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Jakarta Post

COVID-19 is another proof of ecological devastation

Ende, East Nusa Tenggara   /   Tue, March 31, 2020   /   01:34 pm
COVID-19 is another proof of ecological devastation Illustration of a boat on a river. (Shutterstock/Maciek A)

Today we are facing COVID- 19, which is spreading faster than any other pandemic. While new diseases keep emerging, the previous ones that were thought to be controlled have returned, usually with new and more deadly strains.

Cholera and other old threats, such as influenza, malaria and tuberculosis, have become more deadly through mutation and growing resistance to antibiotics. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and avian influenza have caused major human suffering and devastated the world’s economy.

We realize now that those infectious diseases are not only spreading faster, but they appear to be emerging more quickly than ever before. The main reason is that unprecedented numbers of people are on the move and a highly mobile world provides numerous opportunities for the rapid spread of infectious diseases.

According to the World Health Organization, since 2001, more than 118,000 epidemic cases around the world have emerged and now can develop in a matter of days into a pandemic.

Due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, some countries have imposed a community quarantine or even nationwide lockdown to break the chain of virus transmission. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte announced strict immigration curbs and a halt on domestic land, sea and air travel to and from Manila. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has suspended pilgrimages to Mecca, while in Jerusalem, Al Aqsa Mosque has been closed over concerns about the outbreak.

Such efforts might be effective, but only temporarily, and not efficacious enough to eradicate the coronavirus around the world.

The coronavirus and other previous viruses actually constitute socioecological problems, relating to how human beings as the micro-cosmos keep the “equilibrium” in the universe as the macro-cosmos. Equilibrium means an equal relation between one species and another. An unequal relationship, such as domination of one species over another, causes ecological dysfunction that can manifest in various problems, including deadly viruses.

Some viruses, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which originated in non-human primates in Central and West Africa, or Ebola, which was transmitted to people from wild animals, and the new coronavirus, which was also transmitted between animals and people, show that our ecosystem is in a critical state.

This is not the fault of the animals, but humans who cut down the forest and expand industrial activities by which animal microbes have pathways to adapt to the human body. So, those cases should inspire us to evaluate the ways we deal with other species and our Mother Earth, and to “reconcile” with them.

We might realize that in the globalization era and under a capitalist system, being equal with other species seems difficult, but the ongoing pandemic should serve as shock therapy to teach us not to look down on human viruses but to seek ecological remediation.

The environmentalist Aldo Leopold once wrote “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Yes, now we may need a coronavirus lockdown, but more important than that we should leave our “narrow shell”, open our mind and respect other species in the universe.

Recently I conducted research on conservation practiced by the Dayak Seberuang tribe in West Kalimantan. The tribe depends primarily on forest resources for subsistence and income generation. Economically, they live on rubber plantations.

Other activities such as hunting, fishing and livestock rearing are practiced for subsistence. Forest timber and non-timber products are used by the tribe: wood for building or repairing houses, leaves of trees for medicines, firewood for cooking, animals and fruits for consumption. The use of the forest resources is managed by customary law, through which tribe members have rights to limited extraction within each forest zone (protected, reserve and utilization zones).

The adat (customary) system plays an important role in the management of the forest. Some areas of the forest can be privately owned. However, much of the forestland is owned collectively by the tribe, with each member enjoying the right to use it.

The adat law defines the number and size of trees that each household may fell each year. To ensure
adherence to the rules, tuai adat will take turns patrolling the forest every year, observing wild animals, clarifying the boundaries and checking boundary markers.

According to Lukas Bandar, a temenggung (tribe leader), the Dayak Seberuang tribe has been trying to keep its relationship with the forest as a source of water, food, materials, medicines, and also to keep the tribe united against outside forces, such as pollution (plastic waste) and any industrial activities that damage their forestland. If the relationship is hurt (freshwater or groundwater depletion and pollution), then the tribe will get a tulah (plague) that devastates the community.

Prominent biologist Rob Wallace believes that agriculture industry around the world has caused COVID-19 and any future zoonotic viruses. The capital-led agriculture that replaces more natural ecologies offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes (Marx21, March 11,2020).

The Dayak Seberuang tribe does not follow agriculture industry. Their farming is guided by customary law, which allows tribe members to farm traditionally only in utilization zones, rather than protected or reserve zones. Such a system has so far protected them from any plagues that evolved from their forestland.

Preserving the equilibrium as the Dayak Seberuang have done should be an urgent concern. The coronavirus is zoonotic, meaning that it can jump from animals to humans. Its spread, as well as eradication, depends on our socioecological relations with other species. The better our relationship the greater our chance of survival.


Member of the Forum for Coastal Customary People (FORMAT-P) and social researcher at Detukeli Research Centre in Flores, East Nusa Tenggara.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.