at the expense of our forests.
Tropical rainforests are estimated to harbor more than half of the world's plant and animal species. They are also essential for access to water, regulating temperature and preventing soil erosion. It's time to return the forests to indigenous and local communities.
In our country, Cameroon, the conservation of biodiversity, global climate goals and human rights of indigenous and local communities are all put at stake for industrial exploitation of the rainforest, driven by short-sighted thinking. Biodiversity hotspots are put at risk by industrial logging and agriculture, as trees are cut for the tropical timber market and entire forests cleared to make room for oil palm and rubber plantations. The government tries to assure conservationists that some space will be reserved for the wildlife in the forest it trashes, but even protected areas are not truly safe.
Companies, usually foreign-owned, are rapidly destroying rainforests that have existed for years. Local communities are left poorer after their traditional source of livelihood is desecrated. The only ones getting rich are a small group of beneficiaries that are close to the circles of power.
Some low-income countries that are rich in forests are resorting to quick solutions like logging and industrial agriculture. But industrial logging concessions and rubber and palm oil plantations are never the job-creating mechanism they promise to be. That has been demonstrated over and over again in forest countries around the world.
For example, the Dja Faunal Reserve, a UNESCO world heritage site in the South of Cameroon, is home to more than 100 species of mammals, including at least 14 primates, such as the endangered western lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, and white-collared mangabey, as well as species such as the endangered forest elephant, and the African grey parrot, bongo antelope and leopard.
The Dja Faunal Reserve is adjacent to the Sudcam rubber plantation, mainly owned by rubber giant Halcyon Agri. Sudcam has cleared more than 10,000 hectares (approximately 25,000 acres) of dense tropical rainforest in the South region of Cameroon – an equivalent of 10 football pitches a day – to make way for a rubber plantation between 2011 and 2018. The rubber plantation has rattled the lives of several indigenous communities, namely the Baka, but it has also aggravated the lives of those numerous protected species in the Dja Reserve.
To indigenous and local forest dependent communities, the rainforest serves as a source of nutritious foods and traditional medicine, much of which science has yet to explore. The forest is also the foundation of their social life, from recreational to ritual practices. Furthermore, biodiversity loss itself is a direct and immediate threat to the livelihood of indigenous peoples like the Baka next to the Sudcam plantation.
Upon the arrival of rubber company Sudcam, the indigenous community has lost access to its forest and specifically to the animals and plants they rely on. As Sudcam gets richer, it leaves entire communities in impoverishment, abjectness and destitution.
That is the fate which the chiefs of the Banen people of the Littoral region in Cameroon are trying to avoid in their current struggle against the destruction of large parts of the Ebo forest.
The Ebo Forest is a biodiversity hotspot, one of the intact forest ecosystems in the Gulf of Guinea, stretching over 2000 square kilometers (approximately 772 square miles). Ebo Forest is home to an amazing range of wildlife, including forest elephants, gorillas, drills, chimpanzees, grey parrots and the goliath frog – the largest living frog on the planet. Accordingly, it was designated over a decade ago by the Cameroon Government as a National Park.
However, on February 4, the same government of Cameroon authorized two logging concessions (UFA07005 and UFA07006) inside the area of Ebo Forest. The planned concessions are enormous – about the size of London. Again, the government of Cameroon wants to convince us that conservation can be done with chainsaws.
Biodiversity loss doesn't only mean our children would get to see some of the world's most marvelous creatures only in documentary films. The consequences are far greater and more tangible.
The extinction of forest elephants, for example, small relatives of African Savanna elephants, might also reduce the number of large trees that they support, trees that excel at storing carbon. In the Congo Basin forest, the disappearance of forest elephants might mean a loss of about three billion tons of carbon – equivalent to France's CO2 emissions over more than 25 years, according to a New York Times article on recent research published in the journal Nature Geoscience.
Cameroon's government has made public commitments to preserve and protect biodiversity. Positive declarations and ambitious plans may win applause and some international funding, but all eyes should be on implementation. Field investigations by Greenpeace Africa and others clearly show how far we are from protecting biodiversity.
In Cameroon's government, as well as in the meeting rooms and corridors of development agencies, decision makers often hold outdated views. Too often we hear that only through rapid and massive removal of the rainforest in favor of large-scale logging and industrial agriculture plantations can the country emerge out of poverty.
Yet that model has repeatedly failed the people, as short-term high profits always remained accessible only to a small circle of beneficiaries. On the contrary, local communities who have lived in harmony with nature for many generations are likely to face poverty, abuse, hunger and alcoholism wherever forests are suddenly destroyed. It is becoming increasingly clear that the best solution for both human rights and the planet is for forests to be managed by local communities. They do so much better than the industrial loggers or plantation owners.
The Cameroonian government needs to realize that trashing forests is not the way to make the economy grow. Rapid and intensive exploitation of nature has more far-reaching consequences than short-term economic growth. To prevent the extinction of fauna and flora species, indigenous communities that live among them need the rights to manage their forest.
Standing for biodiversity means communities should get the rights to manage their forests, instead of the corporations that destroy them.
Lamfu Fabrice Yengong is a Congo Basin researcher.
Sylvie Djacbou Deugoue is a forest campaigner for Greenpeace Africa.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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