Deforestation, intensive agriculture, globalization… At the origin of pandemics

Six months before Covid arrived in our lives, researcher Rodolphe Gozlan, from the Research Institute for Development, identified the Wuhan region and southern Uganda as the two places most likely to see the birth of a pandemic in the coming years. In question ? Ecosystems unbalanced by human activities. Director Marie-Monique Robin and actress Juliette Binoche held out the microphone to the scientists who fought these infectious diseases. Two women, two committed paths. Marie-Monique Robin had already denounced the ravages of globalization in “The world according to Monsanto” in 2008. And Juliette Binoche, started a forum at “Le Monde” with astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau to ask for the drawing of the consequences of the Covid pandemic. Together they traveled the world. More than eight destinations, so many research teams and endangered ecosystems, narrated by Juliette Binoche in a luminous documentary. Cross interview.

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IS IT OVER THERE. Marie-Monique Robin, when did you realize there was a link between the destruction of ecosystems and the spread of disease?

Marie-Monique Robin. It is a subject I know well. But when, at the end of January 2020, before the first confinement, I read an article in the “New York Times”, entitled “We made a pandemic”, I was surprised. “Is there a link between the disappearance of biodiversity and disease? That is, how the subject is misunderstood. And I dove. I discovered that biodiversity was not an extra soul for the bicycle eco-fool, but our common home. Without a common home we cannot survive.

IS IT OVER THERE. Was your collaboration with Marie-Monique Robin obvious?

Juliette Binoche. I had to participate in the Porquerolles environmental festival and I was asked who I wanted to invite. I immediately thought of Marie-Monique, whose work I knew.

M.-MR We met there in August, I ran away at night to write the synopsis for the film. So we filmed during the pandemic. At first I thought it wouldn’t be possible. We wanted to travel to four continents to give the word to the teams working there. We wanted Juliette to be there as much as possible, it’s her story that punctuates the film.

IS IT OVER THERE. The film sheds light on the propagation mechanism of zoonoses, those diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans. Could you explain where the nipah epidemic, which hit Malaysia in 1998, came from?

M.-MR. The nipah virus is the archetype. It all starts in Borneo, where people clear the forest to plant oil palms. Bats, carriers of the virus, flee because they no longer need to eat. They retreat to the coasts of Malaysia and settle in the mango trees planted in the fields where the pigs are raised. Once installed, the bats defecate on the animals below. The pigs are infected and then exported to Singapore for slaughter. It is here that the virus is transmitted to man, with whom the pig has 80% of the genes in common… Deforestation, intensive agriculture and globalization are the three main factors of spread.

IS IT OVER THERE. Bats for covid and nipah, primates for HIV and Ebola… Zoonoses represent 70% of new infectious diseases. Are animals our enemies?

JB Some want to concrete and eradicate disease-transmitting species! In the United States, for example, they are trying to exterminate the white-footed mouse, whose proliferation is responsible for the explosion of cases of Lyme disease.

M.-MR But we need it because it eats tree pests!

JB Just like we need bats, rodents, predators. We need balance.

M.-MR It is the imbalance produced by human activities that is dangerous.

IS IT OVER THERE. How does biodiversity protect us?

M.-MR In tropical forests, there is a great diversity of plants and animals, so many microorganisms, including pathogens, that develop silently. In the film, Juliette laughs: “There are 650 species of mosquitoes in Guyana, I’m going to get bitten from all sides! Among them, only two bite humans and transmit malaria, dengue and chikungunya. But when there are 650 species, there is very little chance that one will be bitten by one of these two. This is called the dilution effect.


An area of ​​illegal deforestation in Brazil. ©Felipe Werneck/AP/Sipa

IS IT OVER THERE. We knew that a pandemic was in jeopardy, but scientists were not listened to. Do we lack confidence in science?

M.-MR There are independent scientists who derive no financial benefit from their discoveries. Others are financed by large industries that obviously defend private interests. The confusion comes from there. The documentary is a tribute to scientists working for the general interest. I hope it reconciles part of the public with science.

IS IT OVER THERE. One of the virtues of the documentary is its pedagogy.

M.-MR When Juliette asks in the movie “I got it right, didn’t I? », the viewer can identify themselves. She embodies the desire to learn. Her presence also forces scientists to make an effort to explain. And then Juliette worked!

JB I was crawling. [Rires.] We need to understand that with the fragmentation of forests, it means the death of animals. It changes our perspective. I’m filming in Angers right now. When I cross the French countryside, I feel ashamed of the deforested lands.

IS IT OVER THERE. Is there still time to reverse the trend? It is like?

JB States must act.

M.-MR The growth-at-all-cost model needs to be reinvented. Preserving biodiversity and climate are equally important. Governments still don’t understand. The film will be shown in Davos and Geneva, I hope this helps things move forward.

IS IT OVER THERE. Do you keep hope?

M.-MR Yea ! It’s too late to be pessimistic. We are both mothers, we cannot despair.

“THE PANDEMIC FACTORY”, May 22 and 23, Ushuaïa TV and France TV Outre-mer.

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