State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Coronavirus and Wildfires Combine to Pose Potential Threat to Indigenous Lives and Lands

An orangutan swings in a tree in a rainforest on Borneo
An orangutan in a protected rainforest near the city of Kuching, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Orangutans and other animals are having their homelands destroyed by illegal logging Photo: Dale Willman

Este artículo ha sido adaptado en español aquí.

As National Geographic pointed out recently, Indigenous populations comprise less than five percent of the people now living on the planet, but they protect some 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Indigenous groups often act as stewards of the land, protecting areas of the forests that they control from rampant development. But this year the assault of both forest fires and a pandemic are combining to pose a major threat to these already vulnerable populations and the lands on which they live. That was the topic of a recent webinar for journalists hosted by the Resilience Media Project of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Tropical forests, and the biodiversity they contain, are regularly threatened by human-set wildfires. Ane Alencar is the director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). She said natural fires have traditionally occurred on average every 500 to 1,000 years. “The Amazon, it doesn’t burn naturally, although humans have changed that.” Now the vast majority of fires, at least in the Amazon, are caused by humans, and fires have become common during the dry season, threatening the biological riches these areas have to offer.

Illegal logging in particular is a major problem and has altered the fire landscape in the Amazon, the rainforests of Indonesia, and elsewhere. Farmers looking for land on which to graze cattle or to grow soybeans for the international market use workers to log sections of the forest. Then fires are set to clear the remaining brush and debris from the land. Ruth DeFries, the Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University, said all the fires now have some source of human ignition, and that usually means clearing land for farming is the cause. “We see fires in the humid tropics because essentially it’s an inexpensive way to clear debris.”

This year, the health effects from wildfires are expected to be particularly severe because of a new threat. This year’s fire season, now underway in many tropical regions, will be occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic, presenting an additional risk to the region’s Indigenous populations.

On their own, a wildfire or pandemic can wreak havoc with natural systems. But coming at the same time, they represent a compound risk, where each risk can greatly accentuate the damage caused by the other. For instance, respiratory problems caused by particulates in smoke from wildfires sicken or kill thousands of people each year. But these and other health problems will be particularly exacerbated this year because of the novel coronavirus.

“This year, it’s especially concerning because the small particulate matter, the smoke, the soot that is emanating from these fires exacerbate respiratory infection,” said Harvey Fineberg, a physician and the president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “That respiratory susceptibility,” he added, “means that SARS-CoV-2 infections are more likely to be more serious among the populations who are directly affected by the fires in many tropical areas.”

Here’s how that could happen. Small particulates contained in wildfire smoke can lodge deeply in the lungs, impairing airway function, and as Fineberg suggests exacerbating respiratory infection. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (which causes COVID-19 disease), meanwhile, uses what are called ACE2 receptors to enter cells. The lower airways deep in the lungs contain a higher number of these receptors than the rest of the respiratory system, making that portion of the lungs particularly susceptible to a SARS-CoV-2 infection. If the particulates and smoke have already compromised those portions of the lungs, health officials speculate that individuals could then be more susceptible to an attack from SARS-CoV-2. However, it’s too soon to have statistical studies finding a link between smoke exposure and SARS-CoV-2 outcomes, and data are particularly scant in rural regions of developing countries.

Yet another risk compounding the effects of wildfires and SARS-CoV-2 infections is the current state of the health care system in Brazil and Indonesia — which is generally particularly acute in rural regions and poor urban settlements where Indigenous populations live. Marcia Castro is the Chair of the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health. She said that in Brazil, the malaria season is about to begin. Meanwhile, in at least two states in the Amazon, they are seeing many more cases of dengue fever that expected. “So, it’s going to be several layers of demand for hospital beds that will be even more complicated if we have the fire season.” In some areas of the country, she said, the demand for hospital beds has already reached a 90 percent occupancy rate.

A sun skink on the ground of a rainforest
A common sun skink in a rainforest in the Malaysian state of Sarawak Photo: Dale Willman

Because it’s early in the fire season, the experts say it’s not too late to reduce the most serious effects of these compound issues. Ane Alencar said if the laws currently in place are enforced, illegal logging will be greatly reduced. But without arrests, the loggers think they can do whatever they want, without facing consequences. “So we need to stop that and people need to be punished for doing illegal activities in the region.”

Ruth DeFries agreed that enforcement is important, but she wants to take it one step further. Right now, she said, it’s too easy for farmers to burn. “[T]he reason that people use fire is because it’s cheap and it’s easy. You set fire to your debris and you let it burn and then you have your land cleared.” But with the right incentives, she said they can be encouraged not to burn, without needing to send them to jail. “I think [that’s] where we need to go.”

Harvey Fineberg, meanwhile, said the answer should come from leadership, from the local level on up to national politicians. “We have a very serious need for stronger regulation that will provide the foundation to avoid the degradation of our forests in wildfire and in other purposes.” And that, he said, must come from the politicians.

Another entry point for changing direction, Fineberg added, is addressing consumer demand for products created in these regions. “It’s really important to build on the efforts that are already underway to insist on deforestation-free products. Reducing demand is a very powerful financial incentive that can ultimately improve the balance of protecting these very precious, limited resources.” And finally, Fineberg said it’s important to strengthen the laws that allow Indigenous control of forest lands.

One of the priorities of the Earth Institute’s new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability is improving the interface between journalists, scientific expertise and vulnerable communities. This is the latest webinar in a series I’m developing on covering factors that either boost or impede community and ecological resilience in the face of the landscape of hazards in this era of rapid change. More videos can be found on the Resilience Media Project page.

Journalist Resources

Earth Institute experts discuss fires in the Amazon rainforest

Some experts believe breathing in polluted air can make COVID-19 worse

Background on the rainforest in Columbia, from The Earth Institute

Tropical forest loss enhanced by large-scale land acquisitions, a paper published in June in the publication Nature.

The Root of the Problem: What’s Driving Tropical Deforestation Today? A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists

Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Region, from the Yale School of Forestry

Monthly reports on deforestation and fires from the non-profit research institute, Imazon

MapBiomas has 30 years of data on land cover change

The Oil Palm – publication of the palm oil industry. An important resource to understand what is happening in that business

A major number of cases of dengue fever have already been identified this year in South America, most of them in Brazil and Paraguay

Small particulate matter from wildfires and health impacts


Brazilian Government Ignores Old Lessons – a commentary

The main fire season runs from August until October. Experts at IPAM say this year will bring another season of intense fire events

A statement from two Indigenous groups in Brazil on COVID-19


2015 wildfires in Indonesia kill 100,000 people

In Indonesia the dry season runs from April until October. The country’s national weather agency is predicting a milder dry season this year (Bahasa)

Last year, 44% of the fires were on carbon-rich peat lands

Predictions of premature deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore from forest fires in the peat areas of Indonesia

Story Ideas

Use MapBiomas (linked above) to show how productive the Amazon can be without clear more land for agri-business

One entry point for this story is to examine how COVID-19 made it into the furthest reaches of the Amazon. Did people clearing land bring it, or miners? Healthcare workers? People living in the Amazon need to travel to a city if they receive social benefits – was that the pathway?


This webinar was organized in part for the Climate and Land Use Alliance by the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at the Earth Institute of Columbia University.
Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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