Imperialism a breeding ground for pandemics

 by Bjork Lind

Protester holds sign, 'Forests are not commodities!'

It has been established beyond dispute that capitalism’s assault on the environment is the driver behind the evolution of Covid-19 and other infectious diseases. Yet deforestation, pollution and land degradation continue at alarming rates as the ruling class uses the lockdown and economic crisis to advance its interests. BJORK LIND reports.

Fewer species means more diseases

The Global Virome Project estimates that there are 1.6 million unknown viruses circulating in wild animals, half of which have the potential of jumping to humans – a phenomenon known as zoonosis. The alarming increase in the number and frequency of zoonotic disease outbreaks correlates with the rapid transformation of forests, grasslands and deserts into urban and agricultural land. Discoveries published in Nature on 5 August reveal that not only does habitat destruction increase the frequency of contact between humans and wildlife, it makes it more likely for viruses to thrive. Based on an assessment of nearly 7,000 animal communities on six continents, it has been discovered that as human-dominated land use increases so does the total number of animals that harbour disease-causing agents, whereas species that do not carry such agents are found to decline or disappear. It is therefore likely that animals’ resilience to human disturbances is linked to their ability to host deadly viruses. Bats, for example, are the source of numerous diseases –  eg Ebola, Nipah, rabies and coronaviruses – and they have been found to thrive in human-dominated areas where other species are threatened with extinction. 

Pollutants have also been found to drive zoonotic diseases. On 1 July a study was published in Lancet Planetary Health revealing that widespread use of pesticides and other agrochemicals speeds the transmission of schistosomiasis. The disease, which affects over 200 million people every year, is caused by parasites that live in certain types of freshwater snails. The growing population of these snails – and thus the increasing rate of schistosomiasis – is attributed to agrochemicals that both wipe out aquatic predators that feed on the snails and which also stimulate the growth of algae, a major food source for snails. 

A growing amount of scientific studies confirm that environmental degradation is the catalyst for zoonotic diseases, so why is environmental destruction escalating worldwide? 

Agro-imperialism in a time of pandemics 

In their chase for profit, multinational corporations, with the support of international financial institutions and capitalist states, have intensified their destruction of nature and thereby increased the risk of future pandemic diseases. Agribusinesses are particularly to blame for the recent increase in deforestation and the displacement of smallholder farmers who are driven further into a shrinking wilderness. 

On 31 March, Ukraine passed a law lifting the country’s prohibition on land transactions. Ending the moratorium was part of a series of policy reforms imposed by the International Monetary Fund as the condition for a US$5bn loan package, enabling agribusinesses access to Ukraine’s 32 million hectares of fertile land. The law is the latest in a string of economic reforms that have been implemented in the aftermath of the country’s 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2013 protests which unseated the Yanukovich government for its reluctance to sign the Free Trade and Association Agreement with the EU. These two events were led by the Ukrainian elite and sponsored by imperialist nations desperate to transform Ukraine into a free market economy. Multinational agribusiness firms – such as Cargill, Bayer, and DuPont – are, as a result, already heavily involved in Ukraine. They will soon have even further access to what was once known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union.

Imperialist aggression, at the cost of the environment, is intensifying all over the world. In Brazil the Bolsonaro government approved 96 new pesticides in the first months of 2020, consolidating the country’s status as the world’s largest consumer of chemicals classed as seriously hazardous. Many of the pesticides that Brazil imports are produced by EU-based companies where usage of the chemicals is banned. Another grim record has been set in Brazil: according to the Brazilian national space research institute, deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon increased by more than 50% in the first three months of 2020 in comparison to the previous year’s first quarter. A study recently published by the journal Science reports that 2% of individual properties in Brazil’s Amazon and Cerrado savanna are responsible for 62% of all illegal deforestation, a large proportion of which is directly linked to agricultural production. The study reveals that roughly 20% of soy exports and at least 17% of beef exports to the EU are produced by companies complicit in illegal deforestation. In soy-bean producing Argentina, 10,000 hectares of natural habitat were cleared during the country’s lockdown, according to Greenpeace. In palm oil-producing Indonesia, Global Land Analysis & Discovery has recorded that the clearance of forest land increased by 50% in the first five months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. In addition to agribusinesses, commercial logging and mining companies have been advancing into protected areas with fewer inspection agents stopping them.

The brutal exploitation of the African continent by agribusinesses is also intensifying. On 20 May, Okomu Oil Palm Company owned by Socfin, a Luxembourg-based holding company, burnt down villagers’ homes in Okumu Kingdom, Nigeria, in its effort to expand plantations. Over 80 people ended up homeless. On 30 June, seven lawyers who were investigating the forceful eviction of over 35,000 people in Kiryandongo, Uganda, were detained on the charge of carrying out a ‘negligent act likely to spread infection of disease’. The eviction had been carried out by the multinational corporations Agilis Partners, Great Season and Kiryandongo Sugar Limited earlier this year in their pursuit of about 4,000 hectares of land. 

The ruling elite’s tightening grip on natural resources is reflected by the record-high dividend payouts made by the world’s largest agribusiness firms. In April, Nestlé’s shareholders and executives awarded themselves US$8bn. Other notable shareholder dividends announced this summer include a US$2.8bn payout by the world’s largest seed and agrochemical company Bayer AG and a US$600m payout by the world’s largest poultry producer Tyson. 

In their desperate search for profit, these companies are escalating the ecological conditions which generate pandemics. Halting this destruction requires transitioning from a capitalist economy, based on monopoly and profit, to socialism, which prioritises the welfare of the planet through a planned economy. However, no capitalist state would ever willingly undertake such a transition – no matter how deep the crisis. It is up to us to stop them before it is too late.

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