DG’s Column

Ebola and forestry — an urgent scientific challenge

As the media frenzy mounts, major questions remain unanswered.
It is well established that the Ebola virus has a connection to forest and tree systems in West and Central Africa.

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As a global organization with offices and projects in West and Central Africa, we are keeping a close eye on the Ebola outbreak. We have restricted travel and fieldwork in affected countries, based on health advice. For the CGIAR at large, in which CIFOR is one of 15 research centers, several international meetings in the area have been postponed or moved to other regions. The Ebola outbreaks are major humanitarian disasters, and we all need to act carefully and responsibly and contribute to finding solutions however we can.

As a forestry research organization, we are also looking at the renewed and reinforced call for research on the links between Ebola and forest-related activities. Some immediate questions are:

  • Do we know enough about how Ebola outbreaks happen?
  • Can we point to evidence that sufficiently informs policies in preventing future tragedies?
  • Are we able to match current waves of news reporting and “expert suggestions” with scientific findings?

Sadly, the answer to each of these questions is largely “no.”

It is well established that the Ebola virus has a connection to forest and tree systems in West and Central Africa. Further, it appears that we have a fairly good scientific understanding of the medical and clinical issues, though an ineffective application of this knowledge fails to hinder the disease to spread widely and quickly and cause terrible suffering. From a forestry and landscape management perspective however, we have surprisingly little to go on as to how and where the virus appears, nor on the risks connected to agricultural practices or bushmeat value chains. CIFOR is now summarizing and reviewing some of the current knowledge here.

What new forestry and landscape research is called for by the Ebola outbreaks? In the short term, transparent systematic reviews (see CIFOR’s Evidence-Based Forestry initiative) should be carried out to clarify where scientific knowledge stands in relation to relevant policy questions for forest management and agriculture in the affected region. CIFOR and partners are currently planning for this. While definitive results will likely come long after the current media attention is over, it is essential that science weighs in with its own story as well.

On a longer horizon, research should provide perspective and proportion and put the Ebola outbreaks in a wider context of risk management. Ebola has been with us for more than 1,000 years. It is not helpful to quickly call for radical changes in land use policies because of Ebola, when such changes could have serious and much wider impacts on other social, environmental or economic factors.

For example, it may be that livelihood and nutritional opportunities provided by bushmeat for tens of millions of people should not be summarily condemned. Instead, it may well be that political and financial investments in basic health care, education and awareness and food safety regulations are more efficient measures. In other words, managing health risks, as well as health opportunities, needs to be considered as one among multiple objectives for forestry and landscapes.

We must not isolate forestry from any development goal, a point I made in a previous blog showing how forestry links to each of the topics considered for the Sustainable Development Goals. The example I used then for the link between forestry and health was a positive one — the benefits of Prunus africana in prostate treatment. Now we can add the risks of Ebola outbreaks to the equation, while recognizing that the forestry-health connection is a rich one, as reported by CIFOR in 2006 in “Forests and Human Health.”

Long-term research planning is not helpful for victims of the current Ebola outbreak, and perhaps not in calming the tone of the current debate on Ebola and forestry. However, we must in the long term seriously address the complex multi-objective management of forests and landscapes. Ebola provides a new and serious angle on this challenge.

Some recent media articles that should be read with a critical mind:

MEDIA: For media queries about Ebola, forests and bushmeat, please contact Joan Baxter, CIFOR Regional Communications Coordinator for Africa, at j.baxter@cgiar.org or +254 72 640 7104.

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Topic(s) :   Food security Food & diets Bushmeat